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The Injury, the Road Back and an Unlikely Friendship With an NFL Coach

Jenny Vrentas
The Injury, the Road Back and an Unlikely Friendship With an NFL Coach

Christion Abercrombie doesn’t remember the day he and Mike Vrabel became friends. It was a Friday last October, and Vrabel spent their first conversation talking about the draft. Whenever you want to come in and watch film with us, Vrabel suggested, you can help us find some good linebackers to pick.

Linebacker was the position Abercrombie played for Tennessee State, and the one Vrabel played during his 14-year NFL playing career. That common ground was an easy jumping off point in a circumstance that was anything but. When Vrabel talked, the 20-year-old’s heart rate would spike, and that made the Titans head coach a bit nervous. But Abercrombie’s mom, Staci, reassured him, telling him to just keep talking as he normally would and holding her son’s hand. That was the only way he could communicate.

“He could squeeze my hand,” Vrabel recalls. “It was amazing. I was talking about football, and he would get excited.”

Abercrombie was then on a ventilator, had a trach tube in his throat to help him breathe and was also fighting pneumonia and a high fever. His head was swollen and bandaged after the emergency surgery he’d required to remove a piece of his skull, and he could only open one of his eyes. They haven't watched film together yet, but this weekend, Abercrombie will be helping Vrabel and the Titans pick a good player.

Sam Jordan/TSU Athletics

You may remember the headlines from last fall: A Tennessee State football player was in critical condition after suffering a head injury in a game against Vanderbilt. His coach, Rod Reed, has watched the game tape from that afternoon, what seems like “1,000 times” and still can’t pinpoint the play when it happened. But right before halftime, Abercrombie came off the field in the middle of a drive, complaining of a terrible headache. As he was walking back to the locker room with a team athletic trainer and a neurologist who had been stationed on the sideline, he collapsed.

His parents, Staci and Derrick, didn’t know that anything had happened until the second half was about to begin and they couldn’t find their son. That’s when they made eye contact with his roommate, running back Te’kendrick Roberson, who was trying to find them in the stands. When they got to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Christion was already getting a CT Scan. A few minutes later, doctors told his parents that he had suffered a concussion and a subdural hematoma—a blood vessel had burst in his brain, and blood had started to pool under his skull. He needed surgery immediately.

“It was very confusing to me,” Staci says. “I said, ‘Well, I didn’t see anything; how did it happen?’ I had a lot of questions, but it wasn’t time to ask a lot of questions because they were anxiously trying to care for him. Everything happened very quickly, so as a mom, I was very emotional and confused.”

Sam Jordan/TSU Athletics

Vrabel had seen the headlines, too. Vanderbilt’s stadium, and Tennessee State’s campus, are both just a few miles from the Titans’ headquarters. Hitting even closer to home was the fact that Abercrombie is close in age to Vrabel’s son, Tyler, a freshman offensive lineman at Boston College.

“It’s a young healthy kid playing college football that suffers a traumatic injury,” Vrabel says. “My son is three hours away by plane. You think about watching your son jogging off the field and then going down, and it would be a long way away to get to him, or to be with him.”

In the hours after Abercrombie’s injury, Staci and Derrick held vigil overnight in the hospital’s chapel. Reed and his wife joined them, praying first that he would make it through the surgery, and then through the night, and then the days and weeks ahead. Nothing was certain. His parents were stationed at that hospital for the next 2.5 weeks, either by their son’s side or in the waiting room when they couldn’t be in the ICU.

Thirteen days after Abercrombie collapsed, Vrabel paid a visit to the Vanderbilt Medical Center. He brought company: tight end Delanie Walker, who was sidelined for the season after fracturing his ankle in Week 1, and Robert Brazile, the Hall of Famer who was being inducted into the Titans/Oilers Ring of Honor that weekend. Brazile addressed the Titans after their Friday practice, and when he heard where Vrabel and Walker were headed, he asked to come along.

Vrabel gave Christion’s brother, Christopher, a pair of tickets to the Titans’ Oct. 14 game against the Ravens so he could get a break from the hospital for a few hours. He also brought a football autographed by Titans QB Marcus Mariota, with a message written on it in silver marker: “Christion, Stay Strong! We are all thinking about you!”

“He didn’t have to take the time out to come show us respect for my son,” Staci says. “He didn’t know us, and it’s not something that’s a part of his job. He has been in touch since then.”

Marcus Mariota had a message for Abercrombie on behalf of the Titans.

A few days after Vrabel’s visit, Abercrombie was released from the Vanderbilt hospital and transferred to the Shepherd Center, a facility focused on brain injury rehabilitation in Atlanta, just a short drive from the suburb where he grew up. Some patients don’t survive, or recover, from subdural hematomas, but Abercrombie began advancing through critical milestones: He began talking in late October; eating in November (starting with a Lorna Doone shortbread cookie); and walking in December. Four days before Christmas, he was able to return to his parents’ home and has been continuing his daily rehab through an outpatient program. Recently, he was able to run three miles.

In late January, Abercrombie received a FaceTime call from Mobile, Ala. During a break between interviewing draft prospects at the Senior Bowl, Vrabel and Titans GM Jon Robinson were checking in.

Abercrombie had a cranioplasty in early December, a second surgery to replace the piece of the skull that had been removed in the first emergency surgery. Vrabel couldn’t believe how much his swelling had gone down since he’d last seen him. “Look at you, man,” Vrabel told him. “You could get a helmet on that head now.”

On the other end of the call, Abercrombie’s face lit up. He didn’t remember their first meeting, but he’d remember this one.

“I can’t believe to this day that I am able to talk to him on the phone,” he says.

Inside Georgia Tech’s indoor practice facility, the Patriots were preparing for Super Bowl LIII. The game was in three days, and the team was practicing situational plays during a light afternoon walk-through. It’s not easy to gain access to a Patriots Super Bowl practice, so the group of visitors standing on the sideline was particularly noticeable: Christion Abercrombie and his family, guests of Mike Vrabel.

When the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl, Vrabel had an idea. The Abercrombies live only about 20 minutes from Georgia Tech, where Vrabel’s former team was practicing all week. He called Berj Najarian, Bill Belichick’s chief of staff, and explained that he wanted to do something nice for the family. Najarian took care of the rest.

After practice ended, Belichick walked over to the Abercrombies and spent a few minutes talking with them. They all posed for a photo, and if you didn’t know what Christion had been through, you wouldn’t have been able to tell just by looking at the smiling young man in a gray sweatsuit.

For Staci, the day was memorable for another reason: Abercrombie was able to recognize one of the Patriots’ athletic trainers, Jordan Moore, who used to work at the University of Illinois, where Abercrombie spent two years before transferring to Tennessee State. As he has worked to regain brain function, his memory is an important yardstick. “I was glad to know he identified someone he hadn’t seen in years,” Staci says. “That was part of the highlight of that day.”

Abercrombie walked into his old high school last December. | Screenshot via @HayleyMasonTV

Despite the fact that he was injured playing football, Abercrombie has wanted to stay close to the game during his recovery. He re-watches the Vanderbilt game every day, sometimes more than once. He was having one of his best games before he got hurt, recording five tackles in the first half, and each time he hears his name called or sees himself making a play, he gets excited. He returned to Nashville earlier this month for Tennessee State’s spring game, and stood on the sideline next to the defensive coordinator, following along with the playcalls.

“My dream is to play football again,” Abercrombie says, “but if I can't play football again, I want to work in the field in some sort of way, either a coach or trainer or management.”

Abercrombie is just three semesters away from completing his bachelor’s degree in sports management, and he will resume classes this summer, starting with an online history course. If that goes well, Staci says, he’ll consider returning to campus for the fall semester (the NCAA will honor his scholarship). One or both of his parents would come with him, because he still requires 24-hour custodial care. Whenever he returns to Nashville, he has an open invitation to the Titans facility.

“I want him to come in and be able to maybe find a career in football, because there a lot of other careers in football other than just playing—coaching, scouting, player development,” Vrabel says. “This is all he has probably known since he was [a kid]. I exhausted every opportunity I had to play football. I didn’t have it taken away from me at 21 years old.”

Just two miles from the stadium where Abercrombie collapsed last September, the NFL will be setting up its main draft stage in downtown Nashville. Each year, teams choose guest announcers for their late-round picks. How about Abercrombie, Vrabel suggested? It’s not the way Abercrombie envisioned being at the draft when he started playing football at age 5. But when Vrabel first met him in the ICU six months ago, his head then held together by staples, walking across the draft's stage to read the name of the Titans' fifth-round pick was also not something he envisioned Abercrombie doing.

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