“It happened right here,” Dan Bitson said. “I went all the way back to that light.”
He pointed off in the distance. The wind blew and the sky was gray and Bitson, a senior wide receiver for Tulsa, stood by his black Chevy Blazer. He was in a parking lot off Eleventh Street, a few feet from the spot where he nearly lost his life in an auto accident two years ago.
It is a busy, four-lane street, and cars buzzed by on this blustery afternoon. Route 66 through Tulsa.
Six blocks up this road is Skelly Stadium, home of the Golden Hurricane, the spot where, on several occasions, Bitson has lost part of his soul.
He was an Associated Press All-American in December, 1989. One dream was a few days away, another on the horizon.
In 12 days, Tulsa would play Oregon in the Independence Bowl. And that would be only the start. After that, he would decide whether to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft or return to school for his senior season. He would be an early-round pick, NFL scouts told him.
Six blocks. A football stadium on one end, a car crumpled like an aluminum can on the other.
Six lousy blocks.
Bitson looked out onto Eleventh Street toward the small hill where the car came veering toward him over the center line at what police said was about 70 m.p.h.
“I thought I could see over that hill,” Bitson said.
He replays that thought as often as any of the catches leading up to his 3,300 receiving yards. It occurred to him more than once this season as he struggled to return after sitting out in 1990, and as he struggled to complete his chase of Howard Twilley’s school record for receiving yards. He only needed 173 yards to set the record. He finished 1991 with 129. No dice . . . bowl games don’t count.
I thought I could see over that hill.
He couldn’t. Or didn’t. It really doesn’t matter now. An unlicensed, uninsured 20-year-old male driver had an epileptic seizure, blacked out and smashed into Bitson’s Nissan Sentra.
It took 45 minutes to extricate Bitson from his car with the Jaws of Life. It happened so close to school that Tulsa Coach David Rader received a phone call almost immediately from someone who told him there had been an accident, a bad accident, and it looked like Bitson’s car.
Rader and an assistant hurried out of the office. When they arrived at the scene, Bitson was still in what was left of the car.
“Dan was unrecognizable,” Rader said.
Just hang on, Dan, Rader told him. Just hang on.
“I don’t know if he heard it or not,” Rader said.
Surgery that day lasted 10 hours. Bitson had two broken thighbones, a shattered right kneecap, a multiple fracture of the right wrist, severe nerve damage in his right foot, ligament and cartilage damage in both knees and lacerations to his face and tongue.
His right leg was shattered so badly that doctors couldn’t find one piece of bone, which they figure is still lodged somewhere in the muscle tissue.
He stayed in the hospital 49 days and lost 53 pounds.
As Bitson stood on Eleventh Street, he was wearing a green University of Oregon sweat shirt. Oregon, which defeated Tulsa in that Independence Bowl, 27-24, sent it to him while he was in the hospital.
He also received an autographed hat from John Elway and calls from Denver Bronco Coach Dan Reeves and former NFL stars Steve Largent and Drew Pearson, both of whom went to Tulsa.
“I received the works,” Bitson said. “It was really great. I received a lot of support.”
He ticks off details matter-of-factly. The accident occurred Dec. 4, 1989, at about 8 a.m. His right leg went through the steering wheel. His left was hanging out the door, which was ripped open. He ended up laying across the front seat, leaning on the passenger seat.
So many details. He tried to get out of his car but couldn’t. He remembers begging a woman to pull him out of the car. But she took one look at his broken body and passed out.
“When I saw her pass out,” he said, “I was just tired of it.”
Weary and racked by pain, Bitson said he decided to end it right there. He would start his car and ram it into the side of the nearest building. But he couldn’t move.Then he passed out.
He talks as if speaking about happier times in Tulsa, when he was growing up not too far from the stadium.
“I talk about it so much, it’s like my own counseling or therapy,” he said, shrugging.
He remembers pain, lots of pain. Skin grafts onto his right leg. Nurses cleaning the skin grafts twice a day.
“It hurt like heck.”
After laying in that hospital bed for so long, he remembers that simply getting up to go to the bathroom was dizzying. Play football again? He wasn’t even interested in walking.
“I was like, ‘Hey, man, leave me in the wheelchair. This is too much,’ ” Bitson said. “Let me stay in bed and be a hermit.”
There was no getting around therapy.
He met Kathryn Livingston of the Eastern Oklahoma Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Clinic, with whom he would spend every day from January through June, 1990. Then, they worked together three times a week through October.
He didn’t know how to swim, but he learned. Then he learned to walk again, then jog and, finally, run. It wasn’t smooth. At times, he wanted to physically fight Livingston. He cussed out his family.
And then, one day alone in his hospital room, he started to cry. He had cried before, but this was different.
“Kathryn came in and consoled me,” he said. “She took a special interest in me, one on one, as a friend-best friend type of relationship.
“That was the turning point.”
Said Livingston: “His intestinal fortitude was never damaged. We could repair the legs.”
Bitson’s mother told him there were things other than football. His father told him the accident was a setback, but there was nothing he couldn’t overcome. And his grandmother fed him.
“I was eating things I had never heard of before to put weight back on,” Bitson said.
Sometime after Bitson could walk well enough that he no longer needed crutches or a cane, he and Livingston attended a Tulsa football practice. Bitson was feeling better about himself, so good that he told Livingston he could beat her in a race. She said he couldn’t.
So after practice, with the team looking on, the two lined up at the 20 to run a 40-yard dash.
She beat him in two out of three races.
“To me, it felt like I was running real fast,” Bitson said.
Who would have expected to see him running again? Like his family, most of Bitson’s teammates had seen him at his worst. Toward the end of Bitson’s hospital stay, offensive lineman Jerry Ostroski offered to pick him up and carry him out of the hospital for some fresh air.
And on several occasions, linebacker Michael White lifted Bitson in and out of the pool, swam and lifted weights with him.
“I told Dan I was just happy he was alive,” White said. “I didn’t care if he ever stepped on a football field gain.”
Football? Originally, doctors had told Bitson he would never walk again. Then they told him he probably wouldn’t be able to run.
It was in the summer of 1990 that Bitson decided he would play football again.
“Being that the accident wasn’t on the field, someone had to prove to me that I couldn’t play,” he said. “I knew I had lost some speed. I was going to try to make up for it mentally. In the summer, I was out there with some guys, and seven out of 10 times, I was able to get open and catch the ball. I built a lot of confidence up.”
After weeks of reflection, he decided nothing could be worse than what he had experienced.
Yes, he decided, he would like to return to football.
“Dan is the most remarkable patient I’ve ever had,” said Livingston, who has been a physical therapist for four years. “I’ve never seen anybody push his body to the limit like that. And his injuries were by far worse than a lot I’ve seen.”
When he took the field for the 1991 season opener against Southwest Missouri State, the ovation lasted about 10 minutes. Bitson remembers seeing several teammates with tears in their eyes, and others at the game say many fans were crying.
“If I had any second thoughts about being out there, the crowd blocked them out,” Bitson said.
He never did regain his starting spot, and the season didn’t go as well as he would have liked. After having 1,138 yards receiving in 1988 and 1,425 in 1989, the 129 he had this season seemed minuscule in comparison. And he didn’t catch his only touchdown pass until the 10th game.
But, as Bitson had to re-learn, you walk before you run.
In Tulsa’s ninth game, at home against Louisville, he caught a pass and was knocked out of bounds at the three. Nearly everyone on the Tulsa bench, thinking it was a touchdown, sprinted after him.
“To see 55 guys on the team going down to congratulate him . . . it was one of the most touching things I have seen in football,” said Don Andersen, executive director of the Freedom Bowl, who was in Tulsa scouting that day.
The touchdown finally came against Ohio the next week. Tulsa had a big enough lead and quarterback T.J. Rubley was determined not to let the season end without a touchdown for Bitson.
“We walked into the huddle and T.J. said, ‘Are you going to catch it?’ ” Ostroski recalled. “Dan said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to catch it.’ It was just like old times.”
Bitson hasn’t stopped fighting. He is bitterly disappointed that he fell 43 yards short of Twilley’s school record. He thinks that Rader, after seeing him so beat up, has been hesitant to play him this season.
“If I got on my feet, I told myself that I was not going to let any person stop me from achieving what I want,” Bitson said. “But it has happened. People calling the plays have dictated whether or not I contributed to this team.”
Bitson will not stop fighting. Already, large chunks of his soul are scattered over that six-block stretch in Tulsa. He would like to leave one more piece Monday night in Anaheim, cap his career with an exclamation point.
“I’m expecting to either have a hell of a game or come out beat up and hurt,” he said.
Lives change; the game doesn’t.
“Inside of me is just waiting to explode,” he said.
It was getting late, and he climbed back into his truck. He pulled away slowly, down Eleventh Street, toward the stadium, to a place where he could see over that hill.