The Biggest Hit

By Kai R. McNamee
Ben M. Abercrombie '21 was ready for a successful career as a Harvard football player—until an entirely legal hit snapped his neck, compressing his spinal cord and essentially detaching his brain from the rest of his body.
By Eliya O. Smith and Devin B. Srivastava

HOOVER, Ala. — “When I dream, I still dream that I’m walking around and being normal.”

Six months after a freak accident in his first football game as a college athlete, Ben M. Abercrombie ’21 remains paralyzed from the neck down. Regardless of what he envisions in his sleep, Ben cannot walk; he cannot breathe without a ventilator. He can flex some muscles in his upper body, but not enough to move his arms. Even that is a recent development.

So, every morning, he wakes up reminded of his immobility. “And I just wait for somebody else to move me,” he says.

After a four-month stint recovering out-of-state, Ben is back in his native Alabama. Twice a week, he loads into the colossal white van parked in his suburban driveway and heads to Spain Rehabilitation Center, where he has begun to re-teach his body to carry out basic motions.

On a pleasant morning in early March, he goes with his parents, Sherri and Marty, per usual. (“Only one time did Sherri miss,” Marty says, “’cause we were having a refrigerator delivered.”) One of his nurses, Daisy M. Golden, comes along.

Golden watches the proceedings quietly, for the most part—but she interjects to explain the trying nature of a debilitating injury like Ben’s. After 35 years of nursing, she knows the long and arduous process of recovery can bring out the worst in people. “I see sides of people that nobody sees. You’d be surprised,” she says.

And Ben, she emphasizes, “is the nicest patient I’ve ever had.”

At the Spain Rehabilitation Center, Ben steers himself down the van’s built-in ramp and into the facility. Everyone greets the family as they make their way through the building.

Ben approaches his physical training with intense focus. He needs to improve, even incrementally, because he is going to walk someday. At least that’s what he says. The science disputes it, but this is his goal; and Ben, historically, has had immense success getting his body to do what he wants.

The training requires a lot of fussing from Ben’s therapists and parents. They readjust his clothes, stick electrode pads to his limbs, reconfigure his body. He doesn’t mind this so much, he explains, so long as they treat him like an adult. “Sometimes, a new nurse will walk in and talk to me like I’m a baby. Like, I’m not a baby,” he says. “I’m just stuck here.”

Marty and Sherri watch their son during a physical therapy session.
Marty and Sherri watch their son during a physical therapy session. By Kai R. McNamee

In fact, until the Sept. 16 hit, Ben was, by all accounts, an outstanding athlete. He was in peak physical fitness, with a passion for sports, for football, for defensive tackles. Big hits were his specialty. Ben craved wins, an attitude bred in his cozy Southern hometown, where football is the center of the tight-knit community.

Ben’s tenacity and work ethic primed him for a successful career as a Harvard football player–until an entirely legal hit snapped his neck, compressing his spinal cord and essentially detaching his brain from the rest of his body.

At physical therapy, Marty and Sherri sit close to Ben, staring attentively at his minuscule movements. Amy Lippy, an occupational therapist who takes care of him, moves his arms up and down.

“Is it burning?” she asks him.

“Yeah,” he answers.

“Is it burning in both hands?”

“It’s burning all over.”

Lippy later explains where this burning comes from: neuropathic pain, which feels like third degree burns, “like everything is on fire.”

At one point during the training, one of the other therapists remarks that a muscle in Ben’s arm is “getting some action,” meaning it’s activating on its own. Marty stands up and bursts into applause.

When Ben takes a break, Marty whispers an explanation. “This is kinda like–we used to watch Ben in athletic events,” he says, with a glimmer of a smile.

“This is what it’s about now.”


Hoover, Alabama is a sprawling, hilly suburb of 85,000, ten miles outside Birmingham. People smile and wave out of habit. An Uber driver cheerfully describes fender benders as “a nice way to meet new people.”

Don H. Hulin, Hoover High's principal.
Don H. Hulin, Hoover High's principal. By Kai R. McNamee

The town, according to Don H. Hulin, Hoover High’s principal, “centers around the school.”

Everyone is invested in the success of the high school, the largest in the state and Ben’s alma mater. “Community expectations are just extremely high,” he says, “and our kind of motto–unofficial motto–around here is, ‘Champions in all we do.’”

Hulin’s vocabulary is riddled with sports jargon, even when speaking about character and academics. He frames success as a binary–you win or you don’t. His office is crowded with plaques and trophies and photos, and he speaks glowingly about the achievements of his students.

Many of Hoover’s teams expect to play in state championships every year—and win.

“It’s all about a ring,” Hulin says. “They don’t wanna be the one that doesn’t get a state championship ring.”

No sport is as hallowed in Hoover as football.

Every fall Friday evening, the entire town congregates to watch teenage boys play the beloved game. The school’s stadium is too small for the enormous crowds, so the team plays home games at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, a mile and a half from campus. The stadium seats 10,000.

“Friday nights, with high school football–I mean it’s just, it’s a part of our society,” Marty says. He and Sherri met when he played football in high school in Pleasant Groves, a nearby town. “The cheerleaders, the band, just those crisp fall evenings coming out of a hot summer–a lot of good memories,” he recalls.

Not much has changed since Marty’s days on the field.

“Football is like a religion in Alabama,” says Josh S. Niblett, Hoover High’s head football coach. He speaks seated in his office in the massive athletic wing of the school.

“It’s like a way of life,” Niblett says.

Niblett’s desk is decorated with frames–mostly filled with his family, but there’s a photo of Ben crouched with a football right at the front. Niblett points at the frame and beams. “There’s not many people that make my desk, alright, so I put special people up there,” he says.

A mural of Ben M. Abercrombie '21 and his teammates covers a wall of his high school.
A mural of Ben M. Abercrombie '21 and his teammates covers a wall of his high school. By Kai R. McNamee

Down the hall, a mural immortalizes high-school Ben on the brick walls. He is grinning and fully upright, shoulder-to-shoulder with teammates.

A former University of Alabama player, Niblett remains in impeccable physical condition. Commanding and charismatic, he often speaks in aphorisms, which he delivers with the magnetic cadence of a preacher.

This makes sense, given he describes coaching as a “ministry.” He believes fervently in the virtue of the program.

Approximately 150 boys participate annually, a commitment that necessitates grueling physical and mental exertion—including weekly “mindset training” at 7:00 a.m. before school starts. The immediate goal is success on the field, but Niblett stresses broader life lessons, too.

“We’re trying to create them so when they take the trash out on Monday–because it’s trash day in Hoover on Monday–that they do it the greatest way that they could ever do it; when they brush their teeth in the morning, or they come into workouts; when they go into the classroom, and they have a homework assignment: it’s all about greatness,” he says.

Hoover High School coach Josh S. Niblett keeps a photograph of Ben on his desk.
Hoover High School coach Josh S. Niblett keeps a photograph of Ben on his desk. By Kai R. McNamee

In the ten years that he has run the program, he has become renowned for his holistic approach to coaching. Lippy describes Niblett as a “really huge celebrity in town.” She recalls a recent time her youngest son ran into Niblett.

“He came over and shook Brady’s hand,” she says, still awed.

Her older son is a freshman on the team, and she doesn’t know if he’ll ever play in a game. But, she says, “It’s a culture I want my kids involved in because it provides such structure and discipline and responsibility to other people besides just their family.”

The kind of esteem Niblett receives also extends to players. Once a year, “thousands of people” flock to the local mall, where the team signs autographs.

And then there are the legends. Like Ben.

“Even when we were younger, people always called him ‘Superman,’” Jayden T. Jordan, a high school football teammate, remembers.

Sherri recalls Ben’s early desire to play tackle football. After years of pestering, she and Marty finally allowed him to graduate from flag football in fourth grade. When he finished his first game, she remembers, he ran off the field abuzz. “‘That was awesome!’ Those were his first words about being able to just hit somebody.”

He’s relished tackling ever since.

As a high school star, he was a vicious competitor, says his longtime friend Drew K. Guffey. Every game, his teammates watched him “just tear people up all over the field.” But the Ben they knew off the field was humble and reserved.

“After the game, he’d walk off the field like nothing happened, you know? Like ‘What’s up guys, what’d I miss,’” Guffey says.

Ben was, according to Niblett, the ideal Hoover athlete. “He’s the kind of guy you’d want your daughter dating and the guy that you want leading your program, the guy that you want to be the face of your program,” he says.

Ben’s friends insist people viewed him this way even before the injury. “Whenever a tragedy happens to anybody,” reflects Guffey, “people only say good things about the person for obvious reasons. But with Ben, that’s the only thing you would say anyways.”


They called him “Badgercrombie.”

That was Ben’s locker room nickname at Harvard, bestowed by a senior player. It pays homage to Tyrann Matthieu, a Louisiana State player known for tenacity—despite his small size. Like Matthieu, Ben’s teammates claimed he resembled a badger, fearless and ferocious.

But the real significance of the moniker is the fact Ben had one at all.

“It’s very rare to me,” says Ryan Crawford, Ben’s former position coach, “for a freshman to have an impact to the point where, you know, he gets a cool nickname.” Freshmen nicknames, he says, are usually somewhat derogatory—“something that they’re kind of picking on you about.”

So having an honorific nickname like Ben’s is essentially “the highest level of respect that you can probably get as a freshman in a football locker room.”

A trophy shelf in the Abercrombie home.
A trophy shelf in the Abercrombie home. By Kai R. McNamee

It was a respect earned through ability and effort. Ben preferred to let his performance in practice speak for him. This attitude is unusual for a freshman, says Edward “Isaiah” Wingfield ’21, who plays the same position as Ben. Coming into their first season as college athletes, “The rest of us are talking each other up, talking ourselves up, talking trash. Ben is the guy in the back just waiting to strap on the pads.”

“So we really had no idea he was such a beast on the field, until he started playing,” Wingfield says.

As Ben reiterates in several interviews, he played football with a single goal: “I like to win.”

“I hate losing, like the feeling of losing, and I hate watching people win, especially on my field.”

A trophy shelf in the Abercrombie home in Hoover, Ala.
A trophy shelf in the Abercrombie home in Hoover, Ala. By Kai R. McNamee

This approach to athletics transformed Ben from an antsy flag football player to a varsity star at one of the top 10 high school football programs in the nation; and from there, to a Division I college recruit. So when he stepped into Harvard Stadium, he was ready.

Harvard Head Coach Tim Murphy says he was immediately struck by Ben’s maturity as a player: he “had a high football IQ, was very developed in terms of his skill set, and was a kid that you projected as one of those maybe 10 freshmen that could be on the travel squad early.”

Even outside of practice, Ben spent most of his limited free time obsessively analyzing film, studying his own technique and the Harvard team’s strategy, according to his freshman-year roommates.

By the time the first game of the season rolled around, Ben had earned his way onto the travel squad—a rare achievement for someone so green. “He was the only freshmen on the bus that first road game against URI on the defensive side of the ball,” Crawford says. “But he earned that.”

When Ben played football, Crawford remembers, “it was like a switch was flipped.”

Like in his first game of tackle football, like in state championship games: “Ben excelled once we put on the pads and got to hit. That was his big thing,” Wingfield says.

The rest of the team viewed his playstyle as something extraordinary. But for Ben, it came down to a matter of modest logic. He abided by a simple philosophy:

“It doesn’t hurt if you hit them harder than they hit you.”


Ben wasn’t supposed to be on the field when it happened.

He traveled to University of Rhode Island expecting mostly to play on special teams; during kickoffs, punt returns, and field goals. But then starting safety Zachary J. Miller ’19 went down with an injury. Minutes later, his replacement, Cole M. Thompson ’19, left the game for the same reason. At the start of the second quarter, a mere 15 minutes into the game, Coach Murphy called for his third-string safety: number 32.

Badgercrombie, the big hitter, was ready.

He shared parting words of encouragement with fellow freshman BJ Watson ’21. Watson remembers psyching Ben up: “I was just talking to Ben, like, literally the play before, right before he goes on the field. He was just like, ‘Oh, I just can’t wait to hit somebody; can’t wait to hit somebody.’”

And then Ben sprinted onto the field, legs pumping, muscles surging.

Down in Hoover, Marty and Sherri were having connectivity issues. Harvard’s games aren’t regularly broadcasted, but the Rhode Island team had organized a live stream that Marty proudly managed to hook up to the television.

The feed was spotty. It would freeze and then jerk ahead, freeze and jerk–Harvard makes a play–freeze, jerk–players switch out–freeze, jerk–there’s Ben! Ben, playing in his first game!–freeze, jerk–

Third and fifteen: Rhode Island has the ball. The quarterback takes the snap, and the stadium watches as the play develops–a post corner on the Harvard sideline to big-bodied receiver Marven Beauvais. The quarterback releases the ball, and Ben flies toward Beauvais from behind.

“Everybody knows on the sideline–energy is raised–it’s about to be a hit. Like, we know it’s coming. I’m like, ‘Oh, Ben is gonna kill this man,’” Watson recalls. “And then the sideline says, like, ‘Ooh’ before it even happens”–not because anything’s gone wrong, but in anticipation of the crunch that only a football hit can produce–“because everybody knows it’s about to be a hit.”

And it is. Coach Murphy remembers: “Ben just comes up, just like he did on the high school film, just like he did a thousand times in high school football, and just like he did in practice, and hits the kid in midair.”

Beauvais, the Rhode Island receiver, catches the ball for an 18-yard gain. First down, Rhode Island. But the Harvard sideline is cheering anyway: the Big Hitter has delivered.

For a moment, the team celebrates. And then someone notices something isn’t quite right.

One player isn’t sharing in the excitement. One crimson jersey isn’t getting up.

“He just fell like a ladder, like a… just sort of frozen. And it didn’t look catastrophic, it just looked odd,” Murphy says.

“That’s when we realized that something was wrong,” Watson says. “’Cause he wasn’t moving. So then everybody got silent.”

Back in Hoover, the footage streams clear and uninterrupted. The stillness on the screen is not a malfunction of technology. There are a thousand miles between the Abercrombies and the boy on the screen, but they yell at the television anyway. “Please move, please move,” they beg. The camera moves, but Ben does not.

On the field in Rhode Island, coaches shout for aid and oxygen and prayer. Paramedics sprint onto the field and cart Ben away. The players wait, heads down, confused. Everyone is whispering and players’ knees start digging uncomfortably into the turf and no one knows anything except that Ben is out.

In the hush that settles over the stadium, Crawford recalls, everyone is thinking the same thing. “Any time a player gets carried off on a stretcher, everybody knows that it… you know… it… it… potentially has a chance to be, um, you know…”

“The worst situation.”

The silence metastasizes. There is an empty field and two teams of players, minus one 180-pound freshman.

Still, three quarters remain.

So both teams tentatively line back up at the URI 49-yard line. As Ben’s prone body speeds toward the hospital, someone blows a whistle, and the game proceeds.

Next play: touchdown, Rhode Island.

For the rest of the game, Watson says, even in the locker room, “It was just, like, silent.”

The game began with the infectious buzz of a season opener, something more than a series of runs and passes. But, after the hit, “It was like we were just playing football at that point,” Watson says.

There was no such numbness in Hoover. As soon as the camera panned away from Ben’s body, Marty and Sherri propelled themselves into action. Within minutes, Marty was on the phone with a friend who attended the Rhode Island game in person and was able to put the Abercrombies in touch with the medical team. Sherri searched for flights.

And then, because Hoover is Hoover–close-knit and magnetic–and because Ben is Ben–Superman, the one you want your daughter to date–the Abercrombies called on their community for help.

Six months later, Sherri and Marty sit on the same couch in the same living room from which they watched the Sept. 16 game. Marty is wearing a Harvard t-shirt. He gestures to the TV, now cold and dark, as he describes the helplessness he and his wife felt watching Ben collapse so many miles away. “You can imagine what kind of hell that was,” he says.

His voice begins to shake as he recounts the first moment he had to say out loud, to another person, how terribly wrong the game had gone. “I called Chris DeGreen”—a Hoover minister and close friend—“and told him Ben was injured.”

Marty pauses, chest heaving. Through his tears: “I said, ‘We need you to pray immediately.’”

(Later, Marty apologizes for getting emotional. Even half a year later, “All that–that’s always right beneath the surface,” he says.)

He asked DeGreen to begin a “prayer chain.” By the end of the day, remembers Amy Lippy–Ben’s occupational therapist, who, at the time of the injury, had never met Ben–“we all knew.”

“We were in deep prayer,” Coach Niblett says. “Everybody started thinking about him… our community, word spreads quick.”

Downstairs, where the one-time basement has been converted to a wheelchair-friendly living space, Ben recounts his own version of the story.

“Oh, I remember everything,” he says. “I remember hitting the kid, and right after I hit him, I was like, ‘Well, I’m paralyzed.’ ’Cause I could tell. Like right when I hit him, I just knew.”

Ben couldn’t move anything. He watched his limbs fall around him in slow motion, as though disconnected from his body–“ghost arms and legs,” he calls them.

“It’s really hard to explain, but it was like, I saw my arms go up... like, in a misty vision, go up… and then my legs did the same. Like they were stretching, like stretching up.”

He remembers voices asking if he could feel this or that, but he couldn’t, and then he heard someone pronounce his neck broken.

“And then I was trying to talk. I was like—I opened my mouth and couldn’t breathe and I was like, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I was going in and out of consciousness and they were like, ‘Stay with me!’ and then I passed out.”


Spinal cord injuries like Ben’s are fairly rare in football. But his debilitating accident comes in the middle of a fraught national conversation about the future of the sport.

After all, the injury was “something that was not caused by poor technique on his part,” as Murphy says. The play was completely textbook. Ben played by the rules, the same way he had thousands of times before.

“I would like to have some experts look at it and, you know, kind of make a determination, just looking towards the future,” Marty says, of “how can the game be made safer.”

Marty isn’t the only one. Concern about the safety of football is at an all-time high, although most of the current dialogue revolves around concussions. This summer, a New York Times article examining permanent brain damage in 110 NFL players went viral.

“People are really becoming much more aware of the potential damage to the brain in particular, so you’re seeing it decline in ratings, NFL ratings, TV ratings; you’re seeing a decline in participation among high schools,” says Robert Hohler, a journalist who has covered sports for the Boston Globe since 2000.

Some changes have already been instituted. Two years ago, the NFL implemented a change to their kickoff rule in an attempt to decrease the number of runbacks, a particularly violent kind of collision. (The NCAA has proposed adopting a slightly different rule with the same intent for its 2018 season. It will discuss the proposals on April 13 of this year.) But the NFL rule change did not have quite the impact critics hoped for–ESPN’s statistical arm, FiveThirtyEight, determined the percentage of kickoff returns did not change significantly after the new rule was implemented. Whether the NCAA rule would have a significant effect is yet to be determined.

The Ivy League has gone further. In 2016, all eight coaches in the Ivy League voted to eliminate full-contact hitting from practices during the season, which the New York Times called “the most aggressive measure yet to combat growing concerns about brain trauma and other injuries in the sport.”

Some believe rehabilitating football will take more than rewriting (some of) the rules.

Reverend Jonathan L. Walton, Pusey Minister in Memorial Church and faculty adviser to the basketball team, thinks a lot about the game.

Walton is a central figure for some athletes at Harvard: he hosts athletes at his home weekly, travels with teams on road trips, and acts as a resource for them outside of the classroom. He played football in college, and says he “learned valuable lessons from football that continue to inform and animate my professional life.”

There is, he says, a compelling argument to be made for the cultural benefit of athletic programs in higher education.

Ben’s resident dean Jasmine Waddell agrees. “Athletes bring a lot to the community,” she says. “They bring leadership, they bring health, passion. They’re ambassadors.”

But given the medical risks of playing a game that demands physical collision, Walton and other football fans say they feel conflicted about the sport. “It’s worth having a moral debate around the ethics of the sport,” he says.

“We’re taught that the harder we can hit or the better we can take a hit means that we’re a real man.”

Safety concerns are inherent in a culture that sanctions this kind of mentality, Walton says.

“Why do so many older college athletes and pro athletes want to get back in the game even after they know they may have symptoms of a concussion; why do so many of us risk life and limb often on the football field?” Walton asks. “Because we’ve been conditioned at such an early age that that is what makes us strong, that’s what makes us winners, that’s how we become champions. And we have to do better than that. We owe our young men more than that.”

Walton advocates a revised approach to football–one that focuses on developing technique and strategy as opposed to unleashing aggression, so that the game can “not just become about the savage brutality of trying to see who can land the biggest hit on another.”

But Hohler says even fundamental changes to the game might not stymie swelling national trends.

“I think there’s a cultural shift going on. How many years or decades that may take, in what geographical shape it may take,” he isn’t sure. But this he believes: “It’s precipitating a shift, a cultural shift away from football.”

Hohler’s theory, however, does not seem to fully apply to the Abercrombies–the game paralyzed their son, and yet they still structure their weekends around it, still watch it religiously.

Ben, too, harbors an undiminished love for the sport. “I think football is still the great American sport, especially down south,” he says.

Ben says he doesn’t regret “anything,” not even the hit that took his mobility.

“Because I would’ve done the same thing,” he says. “I wouldn’t have changed my mind or taken the easy way out.”

The Abercrombies believe, fundamentally, in the game. Except that every once in a while, they watch plays with a slight pang.

“I used to love to see hard hits,” Marty says. “Now I don’t enjoy seeing the big hits anymore. When I see one I’m like, ‘Ooh’”–he contorts his face–“somebody could have got hurt.”

For Ben, the feeling is a little different. “Sometimes I see hits and I feel like, ‘How is he not hurt?’ How does he not hurt and I got hurt? Sometimes a hit will look a lot worse, and they’ll duck their heads or something.”

“And how is he not broken and I am?”


“Ben says he doesn’t remember it, but we remember it vividly: Ben opened his eyes and saw us, heard our voices,” Marty says.

The Abercrombies didn’t quite know what to expect when they sprinted into their son’s room in the Rhode Island Hospital, car left running directly in front of the entrance. They only knew he was alive.

“A lot of people that have as severe of spinal cord injuries as Ben don’t survive the first day,” Marty says. “Most spinal cord injuries are from car crashes,” where medical support is much further away. “If people didn’t get to him for 30 minutes, he could be dead.”

Under the diligent watch of his doctors and parents, Ben began to recover. Eventually–after a bout of pneumonia–he was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord recovery, where he stayed for three months. He returned home in mid-January.

At all stages, Ben had a cadre of visitors.

“I remember I walked in the room,” childhood friend Devin A. Cole says of his first visit to the hospital, “and I just saw him on the bed... and I just... I tried not to show my reaction too much ‘cause I knew that he was going through a lot. But it was really hard to hold back my emotion. It was just unreal.”

“But then he just looked up and said, ‘What’s up, Dev?’ And then it was—it felt normal, like normal Ben.”

Guffey, another old friend, says Ben is on his mind constantly. “I found myself a lot of times waking up this fall and being like, ‘I don’t wanna go to class, I don’t wanna go to practice, I’m tired,’ but I know that Ben would get up and go to class, Ben would love to get up to go to practice.”

After all, he reflects, “I know Ben did not plan on that day in September being his last day of walking.”

“You know,” he adds after a pause. “For a while.”

Like most of those close to Ben, Guffey approaches discussion of the future tentatively. Perhaps because Ben’s plans are so ambitious–in typical Badgercrombie fashion. He is committed to a full recovery, which means walking. “I don’t want to sit in this chair for the rest of my life.”

After all: “I really have nothing else to do.”

The odds are not in his favor. Dr. Ziv M. Williams, a professor in neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School, says that, “in cases where somebody does have a severe injury and they are still paralyzed within 48 to 72 hours after an injury, the chances of natural, spontaneous recovery is relatively low.” With an injury like Ben’s, “it’s relatively rare for them to regain function if they’re completely paralyzed.”

Marty, too, acknowledges that Ben’s chances of full mobility are statistically slim. “There’s no guarantee that he’ll get to that point,” he says. But he and Sherri are doggedly committed to providing him with the best chance for full recovery. “We’re gonna leave no stone unturned to figure out how we get there,” he says.

When Ben was still hospitalized, they spent practically all hours by his side. To pass the time, they researched every avenue of potential care they could find.

Even with a nurse in the home at all times, Marty sleeps next to his son every night. (“Sometimes he says my snoring is loud.”) And they’ve now completely reconfigured their lives to provide him with constant attention.

The rest of Hoover, too, is invested in Ben’s recovery.

Ben with family and friends at his home in Hoover, Ala.
Ben with family and friends at his home in Hoover, Ala. By Kai R. McNamee

Lippy reports that she handpicked Ben’s therapists at Spain Rehab Center and drops by the house sometimes to give him extra therapy. A local construction company offered to reconfigure the basement into a living space for Ben. Sherri’s neighbor’s sorority sister’s late husband’s old company, which is located in Florida, provided a residential elevator. And then there are the Hoover connections that led to the electric wheelchair, the MedVac flight to Atlanta, the fire pit, the twice-weekly home-cooked meal deliveries… A head-spinning network of support touches every aspect of Ben’s life.

The Abercrombies, in turn, hope Ben’s story can affect others. Marty believes people who follow his son’s recovery might be able to “reevaluate what’s really important in life without having to go through the traumatic situation that we’ve had to go through.”

His story has captured the sympathy of high-profile football figures like University of Alabama coach Nick Saban and NFL star Julio Jones, and back at Harvard, the entire athletic department is backing Ben in his fight. In December, the football team organized a fundraiser at a local restaurant to help raise money for The Benson M. Abercrombie ‘21 fund, which brought in almost $30,000. The Harvard Varsity Club established the fund to support Ben and future severely injured Harvard athletes.

“It’s pretty breathtaking,” Ben says, reflecting on the support.

If Ben makes it back to Cambridge, administrators say they are thrilled to welcome him.

“The exciting thing about Harvard is that we have the resources to be able to support him if he does want to come back,” Waddell, his resident dean, says. “We have accessible rooms, we have the resources to support him in any way that he would need support if he wants to come back.”

For now, such considerations are a ways off. Mostly, the Abercrombies are optimistic about Ben’s recovery and warm toward his supporters. But not a day goes by that they don’t feel Ben’s pain.

“I would give anything for it to be me in Ben’s place rather than him,” Marty says.

And he has a practical concern: “Obviously, life is busy, people go on with their lives.” He worries about the staying power of Ben’s story. “It’s our hope that he won’t be forgotten.”

Meanwhile, Ben is focused on recovery. His diligence is borne of frustration–the acute frustration of existing in a body that once performed spectacular feats of athleticism, now capable of a few twitches of the arm on a good day.

“I can’t move, and, like, at night, my dad’s snoring keeps me up, and I can’t move to tell him to get up. And he doesn’t wake up if you yell at him, or anything. And my voice isn’t very loud anymore, ’cause it used to be really loud. Like I can’t move to tell him to shut up.”

He can talk, though, an improvement from his initial condition. For the first several weeks after the big hit, Ben couldn’t speak because of tubes running down his throat. During that time, he says, he thought a lot about his current position and his future. “I’d brainstorm what I wanted out of life.”

What does he want?

“A horse farm,” he says without hesitation. “I definitely want to come back down south.” He and his old friend, Devin, want to work as financial managers for professional athletes. Ben will settle down and start a family.

And his kids–will they play football?

“Yeah, I think so. I think I’d let them play.” He pauses. “I’d definitely teach them the safety of it before.” A short, dry chuckle.

“But I think I’d let them play.”

—Magazine writer Eliya O. Smith can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @eliyasmith.

—Magazine writer Devin B. Srivastava can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @thebigsriv.

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