Trinity High School cornerback T.J. Griffin had a nagging feeling all day long Oct. 19 of 1990. “Something just didn’t feel right,” he recalls.
His Trojan team was ahead and had just scored. But as he lined up for the kick, 30 seconds before halftime, he looked downfield at the Grapevine High player he would tackle, and a dark premonition brushed across his consciousness.
“Before I hit him, I just knew something was gonna go wrong,” Griffin remembers, and, indeed, as the two young bodies collided, he heard a loud “crack” and dropped to the ground — “like a noodle,” he says. “I didn’t feel anything. My body just went limp.” After 22 years, he still remembers the time. “It was 8:34 p.m.”
He had dislocated his fourth and fifth vertebrae and pinched his spinal cord. The handsome and popular 18-year-old athlete was now a quadriplegic, and facing a very different life – one of dependence. But not completely. And not for long. “The first five or six days I was in denial,” he said. “I knew I had to stop thinking about walking. It would drive me crazy. That was too far off. So I set short term goals.”
His first goal was to be able to feed himself before Christmas. Two days before Dec. 25, he could. After his surgery, he faced five months of therapy, confronted with new challenges of breathing, bowel and skin care and more.
“My father buried himself in learning all things handicapped,” Griffin says, and his brother, sister and many friends learned CPR and the bowel program so they could take him out on weekends.
Many in the community also pitched in, expanding his parents’ garage to living quarters for him. “I even have a hot tub with a lift,” he boasts.
Perhaps remarkably, Griffin’s sense of humor has sustained him since the night of the injury. Lying on the emergency room table, wearing only his football helmet, he joked with the nurse, “You gotta admit I look pretty sexy right now.”
He graduated, on schedule, and attended Tarrant County College and UTA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in speech/communication. His biggest goal was to learn to drive and although it took him two years, he did it and now drives his own van.
From the beginning, though, Griffin said his biggest concern – the one that tested his resilience — was who would take care of him and his new needs in the long run.
“I used to worry all the time about how to find an attendant, how will I pay one and what if I can’t pay? Family and friends love you and will do for you no matter what, but some of the things they have to do are hard.”
But during his months in rehab, he ran into Craig, who he had met briefly at a party long before his injury. Craig was in rehab after a diving accident left him paralyzed. It was a meeting that would alleviate his concerns about care.
“He told me Helping Restore Ability was so much better than the other organizations he had used for care, ” Craig said. ” He said they understand your particular situation and let you choose your own attendant, even a family member.”
“That’s all I needed to hear!” Griffin said. His younger brother Tony had been his attendant, but thanks to Helping Restore Ability he could actually now be paid for his help. “Tony needed money for school so I knew it would help him,” Griffin said. His brother was
his first attendant and then a couple of friends took over.
“Helping Restore Ability could get me an attendant,” Griffin explains, “but I was lucky that I found my own. And being able to say ‘I can pay you’ makes a big difference.
“Honestly, the agency has been my life saver. It has made my transition so great. They are also better about staying on top of your needs and paperwork than you are, and are in constant contact — but not in an annoying way. That’s why anytime Helping Restore Ability needs anything from me, I’m here for them.”
Griffin was recently hired as regional director for the prestigious Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Peer Mentor program, but says he will continue to assist Lift-Aids Inc., an automotive adaptive equipment dealer and accessibility lift provider that he has been
helping with its marketing efforts.
But he spends most of his time outside the office, volunteering at the exercise facility run by the Neurofitness Foundation that specializes in helping people with neurological challenges continue improving and staying fit — long after their insurances stops
paying. It provides a free place they can come for exercise and conditioning.
He is president of the foundation’s board and proudly advises that since taking on the responsibility the fund-raising and membership has grown substantially.
“The only thing different about me is I sit down and get better parking places,” Griffin quips, but he’s making an impact in his community and Helping Restore Ability is proud to be able to help him continue to do so.