Why did Cornell junior quarterback Jeff Mathews stay so level-headed during a 2-8 rookie campaign and an up-and-down 2011 season? Because of his older sister, Katie, and because he knew it could always be worse.
Why did the quadriplegic Katie stay so positive after sustaining a C6/7 incomplete spinal cord injury and mild brain impairments? Because of her younger brother, Jeffrey, and because she knew it could always be worse.
Like millions of American children, Katie and Jeff Mathews, 18 months apart, experienced the divorce of their parents before either of their ages hit double digits. But the 2,000 miles separating Katie and mother Shellie Miller’s Florida residence from Jeff and father Jeff Mathews’ Colorado home — which grew to 2,700 miles when the latter pair moved to Southern California during Jeff’s elementary school days — could not break the brother-sister bond.
“We’ve always been extremely close,” Jeff, 20, said. “My parents divorced when we were younger so I think because of that we’ve always made sure that we keep close and in contact with each other and hang out as much as possible … We talk about pretty much everything together.”
Something Katie cannot talk about, though, is her experience on the night of May 6, 2006. It is not because she is unwilling, as she may have once been, but because she cannot remember anything from that fateful Saturday night nor much of the previous three years. Katie, then 16, was the passenger in a classmate and friend’s SUV going 80 miles per hour on Interstate 75 in Venice, Fla., one hour south of Tampa.
Another friend was on speakerphone giving Katie directions to a party. Katie and the driver realized they were just about to pass the necessary Jacaranda Boulevard Exit and the driver swerved to make the ramp on the right before overcorrecting and causing the car to roll over four times to the left.
In addition to the spinal cord injury that prognosticated never walking again, Katie suffered a broken neck and mild brain damage when the roof of the Ford Explorer collapsed on her head. The driver was relatively unharmed.
“Luckily I was the only one that was seriously injured,” Katie, 22, told The Sun as she prepared to watch her favorite NFL team, the Green Bay Packers, play their first game of the 2012 season. “We were very lucky because off-duty paramedics happened to be driving in the opposite direction and witnessed the whole thing and were on it instantly.”
Katie spent almost six weeks, two comatosed, in the Neurological Intensive Care Unit of Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. She then rehabilitated and underwent tests and surgeries for nearly five months at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colo., where Jeff first saw his paralyzed sister. He noted that it was difficult as a rising high school boy whose life revolved around sports and fun to manage the gravity of the situation.
“It definitely blindsides you — you have no idea,” Jeff said. “It’s just one of those things that happens where you don’t really know how to respond or know what’s really going on. I didn’t really have any strategies. I hadn’t yet reached that time when you’re ready to handle it … Especially when you’re young, you kind of think you’re invincible and [Katie] says that all the time. These tragic incidents show you that you’re not.”
Katie admits that she was unable to immediately view the accident in a positive light, as it was only natural for her to initially feel bitter and resent the tragedy. In the months after waking up from the coma, she would show defiance for short periods of time — questioning God, questioning life and questioning everything.
“I was very upset at first not remembering three years of my life,” Katie said. “But the doctors were telling me this was my body’s way of kind of protecting myself so I wouldn’t remember everything all at once. So I see it as a blessing now that I don’t remember the accident … [But] I had a hard time at first.”
“It was very hard for her to start out,” Jeff added, “Because she went from fully functioning — and a very good athlete — to now not being able to walk and having trouble moving her upper body and arms and everything.”
Katie continued to fight during her junior year of high school, undergoing intensive physical therapy and battling fatigue, which limited her attendance. She progressed rapidly nonetheless and by her senior year, the former Venice High basketball, softball and volleyball star was back in school full time and having memories from the three-year gap and extremity sensations gradually grace her. Katie credits her family for getting her through the toughest first years of adjusting to quadriplegia.
“I am so unbelievably blessed with my family support,” Katie said. “[Jeff] is such a strong male figure in my life. He acts so much like he’s the older one. He’s so protective of me and I love it … My family has been such a strong support system in my life and I don’t know where I’d be without them. After my accident, they really inspired me to just keep going and keep doing things in my life.”
One of her activities is speaking to teenagers about decision making and the dangers of distracted driving, particularly cell phone use. Katie knows how close she was to being one of the approximately 7,000 U.S. motorists between the ages of 16 and 20 to die from an auto accident in 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It would have been easy to remain in an idle funk, but Katie said that she realized during recovery that she was still capable and still had a helping role to serve in life.
“I saw people who had worse brain injuries than me and I said, ‘You know, it really could be a lot worse,’” Katie said. “I’m still really blessed to have a good perception of my life and just be able to still take care of myself … And seeing people who had it a lot worse just gave me respect for what I could do and what I still am able to do.”
“I think she reached a point where she said, ‘This is the hand I’ve been dealt’ and I’ve got to make the best of it,” Jeff said. “Once she did that, she started working really hard with physical therapy … she’s just an unbelievable girl.”
The National Safety Council recently hired Katie as a public speaker on distracted driving. She has lived alone in Houston, Texas, for about a year, an almost unthinkable accomplishment for a quadriplegic — one that has made an eternal impression on her former playmate.
“Even doctors and physical therapists have told [Katie] this is probably not possible — for [her] to live on [her] own, and now she’s living by herself,” Jeff said. “The gains that she makes are really unbelievable, and that’s what’s so motivating for me to work hard because she sets such a great example. The way she went through it was probably better than I could ever have imagined anybody else ever going through it.”
Jeff also has a knack for surpassing expectations. He started nine games as a freshman for the Red. He broke the single-season Ivy passing yardage record in 2011. He finished the year with two consecutive 500-yard games with five scores, both victories. He won the Bushnell Cup as the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year. He has legitimate professional potential. Katie and Jeff talk at least three times a week through various media, and big sister tells Jeff how proud she is at every chance — or at least she tries.
“I don’t really see how strong I am until [my family] tells me because it is just an everyday thing for me to get up and get ready and get dressed and stuff like that. I don’t really think anything of it,” Katie said. “But I realize it every time I tell Jeffrey I’m so proud of him He immediately stops me and says, ‘Katie! What I’m doing is nothing compared to what you’re doing. I’m so much more proud of everything you’re doing and everything you continue to do.’ I love him so much for that. He has so much opportunity to focus on himself with all the records that he’s breaking and everything like that, but he focuses on his family and on what I’m doing. It just means so much to me that he knows how to put the important things first.”
Katie, Venice High’s 2007 Homecoming Queen and Ms. Wheelchair Florida Jr. 2010, plans to travel to Ithaca for Cornell’s nationally televised Sept. 22 Homecoming game against Yale. The in-person time for brother and sister is a rare privilege, as it has been since late 1998 when Katie was eight and Jeff was seven, but fortunately technology has come partway to the rescue.
“Especially now that we can talk on Skype or iChat or whatever and see each other, it brings so much more meaning to it because I can keep up with his busy schedule,” Katie said. “He’s always on the go and doing stuff with school and football and everything like that, so I feel like I can live vicariously through him and I love it.”
As Katie continues to shatter quadriplegic stereotypes, Jeff thinks back to the devastating phone call he received from his mother in 2006 and wonders how something so torturous turned out so pleasant. He finds the answer when he looks at his computer screen and accepts the request coming from Houston.
“She’s been in so many situations where people have said, ‘Oh, Katie, you can’t do that,’ or, ‘This is not really possible for someone in your situation.’ And she proves them wrong time and time again. I think that part of it for me is what is so amazing because she doesn’t care about what people are going to say about her … [The accident] has become such a positive, basically just because of how she handled it.”