Kent Waldrep dies aged 67; paralyzed athlete campaigned for disability rights and research

In the moments that followed, as Mr. Waldrep tried to gain as many yards as possible, three Alabama players came after him, one of whom caught him from behind.

“The next thing I remember is the grass coming my way and then a feeling that will always be with me,” said Mr. Kent. “The moment my head touched the artificial turf, I felt that I was upside down and then floating in a horizontal position. Then there was nothing. It was like my head had been amputated from the rest of my body.”

Mr. Waldrep had fractured his fifth cervical vertebra and was paralyzed from the neck down, although he later regained some use of his arms, hands and upper body.

Mr. Waldrep later became a nationally known advocate for spinal cord research and a driving force behind passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

“One day I’ll get out of here [wheelchair] and a lot of other people too,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1989. “There are days when I feel like I’m on the golf course. I can feel myself getting up and doing this. And I know that medical science is getting closer and closer to what is possible.”

Mr. Waldrep, 67, died on February 27 at a hospital in Natchitoches, La. He was hospitalized with pneumonia and developed lung failure, his wife Lynn Burgland Waldrep said. Mr. Waldrep also suffered a stroke in 2012.

Once a strapping athlete, at about 6 feet and 190 pounds, Mr. Waldrep has spent more than two-thirds of his life dependent on a wheelchair for mobility – and what he called an often defeatist medical profession in hopes of curbing his paralysis overcome.

For many years, he told Star-Telegram, he would replay the moments before his duel.

“I used to try to think why didn’t I cut in earlier? Why didn’t I reverse my field?”

“There’s no way to rationalize that,” he continued. “You can totally drive yourself insane if you engage with it.”

In the years after his injury, Mr. Waldrep pursued every therapy that promised improvement. Finding American doctors too pessimistic about his prospects, he sought unconventional treatment at the Polenov Neurosurgical Institute in what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He credited treatments such as enzyme injections, sessions in a hyperbaric chamber, and intensive physical therapy to help restore some sensation and movement in addition to bladder control.

He devoted the rest of his life to raising funds for research into spinal cord injury and nerve regeneration through organizations such as the Kent Waldrep National Paralysis Foundation in Dallas, raising tens of millions of dollars for the cause.

President Ronald Reagan appointed Mr. Waldrep to the National Council on the Handicapped (now the National Council on Disability), where he served as vice chairman.

Mr. Waldrep helped lobby for the passage of the ADA, the landmark law signed into law by President George HW Bush that outlaws discrimination based on disability and guarantees certain accommodations and accessibility.

Robert L. Burgdorf Jr., a law professor who authored an early draft of the bill, credited Mr. Waldrep with naming the bill “Americans with disabilities.” With that title, Mr. Waldrep wrote in a note“I think the proposed legislative changes can be marketed much more effectively.”

Mr. Waldrep also called for better protections for college athletes, whom he described as “at the mercy of their schools” if they were injured at play.

In 1993, the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission ruled that Mr. Waldrep, as a scholarship athlete, was effectively an employee of Texas Christian University and that he should be compensated for medical expenses resulting from the injury he sustained while playing football for school would have. The commission also awarded him a lifetime weekly payment of $70.

However, the university’s insurance carrier appealed, and in 1997 a Texas jury found that Mr. Waldrep was not an employee of TCU and therefore not eligible for industrial injury benefits. Mr. Waldrep appealed but lost.

“I want someone to come up and say we made a mistake with Kent Waldrep and we need to fix that,” Mr. Waldrep said told the New York Times in 1997. “But more importantly, I want the NCAA to admit they made a mistake all these years by not protecting the kids who make millions of dollars and make collegiate athletics possible.” It’s the right thing to do.”

Alvis Kent Waldrep Jr. was born on March 2, 1954 in Austin. His father was a banker and his mother a housewife.

As a high school student in Alvin, Texas, he was a top athlete. According to the AP, two dozen universities tried to recruit him with football, track and golf scholarships.

Mr. Waldrep wrote a book about his injury and subsequent activism, Fourth and Long, co-written with Susan Mary Malone and published in 1996.

He and Lynn Burgland Waldrep were married for 41 years. In addition to his wife of Natchitoches, survivors include two sons, Trey Waldrep of Allen, Texas and Charley Waldrep of Benton, LA; his mother, Denise Waldrep of Kemp, Texas; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Waldrep’s tragedy on the field in Birmingham led to an enduring friendship with Paul “Bear” Bryant, who was coaching the opposing Crimson Tide that day.

After his injury, the first face Mr. Waldrep saw when he regained consciousness in the hospital was Bryant’s. They stayed in contact until Bryant’s death in 1983, shortly after retiring from the University of Alabama, then with more wins than any other head coach in college football history.

“Apart from my father, he made the biggest impact on my life,” Mr. Waldrep told the Montgomery, Ala., Advertiser in 2009.

Both of Mr. Waldrep’s sons attended the University of Alabama on scholarships established by Bryant for his football players’ children.

“This is typical of how the school and the Bryant family have treated me since I was injured,” Mr. Waldrep said. “My family will be in debt our entire lives. We bleed crimson.”

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