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Greg DeVillers / Forum Communications Co., Published December 25 2010

After near-fatal car accident, Hillsboro's Waters works his way back onto the basketball court

Hillsboro, N.D. - The old Jake Waters was an explosive player on the basketball court.

Waters was a shooter with 3-point range. His ball-handling skills and athleticism gave him the ability to burst to the basket. And he had the court sense to be a playmaker.

That was a year ago. Now Waters is happy to set picks, defend and get an occasional basket.

“I do miss playing like I used to,” the Hillsboro High School senior said. “I loved to score. I get frustrated when I try doing things like I used to, but can’t.

“But I’m just happy to be able to play again. I probably should be six feet under the ground now.”

Waters is back on the court after surviving a near-fatal one-car accident.

On Dec. 23, 2009, Waters was involved in a traumatic accident. For several weeks thereafter, Waters was unable to do the simplest of motor skills. Basketball? Before Waters could think about a return to the court, he had to re-learn things like how to talk and how to walk.

“For Jake just to be out there every day, running, practicing and playing, it’s absolutely amazing,” Hillsboro coach Elliot Rotvold said.

An icy mishap

The 2009-10 season started well for Waters. He was starting for the Burros, averaging 12 points in the first two games. One of those games was a win against a Cavalier team that would go on to win the Region 2 championship and finish third in the Class B state tournament last March.

Waters’ life changed dramatically on Dec. 23, however.

He was in Cooperstown visiting his then-girlfriend, Beth Jochim. The weather was clear when Waters left for his return trip to Hillsboro at approximately 5 p.m. But within five minutes, a heavy snowfall started. As Waters was driving up the slope on the east side of the Sheyenne River Valley, he lost control of his tan 2003 Ford Taurus.

“It didn’t feel icy, but I guess it must have been,” Waters said. “I don’t remember any of it. But I guess I fish-tailed and skidded off the left side of the road.”

Waters’ car hit a utility pole in the ditch, with the passenger’s side wrapping around the pole. Waters said his head apparently snapped to the left, then back to the right, hitting the right side of his head on the pole. Waters suffered no broken bones in the accident, but the impact of head against pole resulted in bleeding in his brain and a tear in the brain stem that attaches to the spinal cord.

“The spinal cord isn’t supposed to clot,” Waters said. “For some reason, though, mine did. That probably saved me.”

A farmer who saw the accident immediately reported it to authorities. Help arrived; the vehicle was cut open to remove the unconscious Waters, who was rushed by ambulance to a Fargo hospital. The early outlook wasn’t optimistic.

“Doctors told us there’s no reason Jake should have lived,” his father, Doug Waters, said. “That (brain stem) is the cruise control for the body. The heart, blood pressure, all the active parts of the body, are run by it.

“They told us if he made it, he could be in a nursing home for the rest of his life. They prepared us for the worst, because they don’t know a lot about what happens with brain injuries.”

However, “by Christmas, they told us Jake would live and, eventually, he’d probably be fine. It was probably the best Christmas we ever had,” Doug Waters said.

Road to recovery

Jake Waters has no memories of either the accident or what transpired in the hospital for about a week. The first thing he remembers after the accident is some relatives bringing a University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux blanket to him in the Fargo hospital.

He had no broken bones from the accident. The only visible signs were some cuts on his face, hands and arms from flying glass and a large bump on his head from where it hit the pole. But the motor skills were gone – Waters had to re-learn how to swallow, how to talk, how to walk, how to feed himself.

“At the time, the goal was for me to become independent, to be able to function on my own,” he said.

As the skills came back, Waters remembers the first conversation he had with his father.

“It was about when I could play basketball again,” Waters said. “There was no if to me.”

After about a month, Waters was able to leave the hospital and return to Hillsboro. In mid-February, he went to a home basketball game against Hatton-Northwood.

“My doctors told me not to go,” Waters said. “There’s no way I wasn’t going, though. I heard a lot of cheers when I went into the gym; I had to try hard to keep from crying. And I was so self-conscious, especially about not being able to play.”

The road back

At about the same time Waters was able to go watch a Burros game, he started to think about his comeback on the court.

The motor skills slowly were returning. Weight was an issue — he was at about 120 pounds, dropping 45 from his playing weight in December. In addition to his rehab sessions, Waters started going to a speed and strength camp. By summer, Waters was playing basketball in open-gym sessions.

“If my doctors had known about it, they probably wouldn’t have liked it,” Waters said. “I didn’t tell my mom (Jen) I was doing it until about the sixth time I went.”

Much to Waters’ disappointment, football was ruled out for him. But Waters was in the gym when basketball practice began in November.

“Elliot told me that he knew it wouldn’t be the same for me,” Waters said. “But if I worked my butt off, he said I would be rewarded. And I worked 10 times harder than I ever had. I knew I had to earn my spot back.”

Opening night wasn’t just another game for Waters. He was back in lineup, the final player recognized when starting lineups were announced in the pregame.

“That was the best night I’ve ever had,” said Waters, even though he was scoreless in the game. “The whole team surrounded me. I could hear the crowd. It was an accumulation of 11 months of recovery and rehabilitation, all rolled into that one night.”

Waters has come off the bench in the three games since the opener. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder is getting between five and 15 minutes of playing time per game. He’s scored eight points and has grabbed several rebounds.

“Jake was frustrated early in practices because things weren’t coming back to him,” Rotvold said. “The hand-eye coordination isn’t quite there yet. But we talked about his new role – coming off the bench, working hard on defense. And he’s kept a positive attitude. He works harder than anybody every day in practice.”

Today is Christmas. Thursday, however, was a celebration of a different kind. It was a year ago on Dec. 23 that Waters suffered the life-changing accident. He has a picture of the wrecked car on his cell phone as a daily reminder of what could have been.

“I shouldn’t be here,” Waters said, holding a crucifix he wears on a chain around his neck and looking upward. ”It’s a miracle. I’ll always celebrate Dec. 23 because it’s one more year I shouldn’t have had. I’ve been at the edge of not being here. I lost a lot of things, and I’ve gotten a lot of things back. I take nothing for granted anymore.”


DeVillers is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald