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LUCKY TO BE ALIVE USC TRACK STARS SURVIVE NEAR-DEATH EPISODES.

Byline: Jill Painter Staff Writer

Clark McGuire and Noah Bryant sat together in the stands at UCLA's Drake Stadium, enjoying the crowd and sunshine. They didn't mind that fans constantly stopped by and asked about their scars.

At the Pacific-10 Conference track and field championships two weeks ago, they were celebrities, although neither ran a race. Just being there was a victory.

McGuire and Bryant are more than teammates on the USC track team. They share a unique bond, surviving near-death experiences last month while competing for the Trojans.

Neither will attend this weekend's NCAA West Regional Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore. But, as both now know, life - like their sport - can be a game of inches.

``This changed me a lot, actually,'' McGuire said. ``Usually, people have to wait until later in life to have a wake-up call and realize life's more precious than you think. I could've died. This made me appreciate every day for what it is.''

Bryant, an All-American shot-putter from Santa Barbara, was struck in the face after throwing a 16-pound hammer that ricocheted off protective screening during an April 2 meet at Cal State Northridge. Several plates had to be inserted, including one into his cheekbone, which a doctor described as a ``broken eggshell.''

Two weeks after Bryant, a junior, was injured, McGuire, a sophomore jumper from Camas, Wash., collapsed while stepping out of a long-jump pit during a competition at Long Beach State. He spent two weeks in intensive care, where doctors finally discovered a brain aneurysm. During five hours of surgery, a leaking blood vessel was repaired.

``You can tell by the way we act that we've both matured a lot,'' said Bryant, who has three small scars. ``This will do it to you.''

They have received an overwhelming amount of e-mails, cards, flowers and calls from opponents and strangers. USC captain and high jumper Jesse Williams, McGuire's roommate, helped organize a team dinner April 28, the night before McGuire's surgery.

McGuire, who turns 20 Tuesday, has a long, winding, snake-like scar just above his forehead. He was a favorite among hospital nurses, who applied makeup before making visits to his room. One told him he looked like actor Ashton Kutcher.

``(Bryant) is lucky he's alive,'' said Dr. Luga Podesta, the Avengers' team doctor and a consultant for the Lakers, Dodgers and other pro teams. ``He could've had massive head trauma and been left totally disabled. ... (McGuire) is lucky he has no side effects. When you clip a blood vessel, it depends on where it supplies the brain. He's lucky it didn't supply a big portion of the brain, or he could've suffered a tremendous deficit in mental or motor (skills), almost like having a stroke.''

Bryant's and McGuire's injuries were the most serious in a string of health issues the USC program faced this season.

Freshman hurdler Sheldon Evans suffered torn knee ligaments when he hit a hurdle. During the Pac-10 championships, Wes Felix, a Valencia High product, complained of a tingling sensation and shortness of breath after completing the 200-meter dash. Felix was cleared by doctors and returned to practice this week.

USC coach Ron Allice said he decided to stop saying things couldn't get worse. On Monday, star jumper Allen Simms said he was suffering from chest pains. Tests revealed nothing serious in either case, and both are expected to compete this weekend.

``I don't know who coined the phrase 'Fight on' at this place, but it's right on,'' Allice said. ``There's been so many bizarre things, I need an umbrella.''

UCLA coach Art Venegas sympathizes. Venegas and the Bruins still are dealing with the death of former track athlete Nicole Gaskins, who died in December at age 22 from a rare form of cancer.

``You're always optimistic. Sometimes you can go five years, and the worst thing you'll have is a knee injury,'' Venegas said. ``You expect injuries, but not ones that are life threatening. It's terrible. We go on the Internet and keep updated on them.''

Bryant released the hammer too early during warm-ups at the Northridge meet. He doesn't remember seeing the hammer hit the inside of the chain-link cage, recoil and wickedly race toward him. He was hit in the right side of his face, shattering several bones.

He recalled shielding part of his face with his hand. The hammer missed his temple by two inches. Before the ambulance arrived, Bryant's mother, Susan, laid his head in her lap as blood was rushing down his face. He underwent surgery to insert the metal plates.

Most schools use netting to surround the hammer-throw and discus rings, meant to protect other athletes - and fans - from errant throws. CSUN possesses such netting but instead was using a chain-link fence, which provides less cushion than the netting if hit by the hammer.

Bryant says he holds no grudge against the school and was grateful Matadors athletic director Dick Dull called to wish him well.

Bryant said he'd be concerned his girlfriend, USC discus-thrower Kate Hutchinson, could be hurt in similar conditions. Dull said the chain-link fencing isn't being used while its viability is evaluated.

After her son collapsed, McGuire's mother, Lorry Wangaard, flew to Los Angeles from Portland, and his father, Craig McGuire, flew in from Colorado.

McGuire required constant supervision after surgery, and he convalesced at an aunt's house in Newport Beach. His mother - suffering from breast cancer, recovering from a double mastectomy 10 days before McGuire's collapse - slept in her son's room, upright in a chair.

McGuire is in the process of moving back into his apartment near campus so he can finish classes he had to abandon after his aneurysm. He began working out again this week and, like Bryant, hopes to compete again next year. Both are applying for a medical redshirt.

``From the beginning to end, Clark didn't complain or feel sorry for himself,'' Wangaard said. ``He was just looking at the next step. It was like, 'How do we fix this?' I don't know how to explain how mature he acted. He set an example for all of us.''

On a follow-up visit Monday with his neurosurgeon, Dr. Hooshang Pak, McGuire was cleared to return to normal activities, such as jogging and driving. Pak received a framed photo of McGuire in his uniform with the inscription, ``You're the man.''

Bryant, who before surgery was suffering from such intense headaches that he slept 20 hours a day, is fine now. He was able to visit Boston with his brother, Josh, last week, and carries with him new perspective.

``It's like the 'Live Like You Were Dying' song by Tim McGraw,'' said Bryant, who celebrated his 21st birthday earlier this month. ``The lyrics make more sense. Every moment you need to think about what you're doing and if it's making you a better person. You're only going to live for so long.''

Jill Painter, (818) 713-3615

jill.painter(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- color) USC long- and triple-jumper Clark McGuire required constant care after undergoing surgery for a brain aneurysm.

David Sprague/Staff Photographer

(2 -- color) Trojans shot-putter Noah Bryant ``is lucky he's alive,'' his doctor said, after he was hit in the face with a hammer during a meet.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer

(3) Among USC's wounded are, from left, Sheldon Evans, Noah Bryant and Clark McGuire.

Courtesy of Bryant family

Box:

NCAA West Regional Track and Field Championships

- Jill Painter
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 27, 2005
Words:1244
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