Last Friday, exactly two months after sophomore Khaliq Gant suffered a neck injury while practicing with the men’s basketball team, three of his teammates arrived in Atlanta, the final destination of a Spring Break road trip. Traveling with two of their housemates, juniors Graham Dow, Kevin App and Jason Mitchell made their way down the East Coast to see Gant for the first time since visiting him in ICU at the Arnot Odgen Medical Center in Elimra, N.Y.
“It was just nice to see him, because we hadn’t seen him since he was kind of immobilized and couldn’t move,” App said. “He’s made tremendous progress.”
Khaliq suffered two dislocated vertebrate in a collision during practice on Jan. 24. In surgery three days later, bone from his hip was used to fuse the C-4 and C-5 vertebrate back together. Since Feb. 2, he has been at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, Ga., where he has undergoing rehabilitation to regain movement.
After three weeks at Shepherd, Khaliq had regained movement in his limbs and extremities. And as of six days ago, he showed his teammates that he is able to walk again.
“We went out to eat, and he had to go to the bathroom,” App said. “He got up [and] with his dad’s helped, walked to the bathroom. I think he was showing off for us a little, but it was definitely nice to see.”
His friends from Cornell made the visit just in time – one week later and they would have missed seeing Khaliq’s room at Shepherd. On Friday, he will move into an apartment two blocks from the center with his father. For four to six weeks after the move, Khaliq will attend intensive therapy at Shepherd for seven hours a day.
While Khaliq has been enjoying what he calls his “extended vacation” in Atlanta, this visit marked the first opportunity for him to reconnect with his teammates and friends beyond phone calls and emails. The travelers had made the decision to make Khaliq’s new home a Spring Break destination months ago.
“It was never really a question – as soon as he got hurt, we were just like, ‘Oh, for Spring Break we’ll go down and see him,'” App said. “It’s nice, since on our team we’re from all over, we just kind of made stops at our houses along the way.”
While driving through App’s native state of Maryland and then South Carolina, which Mitchell calls home, Dow said the group felt “a lot of excitement.” Once they arrived at Shepherd, the reunited teammates fell back into familiar habits, catching up and going out to dinner with Khaliq’s father, as well as going with Khaliq to physical therapy.
“It was great,” said Dean Gant, Khaliq’s father. “They enjoyed seeing him, he enjoyed seeing them. We went out to eat and had a great time. They picked up right where they left off with the rapport and the banter.”
The visitors were impressed with how Khaliq interacted with other residents at Shephard – constantly stopping to talk to people and sharing laughs with other patients. Every new friend the Cornell group met had another story about their teammate, including a tale about Khaliq organizing wheelchair races down the hallways.
“We were laughing about it, because we said he’s like the mayor of the place – he just goes around and he knows everybody,” App said. “That was kind of fun to see, that he’s enjoying himself there.”
Khaliq also took his friends to a rehab session, where they watched him perform exercises to improve his walking ability and helped him with activities like throwing a ball to develop his motor skills.
“It was fun to hang out, catching up,” Dow said. “It was like we were on a team again. He was doing most of the work for sure, we were just there to support him if he needed it. … [We were] helping as much as we could.”
“It was just like practice, trying to help a teammate get through something when they’re having trouble with it. It’s back to basic movements instead of basketball, but I think he enjoyed us,” App said. “Having us there kind of sparked him, gave him a little more energy too.”
Although App repeatedly said how incredible it was to witness the progress Khaliq has made, he also found it impossible to miss the signs that his friend is still recovering from a serious injury.
“He’d be sitting there and he’d look normal and stuff, just like he used to, but as soon as he had to do something, whether it was eat or stand up, it just kind of hits you every time – oh, he can’t do that,” App said.
But while Khaliq is still dealing with physical limitations, Dow was quick to point out that his positive mental attitude has not wavered in the least.
“Khaliq has always had a great outlook on life, and it’s incredible that this has not changed that at all,” he said. “It puts a lot of things in perspective, for sure. Just the integrity that he’s dealt with it. You can take something away from it for your own life.”
App, Dow and the other visitors were seeing firsthand something that Khaliq’s father has marveled at repeatedly as he helps his son through rehab on a day-to-day basis.
“Seeing his progress every day has been amazing,” Dean said. “His will, his determination, and his spirit have inspired me. It’s given me renewed faith and hope in the human spirit.”
Khaliq assured his college friends that he never had any doubts he would make a full recovery – not when he was in ICU, not after surgery, not after making the transition to Altanta.
“It was mainly everyone else that was worried,” App recalls Khaliq saying about his reaction to the diagnosis that he might never walk again. “[Khaliq] was like, ‘I knew it would be hard work, but I could get through it.'”
The hard work hasn’t come without its perks. Khaliq teased his friends that while they get just one week for Spring Break, he’s on an “extended vacation” and gets the entire semester and all of the summer away from the demands of school.
“He’s really at peace. While basketball is something he enjoys, and he loves playing and loves to compete, it’s not the sum of his life,” his father said. “His words on the whole event – we don’t refer to it as an accident or an injury – he sees it as a vacation.”
The vacation has been a busy one for Khaliq, who had to cut his time with his visitors short in order to get to bed early to be ready for the showdown between LSU and Texas at the Georgia Dome, Saturday night, in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament. Khaliq and his father attended as guests of Georgia Tech’s head coach, Paul Hewitt. This gave Khaliq a chance to see friends from his high school playing days in action – including LSU’s Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Tyrus Thomas and Texas’ LaMarcus Aldridge.
Friends from the basketball world have been frequent visitors and correspondents, as Khaliq has received countless letters from coaches at programs ranging from Duke to Arizona to Dayton to Richmond, and has welcomed the Atlanta Hawks’ Josh Smith and the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard for visits at Shepherd.
“It helps immeasurably, seeing that and knowing that people care about you and love you has an impact you can’t imagine,” Dean said. “It brings tears to my eyes.”
And while the outside support has been overwhelming, and has included a basketball and a t-shirt signed by the Brown and Harvard men’s basketball teams, respectively, Dow felt that Khaliq inherently possesses whatever tools he needs to heal.
“I think it’s nice, but I think his drive comes from within,” Dow said. “He’s a very strong individual and [the support] only helps him get stronger, and get back to where he was.”
While Dean agrees, saying that the countless cards, jerseys, and balloons decorating Khaliq’s room have added to Khaliq’s motivation, he also said that Khaliq’s naturally positive outlook and boundless determination have been an inspiration to those around him.
“It’s something about his sprit. He’s always been a unique person, even as a child,” Dean said. “He never backs down from a challenge, and he sees [rehab] as another challenge to overcome. … He knows he has a calling beyond basketball.”
Khaliq has already answered that new destiny to some degree, just by providing inspiration to his visitors from Cornell and, in a way, helping them heal as well.
“It helps us out a lot too, because the hardest part is him being so far away and just not knowing,” App said. “I mean, we hear stuff about how he’s doing, but to see it for yourself is inspirational, for one, and helps us kind of put it to rest and know that he’ll be all right.”
Archived article by Olivia Dwyer
Sun Sports Editor