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Picking up the pieces and moving forward: Ex-C.F. star athlete looks forward following near-fatal accident

April 23, 2012

Cory Garabedian

CENTRAL FALLS — Cory Garabedian had exciting plans for his return to college this fall, that after years as a military police officer in the U.S. Army.
Back in September, he had talked with Kashif Montgomery, a dear childhood friend and teammate at Central Falls High School in 2005-06. Montgomery, fresh off playing a season of football at Virginia University of Lynchburg, told him he missed the gridiron “something fierce,” and reignited in him the desire to play football again.
Garabedian spoke with Adam Seale, an assistant coach for the Naval Prep Academy squad in Newport, and asked him to write a letter of recommendation to Dean College head coach Todd Vasey.
“Adam was always a big fan of mine,” Garabedian, 23, grinned last week. “He always told me that if I had been in the Navy, he would’ve made sure I was on his football team.”
Seale obliged, and Vasey e-mailed him back, asking Garabedian contact one of Vasey’s assistants, Eric Lee.
“Eric asked me if I had any high school tapes, but I told him I didn’t,” Garabedian indicated. “I did say I’d go up to Franklin and work out for him. He just said, ‘No, that’s alright. Just get enrolled for the January (2012) semester, and then we’ll take it step by step.’”
Garabedian did, and immediately began an intense workout regimen that included daily running and weightlifting sessions, and tossing the pigskin.
“My mom (Leslie) was ecstatic,” he revealed. “She thought it was a good way to keep me in college, and I was really motivated. I wanted to play quarterback, just like I did at C.F. That’s all I did; that’s all I know. I’ve been playing there since I was seven or eight for the Pawtucket Crusaders and the Central Falls Panthers.
“I also watched more college and pro football, paying attention to the little things I didn’t used to look for,” he added. “I was looking at the three-step and five-step drops, the pivots, the release point. I was doing everything I could to prepare for playing at Dean.”
That dream shattered during the early-morning hours of Christmas Eve. The driver of the 2011 Honda Accord, one in which Garabedian had been a back-seat passenger, lost control, and the vehicle crashed into the right-side Jersey barrier on Route 95 North, then rolled over at the Thurbers Avenue curve.
According to the police report, “the car rode the guardrail for approximately 150 feet, losing both doors on its right side and the frame, then did a 360-degree spin.” At that point, Garabedian was thrown 75 feet into a mean garden of thick, sharp, bamboo-like brush. He came mighty close to landing on train tracks apparently used to haul oil, coal and the like.
While authorities spoke with his three fellow occupants, none of whom were seriously injured, police needed over 30 minutes to find him. When they did, rescue personnel raced him to Rhode Island Hospital. Minutes after, a friend of Garabedian and operator Jose Serro, 25, called Leslie, who had been in her Elm Street kitchen baking Christmas cookies for her family.
“It was about 7:45 (a.m.), and the phone rang,” Leslie stated seriously. “She said, ‘It’s Cathy, and I’m at Rhode Island Hospital. Cory’s been in an accident, but they won’t let me in because I’m not a relative. Can you please come here?’
“I asked what happened, and she told me she thought Cory had a broken arm,” she continued. “It was about 8:30 when I parked the car. As I walked across the street, I just got this horrified feeling I had to get there fast. My younger son, Berto, (16) said, ‘Ma, why are you running?’ I just said, ‘I don’t know, but keep up with me!’
“I rushed into the ER and told the nurses I was looking for Cory Garabedian, and they immediately brought me to the surgery section. The surgeon asked me if I was the mother, and I said I was; he told me I needed to sign some papers because he was unable to, and that’s when I began screaming, ‘I want to see him!’
“He was so bloody, it looked as if he had been in a fire. He had blood in his eyes, and it was spurting out of his mouth. His right leg was covered with ice. The only thing that kept me sane, he kept saying, ‘Ma, the pain is unbearable!’ I asked the anesthesiologist to please give him some pain medication, but he said he didn’t want to because he was so weak.”
Six days later, surgeons amputated his right leg six inches below the knee; it was the same leg he would use to plant to fire aerials at his new receivers at Dean.
“I don’t remember anything about the accident, and I don’t remember who told me … (about the amputation),” he said, stopping short of the words he can’t bring himself to utter, at his home recently. “I don’t remember when it was; it didn’t sink in for awhile. It probably sunk in for the first time when I got home after therapy on Feb. 11.
“I still look down to see if it’s there; I still get phantom pains to this day. I’ll be laying there at night, and it feels like I still have it. It feels like there are needles running through my ankle and foot. I’ll try to wiggle it, even though it’s not there.
“I’m disappointed about the football, and also about the chance to go back into the military,” he added. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to serve overseas again … I don’t think about the future anymore. I just take it one day at a time. When you experience something like this, you don’t know if there will be a future, or what it holds, but what I have learned is you live life only once, and you never know when it’s going to be your time.
“I will do something with my life, that I know, but what? That’s still undecided.”

**

By the time he reached high school, everyone knew Garabedian had an exorbitant amount of athletic talent. That’s one of the reasons he opted to attend St. Raphael Academy instead of his hometown Central Falls High.
As a senior, he chose to transfer back to CFHS, one reason financial, the other he wanted to be back home and compete with his old pals.
His junior year at SRA, he had garnered All-Division first-team and All-State second-team laurels in football (quarterback/cornerback), and also earned All-Division status in basketball (2 guard). Once a Warrior, he did the same, and was an All-Division first-team recipient in baseball (pitcher).
In fact, he and Montgomery led C.F. to the Division IV Super Bowl championship over Narragansett, Garabedian the MVP.
After a playoff win at the R.I. Interscholastic League Basketball Championships in March 2006, first-year Community College of Rhode Island men’s coach Rick Harris approached him and said he liked the way he played, and to keep in touch.
“I wasn’t really recruited all year, and I was relieved that I might have a chance to play college basketball,” he said. “I ended up going for a half-semester, but I left in December 2006 because I barely got any playing time. I had chosen CCRI because it was local, and I knew some of the kids going there, but I wasn’t playing as much as I thought I should. I was still thinking about my success in high school. I wanted to relive some of those great memories. I thought I was better than a couple of guys at least.”
After leaving, he enrolled at Mitchell College in New London, Conn.
“The coach had always kept in touch with me, even at CCRI, and he told me the door would always be open for me,” he noted. “I became the ‘seventh man’ right away, and I was averaging six-eight points a game as the ‘two.’ I liked it, but I dropped out in May of ’07 because I wanted to enlist in the Army.
“The sports were good, but, academically, I realized that just wasn’t me. Going from C.F. to college was like a culture shock. I figured I wasn’t doing anything important in my life, so I figured, ‘Why not join the Army? It pays, and it’ll be a good experience for me.’”
Stated his mom: “I wasn’t happy. I wanted him to pursue other careers he was interested in. He had been taking criminal justice classes at CCRI and Mitchell, but he always found academics difficult. He thought he could fulfill his passions for law and policing through the Army, but all I could think of was the horror stories coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq, the car bombs, the violence. I thought he’d get hurt, or worse.”
Garabedian enlisted in May 2008, and shortly thereafter spent three months at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He was asked to choose a job in which he wanted to concentrate, and selected the military police.
“I thought that would help me in my civilian career someday; I always wanted to be a police officer,” he said. “My idol was Will Smith from the ‘Bad Boys’ movies. I liked the character, and thought he was cool. He was funny and serious at the same time.
With a laugh he added, “He also got all the girls.”
He stayed at Fort Leonard Wood for an additional three months of training with the 115th Military Police Company, and loved it.
“It was like the missing piece in my life,” he offered. “It sounds like being a kid, but I liked the idea of carrying a gun and being sent on missions, learning police concepts, being part of something bigger than you, fighting for a cause …”
In September, 2008, he and his company were sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to provide external security to that base, and spent an entire year there.
“The mission wasn’t all that exciting,” he chuckled. “We’d patrol the Cuban and American borderline in the mountains, just to make sure no refugees were crossing it, or that nobody from our side was trying to get out and experience the Cuban culture.
“We worked in the prison yards; it was a joint base, meaning we were working in conjunction with the Navy, Air Force and Marines. We’d stand in the towers looking out to see if anybody was trying to approach the camps. I had a ton of jobs, including keeping an eye on Taliban, Al Qaeda, Iraqi and Afghani prisoners.
“I loved being in the Army; it was a brotherhood bond I had never experienced before. It was different from high school football, in that you go to class, practice and games, and the only thing you have to worry about is, ‘Will he make that block for me?’ The bond in the Army is much tighter, (as) you’re dealing with protecting your buddies’ lives. You eat, sleep, drink, laugh and shower together. Everything is done together.”
In his “down” time, he played flag football, hoop and softball against other teams at Guantanamo Bay, and stood out among his compatriots.
“Some of the guys called me ‘Michael Vick,’ so I guess they thought I was pretty good,” he laughed. “They’d ask where I was from, and I’d say Rhode Island. They’d say, ‘You’re from New York?’ I guess they were thinking Long Island. You know who was there? Jayson Sanchez from C.F. We won a Super Bowl together with Mo (Jackson, the then-Warriors’ mentor).
“We’re like brothers now, really tight.”

**

Garabedian came home in September 2010 for monthly National Guard drills at Camp Fogarty in East Greenwich, but sorely missed the camaraderie of the Army.
“We saw attempted suicides, all sorts of things,” he explained. “One of my buddies just lost it, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, but it jammed. I just froze, but when he tried to fix it, a friend and I restrained him. We called higher-ups, and they came down and took care of it.”
He had saved a lot of money in the Army, so returned to CCRI to take business classes. He claimed he had switched majors from criminal justice because “those courses were brutal.
“When I was in Cuba, I did a lot of thinking about what I wanted to do when I got home, what I wanted to be,” he said. “I was thinking the military could be a lifelong career, but I was tired of always being told what to do. I started thinking what I could do without a boss hounding me all the time, and I figured business.”
He chose not to attend CCRI in September 2011, and claimed he was thrilled when he discovered the National Guard would deploy the 116th Military Police Co. to Afghanistan in the coming months.
“They were looking for volunteers to fill up their roster, so I signed up,” he said nonchalantly. “Like I said, I had fallen in love with the military. To experience what I had in three years was amazing. I loved what I did. Just like sports, I enjoyed what I did everyday – putting on a uniform, being a soldier, and doing something that was bigger than me, representing the United States.
“When I was home, I didn’t think I was doing anything important. That same month, I talked with ‘Chief’ (Montgomery), and he told me to consider football at Dean.”
On the morning of Dec. 23, a couple of friends asked him to go on a trip to New York City to shop, have some fun, and he acquiesced. He wanted to pick up some Christmas gifts for family members.
They left in that Honda Accord at about 9 a.m., and reached The Bronx by lunchtime. They went out to eat, shopped and then went out to a nightclub for drinks and dancing with some friends.
“That’s all I remember,” Garabedian mentioned. “I woke up two weeks later in Rhode Island Hospital. My friends told me what had happened. They thought I had broken my leg. They said we had fallen asleep on the way back, and one was in the (front) passenger seat. He woke up early morning and asked the driver if he wanted him to drive. He said, ‘No, I’m good.’ We were in Rhode Island at that point.
“He didn’t know how much longer passed, but he said he felt the car drift over, and thought the driver was just switching lanes, but he wasn’t,” he added, becoming more uncomfortable in his wheelchair. “(The operator) evidently had the car on cruise control at 70 mph, and that’s not good approaching the Thurbers Avenue curve.
“He told me after the car had come to a stop, everyone got out of the car and they called the cops. They came, so did an ambulance, and they asked, ‘Is this everybody?’ They said no, so the cops sent out a search party for me. From what I was told, I was ejected 75 feet in the air from the accident scene.”

**

After spending a few days in the hospital – Leslie never left –she witnessed how much pain her eldest boy was experiencing.
“His leg was poison to his body because it couldn’t be saved,” she insisted. “His primary surgeon, Dr. Roman Hayda, he had served for the U.S. in the Iraq War, kept saying, ‘You’ve got to take the leg NOW!’ but the younger surgeons wanted to save it.
“Three days passed, and Cory continued to have a high fever, low blood pressure and he couldn’t breathe on his own,” she continued. “He was basically a vegetable with a high fever, and he was still in an induced coma. After the accident, he was diagnosed with a broken neck, severed liver, broken right forearm, broken ribs and his leg looked like pastrami. They said some of his arm bones were still at the scene; they couldn’t find them.
“I was so upset it was like I became the owner of the hospital. Nobody got in my way, trust me! I was a very difficult person to deal with, and, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a shining moment for me. If anybody put his Johnny on, and it was too tight, I’d be all over them.”
She said she called in the “Holy Army” – that is, priests (they’re called “der hayrs,” pronounced “DEAD-highs”) from St. Vartanantz and St. Stsahmes Armenian Orthodox churches – to pray with her and for her son.
“I wasn’t crying; I was tough,” she said softly. “Some people would say, ‘You know Cory’s lucky to be alive?’ and my response was, ‘Don’t you dare say that! How is he lucky?’ That really irritated me.
“I can’t forgive (Serro),” she added. “I was told he fell asleep at the wheel, and how can somebody do that? He took a piece from my child, not directly, but he did, and I’ll always be reminded of that. I’ll never wish ill harm on anyone, including him. In fact, something good has come out of this.
“I’ve renewed my faith in God. Some people would lose it; I got mine back. I believed God was the only thing I had left to save my son. They took his leg on Dec. 29, but he’s still here, and I’m so thankful.
“Another great thing came out of it; he inspired me to take up writing again. I gave it up when I had kids. I was writing editorials all over the place, and I used an alias. We talked about it, and he said, ‘Ma, you have to go for it,’ and now I have 1,660 viewers. I’ve gotten hits from people all over the world. I write mostly about the Middle East, and it’s all because Cory asked me to start up again.”
Montgomery indicated he’s known Garabedian since age 10, and he was “sick” upon learning about the crash.
“I didn’t know what to think, what to do,” he said, voice cracking. “I didn’t know if he was going to make it or not, and I was sick. It was a reality check for me, that’s for sure. Life can be taken away so quickly. He wanted so badly to play at Dean, and then that happened. It’s crazy, man, but he’s handling it. He’s got a great head on his shoulders. Other people probably wouldn’t handle it that way, and some maybe would take their own life. I think I would.
“Now I see him four times a week, and we just talk about normal stuff – how my training is going (for an NFL tryout), who’s looking at me. I take him to New Jersey when I’m training with a quarterback my agent has. He’ll watch me, and I bring him just to get him out of the house, and because he’s such a close friend.
“He’s the same old Cory, always laughing. He hasn’t changed. If it was me, I’d be all sad and depressed, but not him. That kid is so strong, mentally, physically, spiritually.”
Garabedian had a surprise visitor two weeks ago. State Sen. James Langevin had heard of Garabedian’s accident, and wanted to see how he was doing.
“He’s amazing!” he smiled. “I don’t know who told him, but – out of everything – what (Langevin) has taught me is I have to do what I want to do now, don’t let anything stand in my way of achieving my goals. I mean, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get a second chance. He told me I would, that’s why I’m here. We talked about all sorts of things. He told me if I ever needed anything, ‘Call me, please!’
“He told me how he had been hurt, that he had been at the police academy and one of his buddies was playing with a gun,” he added. “He said it fired, went through a locker then ricocheted, and the bullet landed in his neck. He’s now paralyzed with limited movement in his hands, but he kept striving for his goals.
“The tough part for me is I know I can do all of this (therapy) physically, but mentally, I’m still fighting it. Some days are better than others, but I’m going one day at a time. I’ll figure out how some time. I’m not there yet, but I will be.”

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