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Rewind things back eight years ago, and the last place Adam Taliaferro ever would have imagined himself was sitting among 180 fellow graduates, waiting to pick up his law degree Thursday.
But that just goes to show you how your life can change in an instant and no one knows that better than Taliaferro. After all, Taliaferro is the former PennState cornerback who eight years ago was wondering if he'd ever walk again, let alone have any type of a normal life after one fateful tackle. Now he has his J.D. degree from Rutgers School of Law-Camden.
"I always think things happen for a reason," Taliaferro said.
It takes a different kind of individual to turn a tragic story into a triumphant one and that's exactly what Taliaferro has done since Sept. 23, 2000. When he easily could have felt sorry for himself, when he easily could have hung his head and wondered "why me," he did just the opposite.
He pressed, he pushed and he persevered to not only become a philanthropist and a dual-degree holder, but more importantly a person anyone in any situation can look up to, including an 81-year old football coach.
"Adam has been an inspiration to everyone at our university and many others," said PennState coach Joe Paterno. "He is courageous, dedicated and an example of being able to overcome extreme adversity. He's a hero."
An unlikely hero, for sure.
Taliaferro wasn't the most celebrated recruit to come to PennState, but there certainly were some expectations placed on the New Jersey native. Paterno is old school and if you're a freshman, chances are you're not going to play much, if any, that first season. But Taliaferro got playing time right away, proving his worth only a month into the season. And the potential was evident immediately. It didn't take long for Taliaferro's name and the NFL to come up in the same sentence.
But in just his fifth collegiate game, all that promise and potential came to a sickening end.
It was the fourth quarter of a blowout loss in Columbus when Taliaferro's life changed forever. As he went to tackle OhioState running back Jerry Westbrooks with his helmet leading the way, Taliaferro fractured his fifth cervical vertebra, near the base of his neck. He lay motionless near the PennState sideline for what people described as an eternity as trainers surrounded him and teammates prayed on the periphery. Eventually he was taken by ambulance to OhioStateUniversityMedicalCenter and given the initial prognosis that he'd probably never walk again.
But it didn't take long for Taliaferro to defy the odds and surprise his doctors by walking five months after the injury. And almost a year after, Taliaferro found himself back on the football field, standing in front of 109,313 fans in Beaver Stadium before the Nittany Lions met No. 2 Miami.
It was Taliaferro's job that evening to lead the Nittany Lions out of the tunnel and onto the field. It was his way of showing everyone that he was going to be alright and a chance for the Penn State faithful to show him their love and appreciation for his remarkable recovery - and also get jacked up before a game against the eventual national champions.
As he was introduced, the crowd erupted watching him literally skip and bounce is way through the endzone to midfield and over to the sidelines. The ovation wouldn't stop and the emotions were unlike any other Taliaferro had felt before. To this day, he still can't put into words what those moments mean to him.
"I've tried to," Taliafero said. "I appreciate everything they've done for me and everything they've continued to do with me."
Taliaferro returned to class that fall and began working on his degree. Football, of course, was forever out of the question as he continued to rehab, but the game was definitely still a big part of his life. He stayed around the team and Paterno, who he's still close with to this day. And he did his best not to dwell on the incident.
"You'll drive yourself crazy if you think about that all the time," Taliaferro said.
When you couldn't blame the guy if he did, amazingly Taliaferro says he has no regrets about his injury. He doesn't play the `what if game', doesn't waste his time thinking about all the different scenarios, the would've, could've, should'ves. He honestly feels the injury was his fate.
"I always think things happen for a reason," Taliaferro said. "If it didn't happen on the football field, maybe it happens in a car accident and it could have been worse."
He was lucky that he was so close to the Penn State sideline that day and treated almost immediately at a nationally recognized spinal cord center. He was lucky that the steroids doctors administered to him when he arrived help stabilize his condition and played a big role in his quick recovery. He was lucky that all his medical care was paid for and he was lucky that his parents were there, pushing and supporting him throughout the whole process.
Back to a semblance of a normal life, eventually Taliaferro settled into his studies and decided that he'd concentrate on the law. An academic advisor suggested he look into it and he found out it appealed to him. He got his undergrad degree in 2005 and even interned at the NFL Players Association.
But in a perfect world, he'd be playing in the NFL right now.
"I only played in five games and everyone has a great high school career who plays Division I-A ball, but I just take pleasure just seeing guys I played with in the NFL now and I kind of live through them when I talk to my friends who are playing," Taliaferro said.
As for his immediate future, Taliaferro just needs to pass the bar exam. He wants to stay around the Philadelphia area and he's already lined up a job with the law firm Montgomery McCracken in the city starting in September. He's also got the Adam Taliaferro Foundation that he started along with his parents and high school football coach to help educate and assist spinal cord injury patients in their road to recovery.
He truly is the poster boy for his foundation. At this point in his life, Taliaferro carries almost no tangible signs of the injury. He can walk no problem and spends hours on the elliptical like millions of other Americans. He still can't run yet and chances are he probably won't ever. Doctors say you get everything you're going to get back after five years and that five year milestone passed a while ago.
"Hopefully I won't need to run from anybody," Taliaferro joked.
And besides, why run when you can walk tall? Taliaferro has achieved more than just about anyone could have ever imagined for him eight years ago. Including reaching hero status in the eyes of a living legend.