"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

Chronicle of a Rehabilitation Foretold

by Jason Cohen
Austin American-Statesman

There was a miracle in State College, Penn., Saturday.

I know, because I was there. Not that I actually had to be present to share
in the most poignant story of the still-young college football season --
ABC's prime-time coverage made sure of that, while the press box was
overloaded with folks who'd documented the evening's lead-up for the past
six months. Penn State student Adam Taliaferro's recovery from a potentially
paralyzing football injury was not so much chronicled as it was foretold. By
the time he strode onto the field, I felt as if the moment had already
happened.

This is no reflection on Taliaferro. The 19-year-old's journey from
fractured C-5 vertebra to full upright mobility is genuinely inspirational,
a flesh-and-blood enactment of the very thing team sports is supposed to
symbolize: beating the odds through will, courage, discipline and sweat.

But in this age of information overload, it's impossible to experience
anything in a truly naive state. Call it "premature appreciation." If
newspapers, radio and television have brought us to the point where nothing
in our culture is left unmediated, cyberspace and cable (along with the big
three's response to them) means everything is pre-mediated. Instead of
historian Daniel Boorstin's "pseudo-events," genuine experiences get
massaged into prefab form by microscopic analysis and heightened
expectations. Whether it's "Kid A," the Super Bowl or "The Phantom Menace,"
we suffer from a kind of anticipatory exhaustion. The reason the
presidential election's Florida coda was so compelling was not its gravity,
but its novelty -- cliffhanger drama and daily surprises are hard to come
by.

Sports still come through on those fronts occasionally, providing us with
outcomes-in-doubt and upset specials, with out-of-nowhere heroes and
unexpected record breakers. But it doesn't happen as often as we'd like, or
as often as it used to. Look no further than Flushing Meadows, where, as of
Wednesday morning, Andy Roddick has a legitimate chance to succeed Pete
Sampras as the youngest-ever US Open champion.

When Sampras notched his first title in 1990 he was the 12th-ranked player
in the world. He'd made it to the fourth round in '89. But outside the
circle of die-hard tennis buffs, he was as anonymous as a ball boy. His
quarterfinals triumph over No. 1 Ivan Lendl was a shocker, even more so than
his semifinals win over McEnroe and his straight-set erasure of Andre Agassi
in the final. It was a great story, and the media rightly ran with it. But
there'd been no online chats, hourly highlights shows or sports-conscious
style mags to hype him in advance.

Not so Roddick, who lurked in the background as the 2000 U.S. Open junior
champion, then went supernova the minute he won his first tournament, eating
up column inches not just in obvious places like the New York Times sports
section and ESPN magazine, but also in People and Details magazines. That's
partly because he's more charismatic than Sampras (and partly because
Sampras' apparent decline leaves room for a new hero).

Still, if Roddick lifts the trophy on Sunday it will be exciting, and it
will have happened earlier than expected, but it will still feel like the
logical conclusion to a story the media has been telling for several months.

Likewise Taliaferro's human drama. When it was first suggested that he might
be on his feet and at the stadium for the 2001 opener -- a goal he set to
motivate himself through grueling rehab -- you thought, "Wow, what if?" By
last week, it was merely "What will it be like?"

We'd heard about it for so long. The pundits assured us there wouldn't be a
dry eye in the house. Reporters wondered if he might be able to jog or run,
so when it happened, the kid's spontaneous hop-skip-and-a-jump exuberance
felt inevitable. His entrance was preceded by a videotaped introduction on
Beaver Stadium's state-of-the-art twin scoreboard, and instead of leading
his comrades onto the gridiron, Taliaferro had to play Pied Piper to a
phalanx of sight-obstructing photographers and cameraman (one reason the
moment worked better on TV). This spectacle had the unintended effect of
making the actual team entrance seem ho-hum, though perhaps that was
appropriate, given the 33-7 trouncing at the hands of Miami that followed.

For those the experience truly belonged to -- Adam and his parents, along
with the Penn State coaches, players and medical personnel -- the flashbulb
pops and cheering of 109,313 fans must have been profoundly moving. But the
actual miracle occurred six months ago, when Adam first rose to his feet.
For me, the awe hit home earlier in the evening, when Taliaferro, now a
student-assistant coach, wandered around the field during pre-game warmups,
already outfitted in his No. 43 jersey and sweatpants, making small talk
with various players and pausing for the occasional interview. It was a
mundane, unguarded moment, an extraordinary teen-ager proceeding with his
ordinary life. Maybe you had to be there in person after all.

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