WALLINGFORD — Luke O’Reardon and his mother Denise were en route to the Senior Night game of the 2019 Lyman Hall football season when the call came in.
The screen flashed the name of the doctor who had just ordered an MRI for a neck injury Luke had suffered a few weeks earlier.
Denise O’Reardon immediately pulled over.
“Everyone says that call that your life stops on a dime. There is — if you get that call — there is an unspeakable truth to that,” Denise recently recalled. “I couldn’t even think.”
She listened: Luke had to come in for emergency surgery. Two bones in his neck were dislocated and a third was fractured.
Luke’s neck was “basically floating.”
Months later, the doctor said most people with this injury wind up paralyzed from the neck down.
Before the full diagnosis, O’Reardon, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior linebacker and tight end called “Gronk Jr.” by opposing coaches, had played a game with the injury wearing a neck brace.
When that phone call arrived on Senior Night 2019, it marked the beginning of the end of O’Reardon’s promising football career.
At least as a player. After surgery and rehabilitation, O’Reardon was able to return to basketball this winter. He was a senior captain and All-Conference forward on the team that won the SCC Division II championship on Friday night against East Haven.
And, starting this fall, he’ll be a student assistant with the University of New England football program in Biddeford, Maine.
One career may have ended, but not a life.
“I never took a day off after my injury and, when I could move, I was never not trying to do something,” Luke said. “So, I think every day is just a gift. When you’re given the opportunity, you’ve got to take it, and if stuff goes bad, you’ve got to go look in the other direction and work as hard as you can.”
While Luke’s injury proved to be severe, it wasn’t initially deemed serious. He took a hit during a Nov. 1, 2019 game against Amity and briefly lost feeling in his right arm. His neck hurt. He did, however, walk off the field under his own power.
After the game, O’Reardon went to the emergency room. The doctors there told him it was a neck sprain and that he’d be OK in a few weeks.
O’Reardon went back to practice, though he did begin physical therapy because the pain didn’t subside.
The Trojans had a bye on Nov. 8. A week later, on Nov. 15, they returned to action against East Haven. No. 87 took the field.
“I played that full game with a neck brace on,” O’Reardon said. “I had a horse collar on because it was hurting so bad. It was hard to keep up.
“I didn’t practice the whole week after because it hurt so bad from the game on Friday. My trainer was like, ‘It should not be hurting this bad.’”
So O’Reardon went to the doctor again.
This time he got an X-ray, which revealed a “Clay Shoveler’s” fracture — an avulsion fracture in the vertebrae of the lower neck. It’s named after Australian clay miners who, during the 1930s, sometimes suffered them when the heavy clay they tossed over their shoulder stuck to their shovels and caused a sudden snap on the neck and back muscles.
According to medical web sites, Clay Shoveler’s fractures are relatively rare and can easily be confused with a cervical sprain or strain.
O’Reardon was told he could play through the injury, but before the Senior Night game, he still received an MRI “just in case.”
And then the phone call came.
“I was shocked when he told me that he was going in for emergency surgery,” Lyman Hall football head coach Bill Weyrauch said. “I was stunned, I was overwhelmed and I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
Though the injury put him on the sidelines, Luke’s passion for the game never wavered. Just days after his surgery, in which he had several rods and plates inserted in his neck and was sealed up with 17 staples, he attended the Thanksgiving Day game against Sheehan.
“He lived and breathed football,” Denise O’Reardon said. “He enjoyed the practices, the workouts, the game itself, prepping for the game. It was definitely what he was all about in a sports sense.”
Luke will remain involved with football as a student assistant at the University of New England. It’s not like he needs any crash course in this. In some respects, he was already coaching as a player.
“So, during football season, on Monday nights before we started practice, I used to sit downstairs and put it on my TV. I’d watch every game that the (opposing) teams played — maybe two and a half hours of film every night, ” Luke said. “I would take notes, send it to my team.
“I always wanted the first step. There’s a couple times where I (knew) the team so well and what plays they ran that I would make bets with my teammates on when I was going to get a pick, and I think two or three times I called it. One time they were going to throw over the middle, and I got a pickoff like three times.”
In addition to his immense passion and expertise within the game, O’Reardon is seen as a leader. He was named captain of both the football and basketball teams. Even during his junior season, when he couldn’t play, he was with the basketball team each day.
“He still was a captain for us on the basketball team,” head coach Rob Ruys said. “He was at every practice; he was at every game. He was on the bench cheering the team on. He was being an excellent leader even though he wasn’t able to play.
“That’s just the type of kid he is.”
Meanwhile, O’Reardon went to physical therapy. It took him roughly 5½ months to get back to full strength.
As a senior, he was back on the floor, helping lead the Trojans to their first-ever SCC tournament championship in basketball. His on-court play was valuable, but his attitude and personality are what stood out more.
“I always say, in any sport that he’s played, the way he conducts himself, he’s always a gentleman,” said Keith O’Reardon, Luke’s father. “He’s just a very attentive and a gentleman — looking behind you to open the door (or) hold the door for somebody.”
Denise O’Reardon is proud of her son’s demeanor after he suffered the injury.
“His positivity coming out of that accident is so commendable to me,” she said. “I think other people may not have been able to come out not angry or down on themselves, and he was (positive).
“He’s just a positive kid. He’s been able to make it a positive experience.”
It’s been over a year since the injury occurred. Luke O’Reardon won a championship playing basketball and is excited about his student coaching opportunity with the University of New England football program. He carries with him the lessons the injury taught.
“Nothing’s given to you; you’ve got to work for everything,” O’Reardon said. “When you work for something, sometimes life is not fair, and you got to push through everything.”