I think much of our fixation on sports letdowns and "worst moments" is a symptom of escapism. We can allow ourselves to fantasize about a triumphant win that never was or a draft day trade that worked out just a little better. We have a whole website - the What If? Machine - devoted to that fancy. But sometimes the worst moment is really a very bad matter of life and death.
I was 5 minutes late.
In ten years I could count the Bills games I had not watched at my grandma's house on one hand, even if the 4:00 West Coast starts led to negotiations with my mother over homework. More often than not, I arrived hours before kickoff so that I could pore over the Buffalo News in advance of the game.
But on this day, the first game of 2007, I was running a bit late. I don't remember why, but I remember that I turned on the TV at a relatively inopportune time to figure out what was going on. For a few minutes I thought the game hadn't yet started, and that something had happened before kickoff.
It was a few more before I even realized someone was injured.
I don't think I need to run through the injury itself. Like Clint Malarchuk and Richard Zednik or Willis McGahee in college, most people won't forget the injury. The way Everett's face got pushed up as he crashed into Dixon, and the way he stiffened and fell straight down is enough to give me chills seven years later. (Has it only been seven years?)
If Twitter was around in September 2007, it certainly wasn't very prevalent. And while I played fantasy football with some guys from high school, I didn't spend my Sundays with one eye on the TV and one on the internet, as I do now seven years later. As such, I have kind of disassociated the game from the injury. I don't remember craving updates, though I'm sure the broadcast team was providing them.
I really only remember the beginning - the injury - and the end - Jason Elam somehow getting the Denver field goal team on the field in nine seconds without a time out to steal a win from Buffalo.
What makes this moment so powerful is everything that happened afterward. There have been a few more tragic paralysis injuries in football and other sports since, but at the time the only comparison was Marc Buoniconti. You were always looking for the thumbs-up. Stabilizing the spine and neck was safety procedure. Taking tons of time and shots of the teams praying in circles was procedure. But the thumbs-up from the stretcher was always the dove returning to the ark - it's bad and a grave injury, but the guy is responsive and can move on the field.
There was no thumbs-up from Everett, and nobody was expecting one after the way his body fell. After the game, news reports trickled in. His only movement on the field was in his eyes. He would be sedated for a few days to keep the trauma down.
Some of the news was neither good nor bad, eliciting reactions of "well, it could be worse," and "wow, that's still terrible" at the same time. Everett's spine was not severed, but had suffered a 'pinching' due to the dislocation of two vertebrae in his cervical spine area.
Everett was being treated at Millard Fillmore Gates Circle, so every morning I would ride a Metro bus past a handful of news cameras, and every afternoon I would run with other guys on the Canisius High School cross country team past those same cameras.
After a few days, more news about the treatment started to come out. Dr. Cappuccino had repaired a fracture and aligned the vertebrae with the help of a plate and bone graft, and reported that Everett was gaining more responsiveness below his shoulders. Even so, conversations swung wildly between whether the former tight-end would ever walk again and whether he would yet make it out of the hospital.
With time, there were no major setbacks and steady improvement, and Everett was indeed able to walk again. It was revealed that doctors had used a radical treatment - pumping very cold saline into Everett's bloodstream to lower his body temperature and the risk of swelling - that had been developed in part thanks to Ralph Wilson's donations to research in the field. Further positive news came out with time, and Everett was transferred to a Houston-area hospital to continue his rehab and was even able to walk on the Ralph Wilson Stadium turf before the end of the same season before a game.
Unlike many of the other spots on our list, and many of the moments we kept out of the top twenty, this one has a "to be continued," and one that has been generally positive, at that. Everything ended for the 1999 Sabres after No Goal, and for Nolan's (first) tenure in Buffalo after the hullabaloo with Hasek. When we recall Wide Right or No Goal, the sadness that comes with it is one that asks "what could have been."
Here, a life-threatening one of the worst moments in Buffalo sports history even there has been a comeback from it. Just because we have a few more on the hockey rink doesn't mean this was any less awful. We never like the memento mori. We want to consider or ignore death on our terms. But we especially hate to think about it in sports, which even the more diehard among us will admit is a bit of an escape from other concerns. For a few hours in September 2007, and for a few weeks thereafter, we were forced to.