Porter Hancock finds new motivation
Though more than three years have passed since the play that changed Porter Hancock’s life, he still remembers it like it was yesterday.
It was in the third quarter of a game against Emery, in front of a hometown crowd, that a special-teams play gone wrong left the South Summit junior linebacker/running back paralyzed.
"I remember the day to a T," Hancock said. "It was a special-teams play — they were punting and the punter dropped the ball. When he dropped the ball, he couldn’t really do anything, so he had to pick it up and run it. I started to chase him and I hit him and that’s all she wrote, I guess."
The diagnosis — dislocated C5 and C6 vertebrae in his neck. A long rehab process awaited Hancock, who was uncertain if he’d ever walk again.
"Throughout my stay in the hospital, I was never really told, ‘Hey, you’re paralyzed,’" he said. "It never hit me until like a year after it happened because no one directly came out and said, ‘You might not be able to walk again.’ I just kind of rolled with the punches."
Though he said he would have given rehab his all regardless, he soon found a reason to try even harder to regain as much function in his arms as he could — wheelchair, or quad, rugby.
"After my accident, my therapist introduced me to it," he said. "I went to one of their practices and, since then, I was hooked."
A new set of rules
Wheelchair rugby is played by quadriplegic athletes on an indoor court with the same dimensions as a basketball court. Four athletes from each team are on the court at a time. Players must either bounce the ball or pass within 10 seconds while trying to advance the ball past the end line for a goal.
Players are given a number based on their ability level, with each team’s point total not to exceed eight at any time.
"You have your low points, which are normally .5, 1 or 1.5," Hancock said. "They have less ability — they don’t really have the functions of those in the 2-point range. They have a lot of triceps function and some abs and back. When you get all the way to 3.5 points, that’s mostly amputees — they have their full body function, they’re just missing limbs or something like that.
"A typical lineup is usually three twos and a one or a 1.5. It’s rare to use all eight points without an amputee."
Hancock currently competes at a lower point total, due to the location of his injury.
"I’m a 1 right now because I have some triceps function, but not a lot," he said. "I also have very little abdomen and back function."
A different game
Hancock was determined to compete again and saw wheelchair rugby as something that was as close to football as he could get.
"Once I figured out I could play a sport, especially a competitive sport like rugby, which is about as physical as it can get for people in wheelchairs, I’ve been hooked," he said.
First, though, he had to make sure his surgery was successful and he’d do no further damage to his neck on the rugby court.
"It was about two and a half years ago I went to my first practice," he said. "At the time, I couldn’t do much, so I just sat there and watched. I went a couple times that year and then, the year following, I actually got cleared to play."
Eventually, Hancock drew the attention of a team from Nevada.
"This past year, I really started to see improvements physically, so I started pushing harder and harder," he said. "A coach from Reno, Nevada, approached me and two of my buddies from here and asked us to play with their team this season."
Now he plays for the Sierra Storm, who play in tournaments all across the West.
"We’ve been to Sacramento, San Diego, Portland, Houston and we have sectionals in Boise in a couple weeks," he said.
Hancock has his sights set on something more than sectionals, however. Given how the team has been playing lately, he’d like to qualify for nationals in Louisville, Kentucky, on Easter weekend.
"We’ve definitely improved a lot since the beginning of the season," he said. "In our last three tournaments, we finished fourth and then second in the last two. We should do fairly well at sectionals and get a seat at nationals. That’s one of my goals — to be able to be part of a team that goes to nationals and also wins nationals."
For now, though, Hancock is just happy to be part of a team again. After having football taken away from him, he missed the camaraderie and togetherness sports provide.
"It was something I thought I’d lost forever," he said. "I loved the physicality of [football] and being part of a team, having to work together as a team — there’s nothing like the thrill of competition. [Wheelchair rugby] has definitely been a motivation-booster, helping me. I want to be as physically able as I can. Having that goal to be able to play at the highest level I can is motivation for me to keep working hard."
Though Hancock has thrown himself fully into wheelchair rugby, and though he still considers himself a football fan, he admitted it took him a while to be fully comfortable with the sport that caused his injury.
Coming to terms
No one would blame Hancock if he never wanted to watch, talk about or even think about football ever again. But he said thoughts like that never crossed his mind — quite the opposite, in fact.
"The day after my accident, as I was waking up and coming to after surgery, the first thing I said was, ‘There’s a Texas football game on and I need to be watching that game,’" Hancock said. "The whole college and NFL level, that was never really hard for me to watch."
However, he added, it was difficult to watch from the sidelines as the South Summit Wildcats played during his senior year.
"It was really watching my team as they went on without me — that’s what really struck home," he said. "I was a captain my senior year [the year after the accident], so I was there and had to watch it."
That took some getting used to, he admitted. Emotionally, it was tough for him to come to terms with being on the sidelines while his friends and teammates played on.
"Part of the time, I hated it," he said. "I hated being there and watching the people I grew up playing sports with and watching them play without me. Though I took it as they were playing without me for a while, deep down I knew they were playing for me. I knew I was going through their heads as much as they were going through mine."
As he’s watched this year’s senior class, who were freshmen when he was a junior, bring home back-to-back 2A state titles, Hancock said he’s been keeping up with the team and is happy for the players with whom he once shared a practice field.
"I think it was great," he said. "Their freshman year was my junior year, so I got to watch some of their freshman games. They really have a lot of talent. We were so close throughout my high school career, but we could just never capitalize on all the talent we had. They were finally able to do that, and to not only do it once, but twice, is an amazing accomplishment for them."
The road ahead
Hancock is currently attending Utah Valley University’s Wasatch campus, where he’s studying communications. He hopes, eventually, to speak for a living, both about sports and life in general.
"I want to do something in the sports field, like an announcer or something like that," he said. "I also really want to be a motivational speaker at some point in my life."
He already does some motivational speaking, including some talks in Salt Lake and at area churches. His message is one of determination and perseverance in the face of adversity.
"No matter the circumstances, there can always be good in what is bad," he said. "Never die easy, never give up. Take all the bad and turn it into good — that’s all you can really do. You can’t allow yourself to dwell on something negative for too long. If you do that, you’ll never aspire to be all that you are capable of."
Hancock certainly isn’t dwelling on the negative in his life. In fact, he hopes to someday be able to walk again.
"As all the technology advances, you can only be optimistic," he said. "Through technological advancements and all that they’re doing there, they’re getting closer and closer as the days go on. I’d be a perfect candidate for anything like that they may have that would be able to regenerate or reconnect the spinal cord. I know that I will walk again someday."
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