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Doug Robinson: After the fall

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27 2014 6:35 p.m. MST

Jeff Griffin helps his daughter Savanna, 10, with her times tables after school in their home in West Jordan on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

On the last day he would run and walk unencumbered, Jeff Griffin noticed that it was a beautiful summer morning, with only a few clouds in a blue sky. He noticed this as he stared at a barn that he had contracted to paint.

Griffin had started a painting business that summer so he could buy a motorcycle and pay for school. A native of North Logan, he was a student at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), where he was a backup receiver on the school’s unbeaten football team.

Griffin and his friend Doug assembled two layers of scaffolding that reached 20 feet high, then placed a ladder on top of that to reach the top of the barn. If that sounds like trouble, it was. Griffin climbed the ladder and was preparing to paint the barn, 40 feet above the ground, when he felt the ladder start to fall away from the barn. His stomach lurched. He would later compare that moment to the feeling you get when you lean back too far in a chair and instantly realize you’re going to fall backward and there is nothing that can be done to stop it.

The ladder leaned away from the barn. Time slowed. He leaped from the ladder and jammed his thumb into a one-inch gap between a set of doors at the top of the barn, dangling there as the ladder and scaffolding collapsed underneath him. It was a tenuous purchase and the muscles in his hand quickly gave out. As he was falling, he noticed a one-inch ledge under the doors and made a desperate grab for it. He managed to grip it momentarily, but his weight was too much for his fingers and they gave way. His fall resumed as he clawed wildly at the barn wall on the way down — later he would find splinters and paint chips jammed underneath his nails.

The ground rose up quickly, and he struck it feet first, legs straight. The tremendous force of the fall jammed his legs into his upper body, which was still coming down. As Griffin writes in his memoirs, “They both met at the L1 (first lumbar) vertebrae of my spine, causing it to explode into what I thought was a million pieces, like a china dish hitting the floor. The explosion ran down my legs, through my arms and out my body like an underground mine explosion.”

Pain rocketed through his body. He grabbed his legs. Doug rushed to his side. “I think I am paralyzed,” Griffin said.

As Griffin writes, “I wasn’t quite sure what to think at that moment when the dreaded question entered my mind: ‘What now?’ ”

* * * * * * *

That was nearly 19 years ago and the answer to that question has been answered in a remarkable way. Griffin, now 41 and paralyzed from the waist down, met a tall, pretty woman — an able-bodied woman — and they married 16 years ago. They have four children — “four little miracles,” Griffin calls them. He teaches seminary at Murray High. He travels around the world for the Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints on humanitarian missions to third-world countries. Oh, and he plays basketball for the Utah Wheelin’ Jazz, but that’s an understatement.

He’s a seven-time all-star in the NWBA (National Wheelchair Basketball Association), a collection of about 200 teams, some of which are roughly affiliated with local NBA teams. The wheelchair all-star game is part of the annual NBA All-Star Weekend, usually played on Thursday. In the most recent all-star game, held earlier this month in New Orleans, Griffin was named the game’s Most Valuable Player — for the fourth time. During festivities at the 2008 all-star game, Griffin set a world record for most free throws in a minute (25) by a wheelchair athlete.

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