Doctors said he couldn’t walk despite a successful football career
By Helen Barrett
Eric Darnell knew his feet looked different from those of his family and friends. That fact became painfully clear during seventh grade when his art teacher told the students to draw a picture of their feet. Darnell drew a picture of his feet exactly as they looked, and received an F for his effort. “The art teacher said nobody’s feet looked like that,” Darnell said. “I received swats with a board for turning in such a bad assignment for not trying even though the drawing looked exactly like my feet really looked except my feet are covered with stitch marks from approximately 2,000 stitches.” Until recently, Darnell didn’t know the full story of why he cannot wiggle his toes and why they still feel like fire shooting through them. Instead of ankles that hinge, Darnell’s move more like ball joints. The painful topic was taboo in his immediate family although other family members knew the story well. During a visit with his last remaining uncle just prior to his death, Darnell learned the details of what his family referred to as “The Miracle of Woods County.”
In 1960, Darnell’s family returned to the home of his paternal grandparents – Jim and Opal Bliss – for a visit. The Bliss ranch, located in northwestern Woods County in the Lookout community, was a favorite place for 3 year old Eric and his 5 year old brother Jim.
On the fateful morning, Eric was playing cowboys vs. the bad guys. His father Victor let Jim ride with him on the large commercial riding mower to cut the grass.
The unthinkable happened...
Somehow, the mower ran over Eric and his stick horse, covering his legs up to his knees. “The blades cut from my feet to above my ankles for several minutes before they were able to shut off the lawnmower,” he said. One foot was severed, the other severely mangled. The nearest hospital was a couple of hours from the ranch. Because of the severe blood loss, the family feared the child would not survive the long ride. Eric’s mother Eileen wrapped his feet and legs in blankets, holding them until they reached the emergency room. When they arrived, both feet were black from the bleeding and mower clippings.
The emergency room staff began cleaning the mangled foot, disregarding the severed foot. An orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Richard Burgtorf came to assess the situation. His paternal grandmother, Vida Gates Darnell, met the family at the hospital. A devout Christian, Vida called for all the area churches she knew to begin praying for her grandson. The doctor informed the family that the severed foot could not be saved, and amputation of the other foot was a real probability. The staff focused on stopping the bleeding. “My grandmother told them there was no way she would let them amputate either foot without first trying to save them and reattach them,” Eric said. “She told the doctor to proceed with the surgery to stop the bleeding and to do his best to save both feet.” The end results would be ‘left in the good Lord’s hands.’
Doctors followed the grandmother’s command despite their own belief that the feet could not be saved. The surgery required more than 2,000 stitches. The staff again asked permission to amputate because they believed it impossible for the surgery to be successful. They warned of the significant problems that could arise if the tissues started dying.
Dr. Burgtorf made a deal with the grandmother – if the soles of the child’s feet were not pink by morning, they would amputate both of them. Reluctantly, Grandmother Darnell agreed. She insisted they place her grandson in a private room. She ordered all medical personnel out of the room. Grandma had her own treatment plan. She ordered her four grown sons, Henry, Victor, Donald and Orval to guard the door to the room. The four men, all burly World War II decorated veterans, took turns standing sentry at the door – two inside the room, two outside. No one was allowed entry without the grandmother’s permission. Eric’s uncle who stood guard inside the room related the events of that night. The grandmother knelt by the bed, holding each of the toddler’s bleeding feet in her hands. She placed the mangled feet to her forehead and prayed fervently. “She prayed all night long asking God to save my feet. She never even took a break,” Eric learned.
When the doctor made rounds the next morning, the grandmother allowed him to enter as long as he agreed to uphold their bargain. “It took forever to unwrap the bandages which were blood soaked because I was still bleeding,” Eric said. “When they finished taking off the bandages, the foot that had been completely severed was pink.” They began unwrapping the mangled foot and discovered it was also pink. “They started cheering and my Grandmother started praising the Lord,” Eric said. “Everyone said it was a miracle.”
For three years following the accident, Darnell’s mobility required a wheelchair or being carried. The family moved to Amarillo, Texas where his dad purchased a stock tank and it put it in the back yard. “Every morning he would get me out of bed and carry me to the back yard and put me in the stock tank. He would tell me to hold on and keep moving my legs and kicking my feet until my mother got up a few hours later and got me out of the tank,” he said. "Modern physical therapy was not available. Very few people knew that the tank represented “good ol’ country therapy.”
Doing the Impossible
In time, the family moved to Putnam City. Eric regained his ability to walk. Refusing to give in to his disability, he began successfully playing baseball and running track during his seventh grade year. During junior high, he met a coach who transformed his life. The coach required all his ‘skilled position players’ to be taped like linemen before games and scrimmages. “The first time he taped me, he had a lot of questions about my feet and ankles,” Eric said. The youth always taped over his scars in private claiming he had blisters. He coach commented on his bad ankles, which labeled him as the athlete with bad ankles throughout his junior high and senior high years. “Whenever I was taped, I had the lateral support I needed so I could play and dominate,” he said. “When I did not get taped, I was not as effective, but I could get by.”
Eric set many school records during the junior high years. During grades eight and nine, he played football, basketball and ran track during school and played baseball in the summers. When he started playing football in high school, the Assistant Head Coach continued taping Eric’s ankles per his previous coach’s instruction. “He never asked any questions as long as I covered the scars and was successful,” he said.
During high school, Darnell played both basketball and football. He and one other freshman were elevated to the varsity squad in ninth grade. He excelled in all sports, drawing the attention of the legendary Warren Spahn who scouted for the Tulsa Oilers. “Coach Spahn agreed to come to one of my games and watched me play the entire game,” Darnell said. “He said I was good enough at that time as a sophomore high school baseball player, to play for the Oilers and he wanted me to stay in touch with him.”
Because of conflicts between spring football practice and basketball schedules, Darnell opted to drop basketball and concentrate on football. In 1974, Darnell’s Putnam City team won their first Class 5A Championship title.
Oklahoma State University, Texas Tech, and all three military academies actively recruited Darnell to play for their college teams. “But I wanted to move on and try something different,” Darnell said. “I narrowed my choices to Dartmouth College, the University of New Hampshire and Springfield College, a small school in Massachusetts that played the other two schools every year.” He decided to attend Springfield College since it was a smaller school and the risk of his injuries being revealed was less. He also really wanted to go to school in New England so he could celebrate the country’s bicentennial where America’s history began. “If I wasn't already up there in school, I would not have had the time or the money to travel back east,” he said “I also had narrowed my desired course of study to an environmental field or something related to the ocean, like oceanography or marine biology.”
He played for Springfield College his freshman year. He also had to tape his own feet the best he could in order to play. “I used slip-on ankle sleeves that I purchased at the drug store and taped myself in my room,” he said. His academic and athletic schedules conflicted. His coaches told him his practices were mandatory and he needed to adjust his laboratory schedule for the sophomore year. His ultimate goal had been to attend Dartmouth and play football there.
In the summer of 1976, Darnell enrolled in summer school at Dartmouth and worked out with many of the athletes. He applied for a transfer to Dartmouth and was accepted. However, he returned to Springfield for another year with the intention of playing at Dartmouth his junior and senior years. At the end of his sophomore year, he met with his advisor who told him he could graduate after his junior year if he took a full load of classes. “As badly as I wanted to play football with all of my buddies at Dartmouth, I had a very real fear as to how I would be able to handle the situation with my feet and ankles,” he said.
He stayed at Springfield and decided if he wouldn’t be playing football, he would follow up with the Navy recruiter who accepted him into a special nuclear engineering program working with Admiral Rickover. He passed all the educational requirements. The only obstacle left was the required rigorous physical he’d been able to evade up to that point.
‘You Can’t Walk’
Navy doctors examined him head to toe. “They checked my feet; sent me for more x-rays; and after reviewing the x-rays, they concluded I could not walk because of the condition of my feet,” Darnell said. “They also concluded I would not have been able to walk since the accident.” His dream of joining the Navy was dashed despite the fact that he had played sports his entire life. “I was devastated and was not sure how to react to finding out I was not supposed to have been able to walk the last 20 years,” he said. Darnell finished college and now is a practicing attorney in El Paso, Texas. He hopes his story will inspire other youth who face seeming insurmountable obstacles to keep fighting for their dreams. Darnell’s success would not have happened without his grandmother’s prayers, his personal determination and amazing encounters along the way. Darnell is grateful for all those who knew his grandparents and prayed for the boy who became the “Woods County Miracle.”