When Sequatchie County opened its football season two weeks ago, Sam Montgomery paused and looked around. He saw the Indians and York Institute warming up, and when he turned he saw his sons in the stands, and he shook with emotion as tears rolled down his cheek.
"Being out there, seeing my sons in the stands -- it was an answered prayer," the Sequatchie assistant coach said.
There were days last March when Montgomery was touch and go after falling from a full-galloping mule when a girth strap broke.
His collarbone broke in four places, but that was a relatively easy fix. He had nine ribs broken -- off the spine -- and four of those punctured a lung. He had multiple bruising of almost every internal organ.
He remembers a trauma surgeon telling him upon his arrival at the hospital he had two hours to live; that same doctor later told him that his body had begun to shut down. He was rushed to Erlanger hospital, where physicians performed a surgical procedure they'd done only a couple of times previously.
"I remember when it happened, I knew I was hurt pretty bad," recalled Montgomery, who had resigned as Central's head coach before getting hurt. "When I hit the ground, it was a harder hit than I ever took playing football -- high school or college. I tried to get up. I couldn't see. I remember saying, 'Lord, if you're going to take me, please wait. I've got three boys to raise.'"
A seven-inch plate covers his collarbone, and three titanium plates covered by steel encase his ribcage, but the scars are almost healed, he's able to breathe as a 6-foot-3, 275-pound man should, and he's slowly regaining his strength.
Yet even once he'd passed from the possibility to the probability of surviving, problems remained. He was advised to apply for disability and told it was unlikely that he'd be able to return to his chosen profession.
"They said they didn't know if I could coach again, and I could understand it," Montgomery said. "When I got home I couldn't even walk from the living room to the kitchen to get a glass of water without help. At first they told me I wouldn't be able to and then if I could it would be January at the earliest. Even when they let me go home they told me I still wasn't out of the woods."
He went back to his surgeon on June 22.
"He said, 'I can't believe it, but you're already healed.' Coming back in three months was a miracle," Montgomery said. "It wasn't long after that, though, that I told the Lord I need a job to support my kids, and it wasn't an hour later than Chad [Barger, Sequatchie's head coach] called and offered me a job."
Even today, slightly more than five months after the accident, he still winces if he moves the wrong way or tries to move too quickly.
"I remember one day in practice one of the kids hit me. They all knew I'd been hurt and some of them saw the scars. The other coaches came over to check on me and here's this youngster apologizing. I said, 'Son, that's football.' But it meant a lot because there are some places where folks don't talk to you. I feel blessed and fortunate to be here."
He's even been back out among the mules he and his father-and-law raise, sell and trade, and the mule from which he was flung -- appropriately named Buck -- approached for a first-time visit since the accident.
"Some people love to garden; others play golf or go bowling. I like to fool with animals," Montgomery said. "But on that first visit Buck came up to me and stuck his nose under my shoulder, and he wouldn't let any of the other animals close to me.
"Sometimes I catch myself going back through what happened and I get really scared, so when I get up every morning and my feet hit the floor I say, 'Thank You, God.'"
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...