In Northeast Florida there are a plethora of Churches of all different denominations, but Faith reigns true. Along with church, there’s another aspect of life that is just as important to a lot of people, and that’s 4on4 Flag Football. With a league that has been around since the mid 90’s, there’s an average of 70+ teams every season. The league, 4on4ofjax, runs year round, minus a few weeks off between seasons.
Over the years the league’s location has moved a few times, but it’s most recent area of play, Fleming Island in Orange Park, which is just twenty-five minutes south of downtown Jacksonville, has seen a large amount of players that come back year in and year out.
One man that takes both his love for Christ and football very seriously is a local Jacksonville native named Tim Callahan. Tim began playing in the league in 1999. Over the years Tim has been part of a Let It Fly National Championship team, Rocky Top, along with winning local league championships and other tournaments that have come through town. But most importantly, Tim has earned respect from the players in NE Florida and other parts of the state where he and his teams have played. Tim plays the game with heart, a desire to win and with class. I speak from experience. I’ve had the opportunity to play against Tim over the years, and myself along with the players on the team that I’ve been a part of for nearly thirteen years, feel the same way.
Tim’s love for the game was sidelined and his trust and belief in Christ took front and center when he was injured during a game while making a routine play.
There was no way for me to try and recreate the real emotion and/or fear that Tim was experiencing during the time of his injury. So with that being said, the following segments that you will read are Tim’s words.
It was July 3rd 2010 on a beautiful summer morning. It was really an ordinary Saturday morning for me. Woke up at 7 am, brushed my teeth, took a shower, got my football attire on, grabbed my football bag, kissed my wife goodbye, got in my car, and drove away. Little did I know I wouldn’t be returning for another 6 weeks. I was about to play in the annual draft tournament at the 4on4 league.
I hadn’t played defense all day but I could tell my teammates needed a break. So I came in to play defense to give a couple of them a break. After about 5 plays on defense I found myself guarding one of the faster guys in the league. As the ball was snapped he took off. I remember him getting about 3 yards past me pretty quickly. As the ball was thrown I remember thinking “I need to start sprinting.”
Luckily the wind was swirling so I was able to catch up to him as he waited for the ball. As the ball arrived we both jumped about the same time. He got 2 hands on it and I got my right hand on it. I had done this a million times.
Stick your hand in there and knock the ball out. But this time was different. For some reason my arm got stuck in between his arms. As I landed I vividly remember thinking “Tim, get your arm out of there or this could end bad.”
Sitting on my butt with my right arm in the air my fellow flag football opponent landed on my head pushing my head into my chest. And then every athlete’s worst nightmare happened. I had broken my neck in 2 places, c-3 & c-4. I was instantly paralyzed from the neck down.
I would later find out that the vertebrae’s I broke were the ones that keep a person breathing. I was having trouble breathing right away. Laying on the field, as a Christian man my first reaction was to close my eyes and pray. With my eyes closed I thought my arms were up in the air the whole time, like I was lifting them myself. When I opened my eyes I turned my head slightly and realized they were lying flat on the ground. I knew at that point it was bad.
With all of the games stopped and my flag football family huddled around me saying there own prayers, I couldn’t believe all the love and support I was receiving. I remember some of the guys trying to reassure me by saying “it’s probably just a stinger. You’ll get feeling back soon”.
Unfortunately I heard my neck pop, so I knew it was much worse than that. I can remember looking at different players/friends telling them “this is bad, this is bad” I kept repeating it over and over. Not many of them had a response. When I looked into there eyes they looked just as scared as me.
The only thoughts that crossed my mind was “did I really just jeopardize starting a family of my own. Was I going to be able to have kids?”
As I was lying on the field powerless to move anything in my body I continued to talk to the only person I knew that could help me. As I did so, I got a warm feeling over me. Almost like God was telling me “it’s not going to end like this.”
When the ambulance arrived I felt so scared. Where was this going to end up? As I was being carted off the field I tried desperately to raise my thumb and reassure everyone I was going to be okay. But I couldn’t do it. On the ride to the hospital I kept telling the EMT’s “I shouldn’t have been playing. My wife and I want to have kids.” I could almost see it in there eyes a response saying “son, you’re never going to walk again much less have kids.”
I spent the next 2 weeks in Shands ICU. I don’t really remember that much from those 2 weeks, but my wife informed me of everything. She was amazing considering everything she had to deal with. When she arrived to Shands the first words she heard was your husband has no feeling from the neck down and he’ll be a functional quadriplegic at best. Not something a 26 year old woman wants to hear about her husband.
My time at Shands felt like an eternity for friends and family. Before surgery 1 of 2 I was put on a ventilator, which is basically life support. I was having an extremely hard time breathing. I had a halo screwed into my skull and a feeding tube in my nose. I came down with pneumonia and a staph infection which brought on an extremely high fever. Obviously I was scared to death thinking the worst was still ahead. But I really never lost faith in knowing I would walk again.
No matter what the doctors told me. I knew God was looking out for me. And after a few days of dealing with the worst, God started to do a work on my body. After the first surgery I was regaining feeling in my toes. And before I knew it I had feeling in my legs. I was getting stronger every day. And after 2 weeks I was able to leave Shands.
I spent the next 4 and a half weeks at Brooks rehabilitation hospital. It was there that I had to learn how to do everyday activities all over again. Stand, walk, brush my teeth, feed myself, put on deodorant, and use the bathroom. Not something a 29 year old wants to go through but I was able to do it all. I will never forget the feeling I had when I took my first steps. I cried for a straight hour. It was an amazing feeling.
I overcame all the odds and exceeded every doctors expectations and I walked out of Brooks. I graduated from Occupational therapy and Physical therapy at the out patient clinic in record time. I am currently still in therapy at the Neuro Recovery Center at Brooks, where I am working on building my strength, endurance, stamina, balance, and agility. I still don’t have much feeling in my left hand and torso area. And I am constantly dealing with neck pains and body spasms. But by the Grace of God I will gain my feeling back and will have no more pain.
A lot of people ask me how I’ve gotten through everything and still kept a smile on my face. My faith in God has made that possible. I also believe it’s because I got hurt doing something I absolutely loved to do. Flag football: a sport that has given me so much; trophies, cash prizes, multiple TV appearances, but most importantly friends. Not just friends but best friends and a whole other family to love.
Every time I meet a different doctor or therapist and I tell them my story they all say the same thing. “WOW, you’re really lucky.” I actually had my surgeon tell his interns that I was the .01% situation that they teach their students. Meaning they gave me a .01% of regaining my body control. But I know it wasn’t luck. I know the only reason I’m able to walk today is because my Lord and Savior was looking after me. And he still is.
Almost 3 years had gone by and I thought to myself “man, wouldn’t it be great to go out on my terms?” No athlete ever wants to go out with an injury. Especially not a career ending injury, so I sent a text message to my brother David. “Hey, USFTL (a national flag football tournament) is only a month away, I want to play.” He ignored the message. He pretty much laughed at me and thought I was being crazy. But when he realized I was being serious he said, I’m 100% in.
And then he asked, “What does Jamie say?” And outside of my wife, I didn’t care if anyone supported me or not. And my wife understood that. She knew that it was something I had to do for myself. And after weeks of convincing, pleading, a few stipulations, and promising her this was a one time thing, she was finally on board.
And it just so happened that the biggest national flag football tournament was only weeks away in Orlando Florida. We put a pretty good team together but I didn’t really have high expectations. None of us had really played together before and I hadn’t thrown or played anything like this in almost 3 years. I just really wanted to play one last time. My first throw felt amazing. I could have quit after that one throw. But my team actually kept winning and moving on. We ended up making the championship game and winning the whole tournament which is insanely hard to accomplish. No way in my wildest dreams did I think we would win the whole tournament. I ended up throwing 3 touchdowns in the championship game. The feeling I had was so surreal. A feeling I had been missing for almost 3 years. After being paralyzed to winning a national tournament was a monumental step for me.
The comment that Bethany Hamilton’s character made in the movie Soul Surfer was spot on to me. “I wouldn’t change what happened to me, because then I wouldn’t have this chance. This chance to touch more lives then I ever could’ve imagined.” I would love to share my story with millions of people around the world. God has done so much in my life and for me. I want to share it with others. I also feel like I owe it to everyone who isn’t as fortunate as me. I was given a second chance at life and I’m trying to do the best I can to live that out.
There’s been a person we’ve all known about during our time on this earth that has had a life changing experience, but when it’s someone that you know personally and they were injured doing something that you also love, it makes you take a step back and reassess what you’re doing. Tim is an inspiration to a lot of people here in the NE FL region, and with such an incredible story, it needs to be shared with as many people as possible. Tim is a true testament that if there is faith and belief, there is a possibility to overcome anything that is thrown your way.