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Ben Abercrombie, the freshman defensive back who sustained a major cervical injury in a football game at Rhode Island, has regained partial feeling in his arms and legs.
On Sept. 16, Abercrombie suffered paralysis after colliding with a Rams wide receiver near the sideline. Medics sped Abercrombie to a Rhode Island hospital, where he remains in intensive care.
In the last two-and-a-half weeks, Abercrombie has undergone several rounds of surgery. His parents have flown from Hoover, Ala., to support the freshman. According to Harvard coach Tim Murphy, Abercrombie is fighting a number of pulmonary battles, including post-operative pneumonia. The injury affected not only his nervous system but also respiratory processes.
The next step for Abercrombie is to transfer from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility. He likely will move to the Atlanta-based Shepherd Center, which specializes in spinal injuries.
Abercombie’s long-term prognosis remains uncertain. Doctors maintain hope that he can regain full mobility, but this outcome is far from certain. Even the best-case scenario would involve extensive rehabilitation.
The partial recovery of feeling is a positive sign, however.
“Doctors certainly hope for the best,” Murphy said. “They have thousands of examples of people regaining full recovery. But the statistics are daunting as well.”
Accompanying the medical news was the announcement of the Benson M. Abercrombie ’21 Fund. Established by the Harvard Varsity Club, the initiative will offer financial assistance to the Abercrombie family and any future student-athlete who suffers a “severe or catastrophic” injury.
The fund was unveiled early Wednesday. Harvard Athletics and Friends of Harvard Football also provided support.
“There’s not one time in my 24 years at Harvard, and there’s not one time in my 31 years as a head coach, where I’ve been so overwhelmed with people [reaching out],” Murphy said. “I think that it speaks well of Harvard and people in general that so many people want to help in any way they can.”
Through the Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program, the NCAA provides assistance to student-athletes such as Abercrombie. Backed by the Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company, the program bankrolls medical care for individuals who have suffered major injuries while playing college sports.
Several caveats apply, though. The policy carries a $90,000 deductible. NCAA regulations require athletes to have proof of insurance that covers this dollar amount. In other words, preexisting policies must pay out close to $100,000 before the NCAA program kicks in.
“The policy is designed to pay after all other sources of insurance and benefits have been exhausted,” states a document with frequently asked questions.
Previously, the NCAA policy has come under fire because of the major deductible and lack of scholarship safeguards. Kyle Hardrick, a forward for the University of Oklahoma basketball team, became a poster child for this debate in 2011, when a knee injury derailed his career.
The Sooners revoked Hardrick’s scholarship, saddling him with unexpected tuition bills. Simultaneously, Oklahoma did not sign a medical hardship waiver that would have allowed Hardrick to transfer to another Division I program. The forward enrolled at a junior college.
Harvard does not offer athletic scholarships, so the question of tuition is not at play. The $90,000 deductible is. The Benson M. Abercrombie ’21 Fund will work in conjunction with the NCAA program. For injured athletes, the Harvard initiative may cover the deductible or fund expenses beyond the scope of the Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program.
“There’s not a typical procedure because these situations are so atypical,” Murphy said. “The bottom line is that until you go through a situation like this, with a catastrophically injured player, you don’t realize the enormous emotional, spiritual, and certainly financial costs on the family.”
As Abercrombie continues his recovery, Harvard football is three games into the season. The Crimson dropped the season opener at Rhode Island but reeled off two straight wins. Abercrombie remains at the front of many minds.
Last week, he received a call from Nick Saban, the football coach at the University of Alabama. Harvard players wore “BA” stickers during the Crimson’s home opener versus Brown, and several coaches sported patches with Abercrombie’s number.
“He’s really shown some great strength, and we’re all playing for him and for each other, so I think that’s really united our team,” said junior defensive tackle Richie Ryan.
“I can say for me, and I know a few other guys, it’s just really taking advantage of each day and each moment that you have on the field, realizing that at any point it can be all taken away from you,” added junior wide receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley. “Just giving 100 to everything I do.”
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