Adam Taliaferro, Cornerback for Penn State

From the WebMD Archives

NAME: Adam Taliaferro
SPORT: College football
TEAM: Penn State Nittany Lions
POSITION: Cornerback
Bruised cervical spine


Curtis Williams, Washington (safety); Ryan Raymond, Washington State (offensive tackle).


Adam Taliaferro came to Penn State from Voorhees, N.J. He is 18, weights 183 pounds and is 5 feet, 10 inches tall. This is his freshman year at Penn State.


On Sept. 23, with less than two minutes left in an already disastrous away game at Ohio State, Taliaferro tried to tackle Ohio's 231-pound running back, Jerry Westbrooks, on Penn's 16-yard line. His head hit Westbrooks' knee and snapped backward, injuring the column of nerves that make up the spinal cord running down his neck. He was rushed to Ohio State University Medical Center. The game ended as Coach Joe Paterno's worst loss in 35 years, with Ohio State winning 45-6. As for Taliaferro, who doesn't remember getting injured, he could not move his legs or fingers.


All the activities in football -- running, tackling, catching, and the like -- require the brain to tell different parts of the body to move. These signals going from the brain to the muscles are called the motor signals, and the nerves that carry them are called motor nerves. These signals travel from the motor portions of the brain, down through the nerves in the spinal cord, and connect with other nerves that tell different muscle groups what to do. (It's similar to a call traveling through the phone lines until it connects to the right telephone, but instead of telephone poles supporting the cord, the body runs its cable through bones called vertebrae.) Taliaferro was lucky that he did not cut his spinal cord, which would have made it unlikely that signals from the brain would be able to reach the connector nerves below the injury. This leads to a paralysis of those portions of the body.

Taliaferro is now in a rehabilitation center close to his house. But it took more than a month of treatment just to get him this far. After the accident, he first had to be transported to the intensive care unit at the Ohio hospital in a way that prevented body movement, which can cause further injury. Doctors are learning, however, that even with the patient immobilized to prevent further damage, the body's own reactions to a damaged spinal cord actually can cause more damage to occur. After a spinal accident, much of the initial treatment focuses around lessening some of the body's chemical reactions to the injury. Large doses of steroids are often used to control the swelling that can damage the spinal nerves. Other medicines may be used to help the body shed some excess fluid, so it can't build up as much and continue to hurt the nerves.

Scientists are studying other chemicals that can be used to block the body's response to the injury, as well as whether keeping the patient cold might help.

Surgery also may be helpful. A day after Taliaferro's accident, a surgeon was able to reinforce the injury site in his neck with a metal pin and pieces of bone, in a procedure called spinal fusion. As Taliaferro recovered from surgery, he stayed a few more days in Ohio until he could return closer to home. It took a week for him to be able to move his left leg again. His hands came back next, followed by his right leg. His therapy at the rehabilitation center works his limbs, and with the help of a harness, he can move on a treadmill. He also can use his arms but still cannot use his fingers. His doctor has told The Associated Press that all the muscles needed to walk are working again.


Doctors suspect a spinal injury when a patient loses body sensation and the ability to move. After his accident, Taliaferro had sensation in his body but suffered some paralysis. These symptoms told doctors that Taliaferro had injured the cervical spine, which is the portion of spinal cord in the neck.

Physicians can get clues to tell them which nerves are involved according to what the patient can and can't move. They also can use technology like MRI, which uses a computer and magnetism to create images of the injury site.


Football helmets can offer some protection by preventing a bit of the snapping motion of the head and neck. But players need to be cautious when hurling themselves headfirst into their opponents, as well as know how to protect the head and neck when falling. The high impacts and quick falls that are common in football make spinal injury a possibility.


In time, Taliaferro may regain enough strength and movement to play football again. His doctor has said that he would advise him not to play anymore because he risks reinjuring himself. The teen says he just wants to be able to make it back to school again.


The fact that Taliaferro suffered this injury on the football field allowed him to receive immediate and appropriate medical treatment. An injury such as his could have been much worse if left untreated, even for a few hours. His doctors, therapists, parents, and fellow football players all are optimistic of his recovery. To help get there, Penn State and Ohio State raised $94,000 to help with the hospital expenses. He entered the rehabilitation center on Nov. 1, waving to supporters from his motorized wheelchair. He still has about a two-month stay ahead of him and will probably need more therapy after the experts say he is ready to go home.

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Medical Information provided by the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, a facility of the University of Alabama's Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.

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