Last season ended with the Sumner High School football team reaching the Class 2A state quarterfinals, and Austin Gregg selected as a first-team, all-South Puget Sound League 2A wide receiver.
Agile, but not big, Gregg was a reliable pass-catcher. With the Spartans set to pass the football more in 2013, he was expected to be the primary target for quarterback Chase Torgison.
“He got bigger and faster and was almost unstoppable in summer league and team camps,” Sumner coach Keith Ross said. “Nobody could guard him.”
A near-fatal accident on Aug. 12 changed everything.
Involved in an all-terrain vehicle accident on vacation right before preseason camp, Gregg suffered 16 facial fractures, including severe damage to his cheek, jaw bones and eye socket.
While recovering in the hospital, Gregg was told by the surgeon he was “a quarter of an inch (away) from dying.” And playing football was out of the question.
But nearly six weeks after the accident, Gregg was back on the field. He caught a touchdown pass in the third-ranked Spartans’ 28-6 win over Franklin Pierce on Friday.
“It was like a dream,” said Mike Gregg, his father.
Just two months earlier, his son’s camping trip became a nightmare.
Austin Gregg went to Superior, Mont., with his friend, M.J. Erkers. They decide to explore some trails on Honda TRX 250 four-wheelers when Erkers crashed into a ditch. Volunteering to help Erkers out, Gregg jumped in and tried to drive the ATV through the upslope and back on level ground.
When Gregg accelerated, the ATV’s front end elevated, flipped over and came crashing back on top of him. On impact, Gregg’s helmet flew off, and the vehicle’s handlebars smashed his face.
Gregg’s left cheek bone protruded from his skin. His right cheek was shattered. Both his upper and lower jaw was broken as he and Erkers pushed the ATV off him.
Camp was four miles away. Thinking he might go into shock if he merely was a passenger, Gregg – with blood rushing down his face – chose to drive the other ATV back to camp with Erkers on the back.
After they returned, Erkers’ stepmother found a camper who agreed to drive Gregg to the nearest hospital an hour away. Once transported there, the teenager was air-lifted to St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.
Gregg’s parents, one of his younger brothers and girlfriend, Isabella Mazur, drove from Sumner to Missoula all night, arriving at the hospital at 5 a.m.
“I didn’t know if I was going to find my kid all mangled and deformed. I thought, ‘Is he going to make it? Is he going to live?’ ” said Mike Gregg, Austin’s father. “All I heard is his face had been crushed.”
They arrived just in time for Gregg’s reconstructive surgery. Doctors inserted 11 titanium plates into his face.
“After the surgery, that’s when all the pain hit me,” Gregg said. “I was just screaming and crying. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Gregg was bed-ridden for four days. A week earlier he was running routes on the practice field; now he was using all the energy he had just to walk.
“My legs were so heavy and I had to hold on to my heart monitor,” Gregg said. “Walking just felt so weird, like my legs were 100 pounds each.”
In a one-on-one meeting with his surgeon, Dr. Clark Taylor, Gregg asked how close he came to dying. The doctor shook his head and looked down before putting his thumb and index finger close together – a quarter-inch apart.
If the four-wheeler struck Gregg higher on his face, it would have punctured his temple, killing him instantly. If it had fallen on him much lower, it could have crushed his neck, possibly leaving him paralyzed.
His life spared, Gregg was told his junior season in football was over before it started. Recovery would take at least a year.
“In my head I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ I just kept praying,” Gregg said. “I was just sitting in that bed, tears running down my face; I can’t talk, can’t walk, can’t eat, (and) just super stressed out about what happened.”
Gregg returned home, sat out all of preseason camp – and missed the first two weeks of school because of how swollen his face was, and how much pain he was in.
It wasn’t until mid-September when Gregg showed up to one of Sumner’s practices, unannounced.
Seeing him, Ross yelled, “Our family, our wounded warrior!” Teammates gave him an ovation, sprinted to where Gregg stood and surrounded him. Many of them had not seen him since the accident.
“Austin is a leader,” receiver Triston Wedington said. “Seeing him walk onto the field was really inspiring for us. And I’m pretty sure that day was one of the best practices we’ve ever had.”
“I feel like that’s when things started to turn around for me,” Gregg said. “They were crowding me, giving me high-fives, saying ‘We need you back out there.’ I was like, ‘OK, it’s time to get back into the groove of things – time to get back to how it was before.’”
Because he suffered no brain or neck trauma – and not even a concussion – the only lingering damage was to his facial skeleton. And because of how fast he was healing up – and all the titanium-plate protection that was inserted during surgery – both Taylor and the family dentist cleared Gregg to resume football-related activity.
Gregg saw his first game action in Sumner’s 35-6 victory over Clover Park on Sept. 27.
And last week, he entered the game in the third series against Franklin Pierce. Right before halftime, Torgison saw Gregg streaking and threw long. The 47-yard touchdown connection was Gregg’s first catch of the season.
Gregg said he still has a way to go before he feels he is back to where he was before the accident. He will undergo surgeries on both eye sockets, his nose and lip in the spring.
But he has been told he will make his first start of the season against Orting on Friday.
“When you are a teenager, you think you are indestructible,” Ross said. “But when you see one of your brothers get back, after being so close to losing your life and losing your career and losing your chance to play high school sports – I think it was enlightening to the players. I think they have learned something from that – that you can’t take life or sports or school or family or anything for granted.”