The hit, a football play that went terribly awry, barely registered. Not in Chris Gomoll's world. It was a flick.
Somehow, you sensed the cumbersome neck brace he was wearing last Saturday on homecoming at Grant's sun-splashed football stadium wasn't needed to hold his head high.
“Life just keeps hitting us,” said the 6-foot-1, 160-pound Gomoll, sitting in a chair especially for him behind an end zone. “But we just keep bouncing back better.”
This December marks 10 years since Angie and Ray Gomoll welcomed Chris and his kid brother Ethan into their family. Plucked from the foster care system, Chris and Ethan later became the Gomoll's adopted sons.
“He's smarter than me,” Chris, a Grant junior who takes AP classes, said of eighth-grader Ethan.
Bright boys. Good-looking. Smart. Athletic. And with perspective that any adult would envy.
Where'd you find these kids, Angie and Ray?
“The Lord found them for us,” Angie said. “We're very blessed.”
Chris is blessed. He knows it. Ask him. The kid who wants to attend a military academy will tell you how fortunate he is, and he will tell you with his head held high.
“I thank God every day that I can do this and I can wiggle my toes,” said Chris, wiggling his fingers with his arms extended and wearing the smile of a kid on Christmas morning.
During Week 3 of the football season, on Friday, Sept. 7 in Fox Lake, Gomoll, a starting cornerback for the Bulldogs, ran to make a tackle after Wauconda running back David Starkey caught a short pass.
“Huge guy,” Gomoll said of the 6-1, 220-pound Starkey, who's built like a man. “We were having trouble tackling him all night, so our plan was to gang-tackle him. He catches the pass and I stick him, and I hold him. I spin him open toward the field, and my safety comes in to try to clean it up, and he tackles me from my side. I'm open to the right and he creams me from the side. ... It was just one of those freak-accident things.
“But,” Gomoll added, “thank God that I'm alive.”
On Grant's artificial grass, real life was happening. Gomoll lay motionless as trainers from both Wauconda and Grant hustled to his rescue. A loud stadium suddenly became quiet.
Gomoll's neck broke in three places. A Flight for Life helicopter soon landed at Grant.
“A half an inch higher and it would have shattered his artery, and he would have bled to death on the field,” Angie Gomoll said. “A half an inch lower, and (the break) would have gone into his spinal column and he would have been a paraplegic.”
All Chris Gomoll knew was that he was in trouble. A fearless football player was frightened.
“Instantaneously, from the neck down, I feel numb,” Gomoll said. “I could only hear myself screaming, well, not-so-nice words. ... I couldn't feel (anything) for a minute. And then, like a vacuum-effect, (feeling) just started coming back. I started slowly getting (feeling) back in my fingers and my toes, but then my neck just starting killing. It was like somebody was stabbing me in the neck repeatedly.”
The weird part is, technique-wise, Gomoll did nothing wrong. His real-life scare was just a domino effect of players colliding and those players playing until the whistle blew.
“He did not come in with his head down,” Grant coach Kurt Rous said. “He came in with his shoulder and tackled the guy, and then our safety came in. You could see on the film that it was just a jarring hit and it snapped his neck.”
At the hospital that first night was Gomoll's best friend and football teammate Joe Sadausakas.
“He was right there for me,” Gomoll said. “Even through all the pain.”
Gomoll spent six days in the hospital, where doctors had him stabilized. Surgery was not performed. For the first 4-5 days, Gomoll couldn't help himself do anything. Nurses told him if he wanted to resume a normal life, it was up to him to start doing the exercises they asked him to do.
“I kicked myself into gear and I started working really hard,” Gomoll said. “I went from grandpa steps to longer strides to walking laps around the hospital to doing stairs in the hospital.”
All the while, Grant's community and other schools were showing their concern for the wounded student-athlete. Fundraisers were held, prayers came from everywhere. Chris Gomoll was getting hit again — bombarded — this time with love.
“Basically, everything we do is for him right now,” Sadausakas said. “I'm keeping him in my prayers. He'll get better.”
“The support from everybody has just been unbelievable,” Gomoll said of a sentiment shared by his parents. “It keeps me going.”
Gomoll was ordered to wear a neck brace for six weeks.
“If he did his job by keeping the collar on, it should heal right,” Angie Gomoll said. “We'll know on (October) 19th if he has to have surgery or not. If it didn't heal right, then they have to do surgery.”
Since he's been back home, Gomoll has been resting up, practicing stairs and walking around. He's also been enjoying simple pleasures like brushing his teeth and buttoning his shirts.
Don't worry, the cornerback has things covered.
“The Lord really has laid hands on him and healed him,” Angie Gomoll said. “He's in a lot of pain, but he's a trooper, and he's doing well.”
Chris Gomoll might have played his last football game, but don't feel sorry for him. He won't.
“The crew on the field really took good care of him,” Angie Gomoll said.
“I have a personal thank you for everybody, all my supporters,” Chris Gomoll said. “I feel the love so much. There's no way I could imagine how I could repay them.”
Walking into Grant's stadium on his own power was a great start.
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