Sixteen-year-old DJ Richardson is tall and muscular—obviously an athlete. No one meeting him today would likely know what he went through to be able to walk again.
DJ had just started high school, made it onto the football team and was one day shy of his 15th birthday when the accident happened. He and his family where boating on Lake Travis when DJ fell off his inner tube and hit his head on a boulder under the water’s surface. He fractured his skull and broke his neck.
DJ’s father, Dale, said a boating rescue team stabilized DJ and took him to a helicopter, which transported him to Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin. Dale and his wife, Marlene, called their daughter, DJ’s older sister, Madison, a student at the University of Missouri, and told her to take the next flight home.
Dale said after the family arrived at the hospital and doctors examined the extent of DJ’s injuries, the head neurosurgeon delivered some sobering news.
“[He said], ‘Your son’s a quadriplegic,’ … and that he would most likely be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life,” Dale said.
Marlene refused to believe that her son, an active basketball and football player, would be confined to a chair the rest of his life.
“We said, ‘We want him to walk out the door,’” Marlene said.
Over the next couple of days, DJ underwent multiple surgeries, including two that fused the front and back of his neck back together, Dale said. Afterwards, pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Luke Tomycz, who operated on DJ, was excited about how well the surgeries had gone, Dale said.
On the third or fourth day in the hospital, DJ started to make slight movements in his legs, Dale said.
“That just kept going,” he said.
Soon, DJ started to move his fingers, and eventually the feeling and movement in nearly all of his limbs returned, Dale said. The doctors then moved DJ from the intensive care unit to intermediate care, he said.
Dale said during those first days after the accident, the family was overwhelmed with support from the community. Marlene said neighbors brought meals over every day for months.
Dale said DJ’s youth pastor from The Journey Bible Fellowship Church held a prayer vigil at Brushy Creek Park, where more than 100 of DJ’s fellow students attended.
“We didn’t realize how loved this guy was by so many different people,” Dale said.
During DJ’s rehabilitation at Dell Children’s, members of his church as well as basketball and football coaches would visit and walk with him during physical therapy sessions, Dale said. But the process was not easy; DJ had to learn basic motor skills from scratch, including walking and talking, Dale said.
“I hated brushing my teeth, tying my shoes—it was too much work,” DJ said.
Community Creates Fundraiser
Around that time, Joe Duffield, the head basketball coach at Vista Ridge High School, and Brittany Podolak and Cindy Sneed, two mothers whose sons played sports with DJ, decided to create Hoops for Hope, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, to help raise funds for DJ’s treatment.
“We were all just devastated when DJ was in that accident,” Podolak said.
She said DJ, her son, Nick, and Sneed’s son, Tyler, had been playing basketball and football together since they were in sixth grade. DJ’s accident happened during football season, and Nick and DJ played the same position on the high school football team, she said.
“I was just thinking, ‘What can we do?” she said.
Podolak said when it appeared that DJ would be able to walk again, everyone knew it would be a long—and expensive—road to recovery. She said the tournament was created both to support the Richardsons and to foster excitement and engagement around a sport that DJ loves.
Duffield said although DJ had just started high school, he had participated in basketball camps in middle school, and Duffield had known him for years.
“It was really good to see the community rally around him,” Duffield said. “It was really like witnessing a miracle.”
Under the nonprofit Vista Ridge Athletic Booster Club, Podolak, Duffield, Sneed and the Vista Ridge boys basketball team hosted the first Hoops for Hope fundraiser April 30.
“We had a really good turnout,” Duffield said.
More than 100 elementary and middle school students participated, and the event saw many local business sponsors, he said. Podolak said it raised about $10,000, which was presented to the Richardsons at the annual basketball banquet in May.
Duffield, who is now head coach at Lake Highlands High School in the Dallas area, said he hopes Vista Ridge will hold another Hoops for Hope event to benefit a student next spring.
“I wasn’t always a believer in miracles,” Duffield said. “It’s really amazing to see what God has done and watch [DJ] recover.”
‘Just don’t quit’
On Nov. 10, 2015, after 6 1/2 weeks of rehabilitation, DJ walked out of Dell Children’s, Dale said.
Shortly after, the family found Ben Morgan at Texas Physical Therapy Specialists in Avery Ranch. Morgan helped DJ get his muscles back into shape. After the 2015 winter holiday break, DJ was back in school, Dale said.
Last spring, DJ began working with Jeff Szakonyi, an athletic trainer at Anytime Fitness, to build up DJ’s strength, conditioning and balance, Dale said. One night, DJ asked his father to shoot hoops with him the backyard of the family’s Avery Ranch home.
“I was so surprised at his strength,” Dale said. “I realized he [was]going to be able to play again.”
The now 16-year-old is playing basketball at Vista Ridge this season.
Looking back, DJ said there were times when he thought he would not make it through rehab—that the accident would be too hard to recover from. But after some time, he said he started to realize he was getting better.
“And you just kind of keep striving for it,” DJ said. “Just don’t quit.”