Save the last dance © March 23, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of Justin Collens and the scar running along the back of his neck.

photo by Jay Ericson
Cadet tight-end Justin Collens shows the
surgical scar that resulted from a season-ending
injury he suffered during a game against
St. Lawrence University.

Norwich tells its students to “expect challenge, achieve distinction.” For junior Cadet Justin Collens ’08, those words carry a much greater meaning than most students will ever understand.

In a September football game against St. Lawrence University, Norwich’s tight end was involved in a first-quarter punt return that would change his life. While locked in a block, the opposing player latched onto Collens’ facemask, and as the two went down on the turf, Collens’ neck took the worst of the tackle. The result: a shattered fifth vertebra.

“It was like diving into a shallow pool,” said coach Shawn McIntyre.

After an initial round of congratulations from his teammates for the solid block, Collens said he left the field sensing that he had injured something. He had no concept of how serious the injury was.

“I didn’t think I broke my neck,” Collens said. “I was all pumped up on adrenaline.”

According to Norwich athletic trainer Dave Bothelo, after initial examination, all signs indicated a shoulder injury. Fortunately for Collens, Bothelo decided to investigate further.

“I had a gut feeling based on what [Collens] was telling me that it was something a little bit more,” Bothelo said.

Suspecting that the tight-end may have suffered a pinched nerve, Bothelo put Collens on a stretcher and sent him up to the local hospital at halftime. Once there, the severity of the situation was revealed when x-rays showed a break in Collens’ neck.

Seven hours of surgery was followed by a week-long stay at Burlington’s Fletcher Allen Hospital. During that time, Collens came to learn that had the break extended a mere quarter-inch further along his vertebra, he would have been paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Prior to the injury, there was no question in Collens’ mind about how the next few years would play out. He’d play football at Norwich during his junior and senior years, graduate, and then move on to a career in the Army as an officer. However, an early prognosis during his recovery threw some obstacles in the path. Doctors told Collens that he wouldn’t be able strap on the pads even for his senior year. Worse still, the Cadet also learned that an Army career wasn’t in his future, as the newly-installed metal component in his neck negated his eligibility for a commission.

Despite the crushing news, Collens took Norwich’s “expect challenge, achieve distinction” phrase to heart, and after three-months of intensive recovery, he’s been cleared to play ball next year. Although he admits that some say playing would be crazy, Collens notes that his neck is actually stronger than it was before the injury. But his choice to play next season is based on bigger things.

“It’s my last dance, my senior year,” Collens said. “And it’s not all about playing football; you’re with your best friends. And, if you love it, you love it.”

As for his Army commission, that still isn’t going to happen, but Collens seems all right with that situation. He’s decided to pursue a career in the field of business and sees the whole injury experience in a positive light.

“Things like this help build your character and they just make you stronger in the end,” Collens said. “And when one door closes, another one opens.”