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One on One: Eddie Canales Helps Catastrophically Injured Athletes

Paul Steinbach

The first anniversary of the November 2001 night that saw his teenage son break his neck making a touchdown-saving tackle had just passed, and Eddie Canales could see that Chris, the all-state punter who had entertained multiple college scholarship offers, was shutting down - the realization that he would never get out of a wheelchair sinking in.

Photo of Eddie Canales, who was named a CNN Hero in 2011Photo of Eddie Canales, who was named a CNN Hero in 2011

The first anniversary of the November 2001 night that saw his teenage son break his neck while making a touchdown-saving tackle had just passed, and Eddie Canales could see that Chris, the all-state punter who had entertained multiple college scholarship offers, was shutting down - the realization that he would never get out of a wheelchair sinking in. Eddie, his son's round-the-clock caregiver, took the two hours needed to get Chris ready and drove him to a high school football championship game at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, where the two witnessed another athlete suffer a paralyzing spinal cord injury. "We need to help him," Chris told his father in the stands, and Gridiron Heroes, a nonprofit organization that provides moral and financial support to dozens of catastrophically injured high school athletes and their families in Texas and beyond, was born. Without corporate sponsorship (yet), Gridiron Heroes has raised enough funds to outfit homes with wheelchair ramps, purchase wheelchair-accessible vehicles for four families (a fifth will receive one this month) and cover the funeral expenses of two members who died. Paul Steinbach asked the elder Canales, who was named a CNN Hero earlier this year, about his own family's healing through philanthropy.

Q: What went through your mind when Chris proposed helping that first family?
A: It was just like, "Wow, this is what we're going to do." Many people go through life trying to figure out their purpose. It was like this was just put in front of us. Not only did we find that we could help these families, but it was also helping us cope with our own problems. We stopped thinking "Why us?" and just started moving on.

Q: How did you get the word out at first?
A: It wasn't easy. We weren't welcomed with open arms. There were times when I would try to pass out flyers at football games, and I would be escorted off the premises. This is an injury that the governing bodies of football really didn't want to bring to the forefront.

Q: Did they think you were anti-football?
A: I've never come out against football. In fact, I've come to appreciate what coaches instill in these young men: the never-quit attitude, the hard work and determination, the discipline that they need to overcome injury.

Q: Is there any guidance you can offer coaches?
A: Everybody will see the physical aspect of an injury, but very few understand the mental part of it. For a young man who, like Chris, had the potential to go to the next level, that first national signing day after the injury is very trying. There were a few college coaches who made sure that they sent somebody to come and talk to Chris, which helped his spirits. He wasn't forgotten.

Q: You inspired SMU coach June Jones to start a similar organization for injured college players. How did that make you feel?
A: June has a big heart. If it hadn't been for him, we might not even be here today. We were down to our last dollars, he wrote us a check for $45,000, and we haven't looked back. Even though we keep adding to our family of Gridiron Heroes, we've been able to stay above water to do more for our kids and families. It's taken us some years, but now the coaches understand who we are and what we're about. They see a need for what we do.

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