MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The little things hold the biggest meaning to Jacob Gazzo.
Gripping a basketball. Taking a shot. Walking: on a court—or at all.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Gazzo said. “Because I appreciate so much more now.”
Jacob was already committed to Ole Miss. He transferred to Briarcrest ahead of his senior year. His future was secure.
Until one play in one summer league game nearly took it all away.
"He had a great steal and he had so much speed going,” Saints head coach John Harrington said. “He tried to two-hand dunk it.”
"They told me I went up and I dunked,” Jacob said. He doesn’t even remember starting the game.
The 6-foot-7 center unleashed a thundering slam dunk before his momentum swung his legs under the basket with such force that he lost his grip on the rim. Jacob landed on his head, knocking him out cold.
"And there I was, just looking right at him,” said Kevin Olds, the senior head physical therapist at Campbell Clinic and for the Memphis Tigers. He was at the game to watch his son play against Briarcrest and was seated underneath the basket when Jacob landed at his feet, motionless.
“I looked at him and some people ran over,” Olds said. “I told them don't touch him."
Olds helped to stabilize his neck before the ambulance arrived.
"The next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital.”
But he made a terrifying discovery. He tried to move—he thought he was moving—but when he looked down, his body laid still.
"I was like ‘What's wrong with me?’” Gazzo asked before learning the true gravity of his situation. He might be paralyzed.
“I was so scared. I just want to be a normal kid at that point."
Gazzo regained movement in his arms, but doctors told him the little progress he made in his legs would eventually regress. They used the word paraplegic. They told him he would never play basketball again.
“It just really terrified me for a while. I didn't know what life was going to be like."
Olds told the family to get a second opinion, so they went to Vanderbilt.
"The neurologist in Nashville called me and we talked and we both agreed it was more of a spinal shock injury where there were no fractures in the cervical spine or the thoracic spine,” Olds said.
Meaning he would get better, but there was a long road ahead.
“They started taking me through some therapy and my legs just wouldn’t move. They had to pick my legs up for me when I started,” Gazzo said. “They were like, ‘Your body is going to come back, we just don’t know if it’s going to be two weeks or two years. We don’t know.’”
"The nervous system is the boss of the body,” Olds explained. “When that’s messed up, it has an effect everything.
Restoring complete brain-to-body control is a tall order for someone who stands at 6-foot-7.
"He was walking with a very shaky gait, his muscles were spasming. He couldn’t stand still without shaking. He was sleeping all the time.”
“I think about a month and a half, two months went by I was just slowly shuffling my feet,” Gazzo said. “I was getting so frustrated; I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not.”
The pace may have been too slow for Jacob, but it was right on time for Olds, who took him on as a patient.
“We worked what’s called very small intrinsic muscles. Maybe just moving your fingers and hands and toes separately,” he explained. “He had a lot of trouble doing that, but that stimulates the neuromuscular system far more than large overall movements. So he was very frustrated in the beginning doing that. But we incorporated that into his routine and he got better and better and better and better.”
Gazzo remembers the moment he felt he had finally turned a corner.
“One day I woke up and I was like ‘This is different,’ and I walked downstairs normally. I was so ecstatic. I was so excited. My mom immediately started crying and I started crying because it took so long to get to that point. As therapy went on and everyone was encouraging me I was like, I think I can do this.”
As his progress continued, the focus shifted to basketball season. Olds spent his weekends taking their sessions from the clinic to the court.
“I needed to get him on the court to see his movement deficits and functional limitations,” Olds said. “I was never in this field just to do my job between say eight-to-five. If I have to go above and beyond for a kid, I’ve always done that for my 25-26 years of doing this. I think the kids deserve it. If you don’t then you shouldn’t be in this field.”
“[Kevin] understood how valuable basketball was to Jacob and to the next level and what was at stake.” Harrington said. “Going to a University. Going to Ole Miss.”
“I am so blessed that [Kevin] was there,” Gazzo said. “He knew exactly what to do right when I got into therapy. He knew where I hit the back of my head. He had everything planned out. He was the one to get me through it.”
Five months after his fall, Jacob finally signed with Ole Miss on Nov. 16. Two weeks later, he made his Briarcrest debut Dec. 2 against Collierville.
“I was so excited to be out there.” Gazzo said. “I didn’t care how I played.”
“It brings a tear to your eye when you see him out there, because you know all the hard work has been substantiated,” Harrington said.
All the little things that added up to a new outlook on life for Jacob.
“I just appreciated things so much more,” Gazzo said. “Walking outside, doing regular normal things like driving. I think that’s why it was a blessing.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better senior year.”