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Crippling injuries don't dim players' love of football

By Kathleen Toner, CNN
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Web extra: CNN Hero Eddie Canales
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eddie Canales' son was paralyzed playing high school football in 2001
  • Today, his nonprofit helps other teenagers who are also dealing with spinal cord injuries
  • CNN producer finds that despite their injuries, these athletes still love the game
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2011 CNN Heroes

Editor's note: CNN producer Kathleen Toner recently covered the story of CNN Hero Eddie Canales. Canales' son Chris was paralyzed during a high school football game in 2001. Today, Eddie's organization, Gridiron Heroes, supports high school football players who've sustained spinal cord injuries.

(CNN) -- As we approached Cowboys Stadium on the outskirts of Dallas in December, I knew we were in for quite an experience.

After all, football is almost a religion there. Fans of all ages were filling the huge stadium, not to see a professional game but to watch the state's high school football championships.

I met up with Eddie Canales, who was with his son Chris as well as several Gridiron Heroes and their families and caregivers. I could see right away that part of his mission was giving these young men a chance to have some fun. The atmosphere felt like a family reunion, with hugs, jokes and lots of football talk.

We looked like a small parade as we rolled into the stadium with five wheelchairs and a large entourage. We were escorted down to the posh club level right behind the sidelines. It was an incredible view of the massive stadium. An enormous high-definition TV hung from the ceiling. At seven stories high, it was said to be the largest television in the world.

We headed onto the field with my cameraman to do some filming. I'd been a bit worried about this moment. These young men's lives had been changed on the gridiron; would they feel strange about going back onto a football field? The answer was a resounding no -- everyone seemed excited to be on the spot where the 2011 Super Bowl would be played.

CNN Hero: Eddie Canales
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When we finished getting our shots, Canales and his group made their way to a front-row handicap-accessible section. As they settled back to watch the game, my cameraman and I got ready to shoot the start of it.

Face paint and homemade signs were everywhere. There were massive marching bands and hundreds of cheerleaders and majorettes. Each team had several coaches and a full complement of trainers and support staff. It was all of the "Friday Night Lights" spectacle I'd imagined and more. I paused for a moment to take it all in. After all, standing on a professional football field in front of thousands of fans isn't something very many people get a chance to do.

Canales and the Gridiron Heroes were thoroughly enjoying the game. Eddie fell into conversations with coaches and trainers who recognized him and wanted to talk about his work, while Chris and the other Gridiron Heroes watched and analyzed each play. Though they were now on the sidelines, it was clear that their life-changing injuries hadn't dimmed their love of the game.

In the middle of the third quarter, the announcer gave a shout-out to the group, and fans around the stadium applauded. Canales and the gang cheered to see themselves on the big screen TV. It was the first time they had received recognition at such a large event. Eddie was excited about the gesture of support from the "governing bodies" of Texas high school football.

The game ended, and we headed onto the field, which was swarmed with players, coaches, fans and the media. Eddie helped Chris maneuver his wheelchair over the turf. Coaches and staff from both sides shook their hands and posed for photos with them. The respect that the players and coaches had for Eddie and Chris was clear.

Growing up in Colorado, I'd been an avid Denver Broncos fan, but living in New York and busy with work, I hadn't followed football much in the past decade. Being at that game that day made me remember why I liked football, although watching it alongside Canales and his Gridiron Heroes was a powerful reminder of the game's risks.

This was one experience I'll certainly remember for a long time.

Read the full story on CNN Hero Eddie Canales:
Young football players injured, but not forgotten

 
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