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Second Serve: How the Men’s Tennis Team Came Back Against the Odds

“I’m grateful.”

Those were the words said by Cornell senior and tennis player Jason Luu. This is the same person who was involved in a total car wreck at the end of November, on ventilation for two weeks, and can’t play the sport he’s loved for years. It might seem odd. But Jason, and the three other tennis players involved in the crash do have a lot to be grateful for.

Three of the four involved are back playing tennis, competing, and even winning. The Cornell men’s tennis team had a chance at being one of the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament, although they ultimately missed out. It’s impressive in it’s own right, but it takes on a whole new meaning knowing what the team has been through.

On the afternoon of November 30th, on the way back from Virginia, Quoc-Daniel Nguyen was driving his car on Route 13, about an hour out from Ithaca. Senior Jason Luu was in the passenger seat, with Alex Sidney and Chris Vrabel in the row behind him. Nguyen hit a deer, swerved, and was t-boned by an oncoming vehicle. What happened next is a blur for all involved, and still remains a blur to this day. The full picture is probably lost to the wreckage.

Emergency responders had to saw off the doors to the wrecked car to rescue four  passengers.

Silviu Tanasoiu, the head coach of the men’s tennis team was in Florida when their car was t-boned. He was recruiting. Silviu found out later that night from Chris Vrabel’s father. He describes the next few days as nothing but “constant communication” with the university, team, parents, and hospitals. He did know two of his players, who are “like family” to him, lay in hospital beds in critical condition. Nothing else mattered to Silviu, as he wondered about the health of this players.

Chris Vrabel came to almost immediately, and was able to leave the wreckage by his own power. He doesn’t know exactly how he got out of the car, but thinks he climbed out a broken window. When witnesses saw Vrabel sitting on the side of the road, they assumed he wasn’t even a part of the accident. Vrabel, who was shaken up but still conscious, informed them he was part of the crash and he was taken to the hospital. He thinks the reason he didn’t sustain any major injuries was that he was asleep before the crash, his body relaxed. Although Chris describes himself as the luckiest one now, enjoying a lengthy winning streak on the tennis court, he still has 10 stitches and six staples in his head as residue of the crash.

Quoc, the driver, was OK soon after. Quoc was released from the hospital the next morning, and remained conscious the whole time. Quoc absconded with only some fractured ribs. His concern was when he heard his teammates, Jason and Alex, were both in critical condition.

Alex Sidney woke restrained in a hospital bed two days later, doctors rushing to his hospital bed after he labored to tear the ventilator out of his throat. It was like a movie scene, Sidney tearing his tubes out and trying to escape his restraints, as worried doctors and nurses urged him to stop and calm down. When he came to, he had no idea where he was. Or why. The doctors had to explain to him that he was involved in an accident. The time between the crash and waking up is totally black, empty. He describes the feeling of total shock. What happened? Sidney woke up to his family and doctors, but none of his teammates. He was taken to a different hospital from this three teammates as the paramedics wanted to treat him as fast as possible.

Alex had a long recovery ahead of him, but after he came to, the focus shifted to Jason. It was clear by now the three other members of crash would be OK one way or another. But Jason was still in a hospital bed, still in a coma, still in critical condition.

Jason and Alex’s family had been close for years. Their families have known each other since Alex was nine years old, both families bonding on the junior circuit. When the Sidney family heard about Jason, Alex said the news “broke her [Sidney’s mother] heart.”

The next ten days were filled with nothing but worry and preoccupation with Jason’s health. Updates were tough to come by, and progress was slow. It was especially tough on Alex. Because of his head injuries, he had to see a trauma specialist, one that was usually reserved to football players. The doctor prescribed a tough rehab assignment. No mental exertion. That meant no screens, no cell phones, no computers, and limited reading material. Alex had to rely on others for updates. Even after he was released, Alex was home and limited. He described it as a lot of sleeping, and “playing the kind of board games you play with your parents when you’re six. I could play Scrabble, but only with three letter words.”

Jason didn’t come out his coma until December 12th, two weeks after the impact. He’s grateful that he woke up at all. His recollection of the accident is a few seconds of swerving, screaming, the visage of a car up close, and passing out.

Coach Silviu Tanasoiu called the day Jason came out the “best day,” a euphoric day. For him, and everyone close to Jason and Alex it was two weeks of agony. “The agony of not knowing if one of our family members will survive or not was excruciating for all of us. This was the most agonizing moment of our young lives,” Silviu says, speaking for everyone who was close to the players. Not knowing what to expect next, trying to remain hopeful.

It was a community effort that helped pull Alex and Jason out of their comas — coaches, family, teammates and university employees. The whole team made constant team and show of support for their teammates, despite it falling in the middle of final exams. Two Deans visited the recovering players. Janet Shortall, Associate Dean of Students helped aid and manage the emergency response. The athletic director of Cornell made daily trips to Sayre, Pennsylvania to visit Jason, his family, and the other players affected by the accident. “The athletic department’s response along with the alumni was humbling,” Silviu says. “[Athletic Director] Andy Noel’s daily visits to support Jason, the other boys and their families combined with [faculty advisors] Don Greenberg and  Garrick Blalock visits and support made us all appreciate being part of Cornell’s family.”

Jason hears about how he fought, fought to come out of his coma. Now he says he’s not sure what that means. Jason was in what he called a long, “two week nightmare,” not fully conscious but still able to absorb some of his surrounding. “How exactly was I fighting?” Jason wonders now. He was hallucinating, in and out. Jason remembers words of encouragement from his teammates and family (even if his girlfriend’s was “corny”), only pieces of what happened.

Even if he can’t quite remember or place it, Jason must’ve fought heroically. His injuries are like a laundry list – a lacerated liver, two punctured lungs (one collapsed), a bruised kidney, six fractured ribs, a broken clavicle bone, 13 pints of blood received, an MCL sprain, and ACL damage. Then the hospital found a right ankle fracture on his way out, which they operated on five days after he woke up. The ankle and knee damage is what’s keeping him from running and playing currently. Luckily, Jason sustained no head injuries. Jason will make a full recovery and hit his one handed backhand like he once did.

As traumatic as it was, and still might be, the members of the crash are at peace. Jason says there’s no one to blame, “Accidents happen.” It’s easy to say, but their demeanor confirms it. They’re open about what happened, even joking about it now. It brought them closer together. They’re more grateful now. They practice harder. They appreciate harder.

Even though Jason is cheering on his team from the sidelines, it’s remarkable how normal everything seems. The normalcy was gradual, but steady. All four are back in classes, all caught up. The three seniors- Quoc, Alex, and Jason, all have their jobs lined up. The three competing are at full strength, or close enough to it, winning matches.

Silviu thinks about the accident every day. Looking back Silviu says, “This accident provided us with a whole new level of appreciation for life and the people we care so much for. It was a life altering perspective that brought us closer than ever.” He’s grateful and appreciative, just like everyone else, “We cherish every moment we have with them.” But he carries something extra. Silviu looks at the picture of wreckage every day. He can’t believe four young guys were in that car, and all four escaped with no long term injuries.  “To have these guys survive such an accident and to have them back in school and fully recovered is an absolute miracle,” he considers. He can’t believe they’re all playing tennis and competing for their school. “It’s special.” Sometimes returning to normal can feel special.


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