Emeka Nnaka’s life changed in an instant when making a tackle as a defensive end for the Oklahoma Thunder semi-professional football team.
The 21-year-old Oral Roberts University student was playing for the team in a game at Fayetteville, Ark., when he sustained a spinal cord injury. It’s a player’s, coach’s and parents’ worst nightmare.
“I just laid there, not able to move,” Emeka recalled. “I felt a tingling sensation throughout my body, kind of like when you hit your funny bone. I tried so hard to give the ‘thumbs up’ sign on the way out of the stadium, but I just couldn’t do it.”
Emeka was taken to a hospital in Fayetteville, where he underwent nine hours of neck surgery. His parents and two younger sisters from Macon, Ga., quickly came to be at his side.
When he woke up, he couldn’t move anything from the chest down. But after several months of intensive physical therapy back in Tulsa, he slowly regained use of his arms, began to move his neck and learned to feed himself.
He received a wheelchair, lift and hospital bed from Ability Resources, a United Way partner agency.
Now 26, Emeka, still an athlete at 6’5”, works out daily at the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges, also a United Way agency.
“I gained more independence after going through the Center’s two-month transition program than any other therapy I’ve had,” he said.
Emeka went on to attend Tulsa Community College and will earn a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from Langston University in May. He plans to pursue a master’s degree, open his own rehabilitation and counseling clinic, and pursue a career as a life coach and professional speaker.
One might suspect Emeka never experienced a moment of self-pity.
“Sometimes I’ll dream that I’m running and playing football, then I wake up. But I really never get depressed. My faith has served as a guide.”