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Resolute Wade Fights Back From Debilitating Injury : Courage: Community rallies behind Canyon High coach, gaining after auto accident left him paralyzed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Chuck Wade pondered a question, he reached up with his left hand and scratched his head. It was a common reflex of uncommon magnitude.

Nine months ago Wade, an assistant coach in football and track and field at Canyon High, was paralyzed from the chest down in an auto accident. His spinal cord was nearly severed and he had little use of his arms, none of his hands.

The ensuing months brought a succession of operations, severe bed sores and a lawsuit against his insurance carrier. Plus the terror of experiencing the Jan. 17 earthquake from the fourth floor of the Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

Now here he is, bedridden but unbowed, accentuating comments with hand gestures, rubbing his bushy gray mustache, scratching an itch.

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Every mundane movement is the equivalent of Wade thrusting a fist into the air and shouting, “See this, World, I’m on my way back.”

Wade, 55, is more understated than all that, however. He is quietly resolute, believing he will someday walk, the pessimistic prognosis of doctors notwithstanding.

“What the doctors believe isn’t important,” he said, tapping his heart and grinning. “It’s what I believe that matters. The biggest thing is me.”

Wade is out of the hospital and staying in a residential home in Chatsworth that provides 24-hour care. He and a handful of other patients, including his roommate, David Wilson, son of comedian Flip Wilson, receive therapy designed to prepare them to return home.

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Home for Wade has long been Canyon Country, where he raised his daughter Jennifer, 25, and son Joey, 23, and went through a divorce a decade ago. He has taught mathematics at the high school for 22 years, and coached, at various times, boys’ and girls’ basketball, football and field events such as shotput and discus.

Patience, understanding and a personal touch, that’s the reputation Wade developed as a coach. A counselor with a whistle draped around his neck.

“Chuck has always been there for other people, his own children and other people’s children,” said Mike Kill, a teacher and coach at Canyon who frequently visits Wade. “He is especially good one-on-one, just talking to a kid, getting his priorities in order.”

The quiet pep talks Wade for so long gave to athletes now are targeted inward.

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“Preaching to young people that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it is something I did,” Wade said. “Positive thinking and becoming the best you can be, in the classroom and in athletics.

“With this,” he said, motioning to his legs that have no feeling, “I can’t let things get me down. I have to be positive.”

Goal-setting is crucial. He plans to attend Canyon football games this fall. He plans to return to teaching in 1995. He plans to return to his home away from home, the High Sierra, for fly fishing.

“The rivers and streams are waiting,” he said.

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Anything is possible. He’s already making out his own bills and writing letters. The right-handed Wade can write with either hand because his left was the first to gain movement and he couldn’t wait to get started.

Home itself is on the horizon as well. Wade said that within a month or so he will be back in Canyon Country, living with friend and coaching mate Augie Williams, who has prepared his home for Wade and his wheelchair.

“He’s built some ramps and widened some doors,” Wade said.

Positive thinking can lapse into stubbornness, however. Wade recently broke his right hip during a therapy session. It will take four to six weeks to heal but, not wanting to delay his return home, he chose not to mention the injury to Williams.

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“I didn’t know about the hip problem, but that’s OK,” said Williams, whose relentlessly cheery outlook matches that of his friend. “I’m just concerned with the happy part, getting him out of the wheelchair, making progress.”

Wade wards off any inkling of negativity. Allow it to creep into his consciousness even for a moment, and it might stay for good.

Those who visit him can only admire his spirit.

“He is such a big, beautiful man, full of life and energy,” said Harry Welch, the Canyon football coach from 1982 to 1993. “You see him and leave convinced he’s in a better situation than you are. He just wills himself to improve.”

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Community response after the accident was tremendous, no doubt fueled by Wade’s popularity. Former players visited him in large groups. Fund-raisers, such as A Buck for Chuck, were hugely successful.

Welch solicited generous donations from Raiders’ owner Al Davis and Rams’ Coach Chuck Knox, among others.

Track Coach Dave DeLong took pledges for each mile he rode in a bicycle race from Solvang to Santa Maria. The next day, DeLong again took pledges and ran in the L.A. Marathon.

“I had kids give me their lunch money every day for Chuck,” said Gary Lindberg, a Canyon teacher and coach who also rode in the bicycle race and assisted in the fund-raising.

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Wade, of course, feels indebted.

“I need to thank the community a lot more,” he said. “What a fantastic group of people.”

Some of Wade’s friends seem to have more difficulty coping with his plight than he does. Lindberg hasn’t visited Wade since March, despite coaching with Wade for many years. The pair frequently took their sons on fishing expeditions together.

“I’ve had a very difficult time going to see him,” Lindberg said. “I know Chuck a certain way, and . . .” His voice cracking through tears, Lindberg rattled off a list of personal hardships that have occupied his time.

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Wade wants only to throw his arms over Lindberg’s shoulders and share a laugh. That way, all the daily lifting of 10-pound barbells to strengthen his arms will have served a noble purpose.

“It’s tough on Gary,” Wade said, chuckling. “I’m not at all angry or disappointed in him. When I get out of here we’ll be up to the same old stuff. If he was in this position, it would be tough for me. He’s my good old bud.”

A trace of bitterness surfaces only when the arbitrary nature of the accident is mentioned. Wade was driving back to Canyon a little past 11 p.m. on Oct. 22, having dropped off the team manager at home after a football game at Burroughs High. A Volkswagen driven by a 17-year-old Canyon student barreled past him, catching his bumper and sending Wade’s Toyota 4-Runner tumbling four to six times.

“I was conscious, wondering what the heck was going on,” said Wade, who was wearing a seat belt. “Finally I hit a pole and stopped rolling. I didn’t really feel pain, but I couldn’t feel certain parts of my body.”

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Positive thinking or no, Wade has a stern message for young drivers.

“Kids have to learn, if you are in a car, take that seriously,” he said. “Cars are deadly weapons, and the person you hurt may not be yourself.”

Soon he brightens, however. Like a balloon, his spirit rises effortlessly. This is Chuck Wade’s true nature.

“I was spared,” he said. “I was lucky. It was God saying: ‘Wade, here’s a chance, a second life. See how you handle this.’ It is my responsibility to meet that challenge. I need to get back as close as possible to what I was before.”

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