It's been nearly a month since Stephen Wirthlin broke his neck in a freak automobile accident in Southern California.
The "recruited walk-on" football player to BYU for this fall was riding in the back seat of a Saturn sedan when the car, which was traveling too fast, hit a bump in the road and rolled over, out of control and off the pavement, crashing into a fence and trees.
At 3 a.m. that morning, his father, Richard, nephew of LDS apostle Joseph Wirthlin, talked to the paramedics at the emergency room.
One of the ambulance personnel told the father that the four boys were extremely lucky. "It's rare that people walk away from something like this," he said.
Stephen, who is a senior at Canyon High School in Canyon Country, Calif., home of BYU redshirt freshman J.J. DiLuigi, suffered a compression fracture of his fifth cervical vertebra. As the car flipped and came to rest and front air bags were deployed, Stephen found himself sitting by part of a tree limb. None of the four teens were ejected. All were wearing seat belts. Stephen has been in a neck brace ever since.
On Thursday, Stephen, with his neck brace, walked on the stage at his school's athletic awards assembly to a standing ovation. There, he was honored as Canyon High's Male Athlete of the Year.
An all-CIF football player, Stephen also excelled in soccer and ran the 100-, 200- and 400-meter events on his school's track team.
"I feel lucky to be alive," Stephen told the local newspaper, The Signal, which circulates in Santa Clara Valley.
One can only imagine how the sight of their son receiving that award hit the Wirthlins.
A fraction of a millimeter one way or another could have ended his life that April 26 night, or seriously
injured him to the point of never being able to walk again. Now, doctors told them this week, the brace may come off in two or three weeks.
"There was no damage to the spinal cord, he doesn't have any pain, he had a few bumps and bruises and he was walking around after the accident," said his father. "Once they took an X-ray and saw his neck, they immediately stopped him, made him lay down, cut off his clothes, stabilized his neck and admitted him to the hospital."
Football, however, will be put on the back burner for now. Stephen is restricted from contact sports for the rest of the year. He will grayshirt this fall at BYU, where he will turn 19 and go on an LDS Church mission after fall semester. "When he returns, he should be ready to try to make the team," said Richard.
"Bronco Mendenhall called and assistant Barry Lamb, who recruits the area, stopped in to visit, which meant a lot to Stephen."
Meanwhile, an older brother, Richard, is in his final six months of a mission in Moscow, Russia, and also plans to walk on to BYU's football team upon his return. He also earned All-CIF honors at Canyon High. Both are wide receiver/defensive back candidates.
The Wirthlin brothers have careers that sandwich that of DiLuigi. Richard played and graduated before DiLuigi had his breakout year, leading Canyon to a win in the 2006 California Bowl. Stephen came after.
The Wirthlin family follows a similar path of many families with Utah roots where loyalties are split and passions run high. Joseph Wirthlin, the LDS general authority, played for the University of Utah and is a well-documented Ute fan who got close to Urban Meyer during his short stay in Salt Lake City. Joseph Wirthlin's brother, Richard, father to Richard and grandfather to the accident victim Stephen, was a professor of economics at BYU before going into private practice. That side of the family is die-hard blue.
While it remains to be seen if the Wirthlin sons will make BYU's roster in years to come, their father sees any and all opportunities as a blessing."I appreciate, in a way you can only imagine, that I have sons whose top priority is to serve missions, then attend the greatest university in the world, BYU, and if it works out, to strap it on and play football. Playing for BYU would be a dream come true," said Richard.