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Up off the mat: the recovery of Dale Lawrence

Published: Saturday, Sept. 5 2015 10:43 a.m. MDT

Former Wasatch High wrestler Dale Lawrence talks with assistant coach Bobby Salazar prior to the school's football game.     (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Former Wasatch High wrestler Dale Lawrence talks with assistant coach Bobby Salazar prior to the school's football game. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

HEBER CITY — In January, Dale Lawrence suffered a tragic wrestling accident while putting a move on his teammate during practice at Wasatch High School.

Hampered with a spinal cord injury so severe it was compared to the late Christopher Reeves' paraplegic condition, doctors weren't sure if the high school senior would ever move again from the neck down.

They were even uncertain if Lawrence would ever breathe on his own again.

In an emotional moment at his alma mater's football game Thursday night, Lawrence proudly did both.

Before kickoff, the teenager, who no longer requires a ventilator to breathe, held onto a walker and received assistance from an athletic trainer to lift himself out of his wheelchair. He then ceremoniously lit the "W" in the southeastern corner of Wasatch's stadium.

Paralyzed former Wasatch High School wrestler Dale Lawrence smiles while being  honored and stands briefly with assistance prior to the schools football game in Heber  Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Paralyzed former Wasatch High School wrestler Dale Lawrence smiles while being honored and stands briefly with assistance prior to the schools football game in Heber Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

For a young man who's nicknamed "Super Dale," this was one of his most super moments.

Fittingly, the touched crowd gave him a standing ovation.

The football team, including many of his former wrestling and football teammates, supportively chanted together, "Dale! Dale! Dale!"

"It's awesome," Lawrence, who has a scar on his neck where a tracheostomy tube used to go, said of his special night.

Awesome is also one way you could describe the progress Lawrence has made since his neck was seriously injured and his spine compressed in the cervical area.

"I think it's nothing short of a miracle," Wasatch principal Shawn Kelly said.

Paralyzed former Wasatch High wrestler Dale Lawrence smiles at the players prior to the school's football game.     (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Paralyzed former Wasatch High wrestler Dale Lawrence smiles at the players prior to the school's football game. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"He's amazed me a lot," his mother, Kelly Giles, added.

Lawrence's early medical prognosis was bleak.

The family was warned that he might be quadriplegic and that his lungs would permanently need a ventilator's assistance.

"They weren't even sure I was going to get any movement back at all," he said. "But I guess they were wrong."

He made sure of it.

Ever an optimist and a hard worker, Lawrence was determined to move again shortly after he regained consciousness on the wrestling mat and was informed of the gravity of his situation.

"I was sure I was going to get it back to begin with. I thought I would anyways," Lawrence said. "I think in a few months, hopefully, I'll be walking a little on my own — just a few steps at that, hopefully. Little by little."

Paralyzed former Wasatch High School wrestler Dale Lawrence smiles with a friend prior to the schools football game in Heber  Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011.  He was honored before the game and stood briefly. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Paralyzed former Wasatch High School wrestler Dale Lawrence smiles with a friend prior to the schools football game in Heber Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. He was honored before the game and stood briefly. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Lawrence was hospitalized for four months, but he still managed to graduate with the Class of 2011. Asked how he accomplished that, he said the principal helped him and flashed a smile while admitting, "I don't even know."

Lawrence does know more than most ever will about the rigors of physical therapy.

He spends several hours a day, Monday through Friday, working with therapists at Neuroworks and Willis Clyde Physical Therapy.

What started with stretching and range of motion exercises has progressed into muscle-strengthening activities and, incredibly, standing and moving with assistance.

A few months after his accident, his body started getting sensation back — first in his legs, then in his arms. Now he can move both arms. He can't move his right hand yet, but he has enough mobility in his left hand to wiggle fingers and steer himself around in his electric wheelchair.

Paralyzed former Wasatch High School wrestler Dale Lawrence smiles after leaving the field prior to the schools football game in Heber  Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011.  He was honored before the game and stood briefly. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Paralyzed former Wasatch High School wrestler Dale Lawrence smiles after leaving the field prior to the schools football game in Heber Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. He was honored before the game and stood briefly. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"I can move around pretty good," he said.

Asked what keeps him going, Lawrence didn't hesitate in his response: "The thought of just being able to walk again." And, he added while chuckling, "Hopefully getting out of the house away from Mom."

Not having home health care workers constantly follow him around will be nice, too.

Lawrence made an exciting breakthrough in August when he was able to stand up with assistance. He's also taken steps with the help of his therapists.

"I thought that was a huge stepping stone," he said.

Lawrence has focused his efforts on making the next step forward on his own. Soon, he hopes.

Considering how he's impressed doubters, it's unlikely anybody will tell him he can't.

 Park City's Hunter Butler runs for a touchdown against Wasatch's Copper Ballstaedt during prep action in Heber  Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Park City's Hunter Butler runs for a touchdown against Wasatch's Copper Ballstaedt during prep action in Heber Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"They think I've made a lot more progress than they'd expect this fast," Lawrence said with pride in his voice. "They thought it's been way good."

Another recovery highlight came this summer. Lifted by spending time with friends, he worked up his lung capacity enough to blow the whistle while helping out his former football team at practices.

"It was a lot of fun," he said. "(I wanted) just to help out in any way I can."

When he regains more independence, Lawrence plans on going to college. He wants to study drafting and engineering. He also hopes to be able to play video games soon.

Lawrence's determination has added a ray of sunshine to a school that suffered a horrible loss this summer with the drowning of football star Kalem Franco.

 Park City's Hunter Butler carries against Wasatch's Jackson Straughan during prep action in Heber  Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Park City's Hunter Butler carries against Wasatch's Jackson Straughan during prep action in Heber Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

During the pregame ceremony, the P.A. announcer lauded him, saying, "Dale, with his unstoppable spirit, turned tragedy into inspiration."

"It really inspires me as a person and us as a student body," said Wasatch student body president Tristin Lowe shortly after a cheerful chat with Lawrence. "To overcome paralysis, it's a miracle. It's amazing."

This heartwarming story has another amazing angle.

The two competing football teams from neighboring Heber City and Park City — who together helped raise $4,000 of the $100,000 contributed to Lawrence's cause — tried to help another student-athlete suffering through a similar injury.

Just after his super moment on the 50-yard line, the crowd was asked to offer generous donations to help an injured South Summit football player. Junior linebacker Porter Hancock has been paralyzed for the past couple of weeks after suffering a spine injury.

Paralyzed former Wasatch High School wrestler Dale Lawrence is honored and  stands briefly with assistance prior to the schools football game in Heber  Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Paralyzed former Wasatch High School wrestler Dale Lawrence is honored and stands briefly with assistance prior to the schools football game in Heber Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"My heart went out to him, because I went through that," said Lawrence, whose mother works at the Park City Walmart with Hancock's mom. "I know what he's going through."

Disregard the final scoreboard that showed how Park City outscored Wasatch 40-18, the winner on the football field on this night was clearly Dale Lawrence.

Email: jody@desnews.com Twitter: DJJazzyJody

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