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Last published at August 7, 2009 at 1:32 AM

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Redmond's Cory Mackay, a paralyzed WSU football player, works to walk again

Mackay fell asleep at the wheel and rolled his truck driving out of Pullman in May. Right now, he's without lower-body movement, even as his rehabilitation has progressed remarkably.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ten days after Cory Mackay's world was turned upside down, the evidence of his life-changing event was still strewn on a remote road off State Highway 26 in Adams County.

Windshield glass, shattered into pebble-sized pieces, dotted the road. Hunks of rubber moulding ripped from his 2005 Nissan Frontier pickup truck were scattered here and there.

And there were the coins, no doubt uprooted from a cup holder, three pennies and three quarters glinting in a late-afternoon sun amid the rubble.

Just imagine the way his parents found out about the wreck: A light blinking on their answering machine, delivering a cryptic message from a Good Samaritan woman about 5:20 p.m. on May 7:

"I want to tell you, your son's been in an accident ... I talked to him ... he's lucid ... he wanted me to call his parents to let them know he's OK ... he's awake and conscious but he's trapped in his car ... here's my number; you can call me back ... "

"I wish I could be there"

Cory Mackay rolls his wheelchair up a portable ramp and parks it next to a table on the deck of his family's home east of Redmond. He's a strapping kid, 6 feet 4, 257 pounds, who just completed his freshman year at Washington State.

He had almost decided to attend Washington, but WSU coach Paul Wulff turned him around shortly after he took over. He had spent a redshirt season as a linebacker, but made the switch to defensive end.

"I was warming to it," Cory says wryly. He was enough of a force there that Wulff singled him out as one of the standouts of spring drills.

Now it's almost time for his teammates to report for fall camp, and Mackay won't be with them. Instead, he will enroll for online classes and plans to be back on campus at WSU for winter semester.

"Yeah, it's hard," Mackay says. "It's hard. I wish I could be there."

He is asked if he has gone through different emotional phases during his ordeal. He first mentions denial.

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"Denial?"

"That I'm paralyzed."

Mackay is right now without lower-body movement, even as his rehabilitation has progressed remarkably. He was supposed to have been encumbered with a "clam shell" upper body cast well into August to protect the surgical fusion of broken vertebrae, but he was able to shed that a month early.

He was scheduled for two weeks of in-patient follow-up therapy at that point, but doctors told him he was good to go after four days and sent him home.

"At this point, they're all smiles," said his father Don. "They give him positive vibes."

Don Mackay is a retired commercial-airlines pilot with an upbeat air and a twinkle in his eye. He says he sensed a shift in the medical outlook for Cory from the time one of the doctors told him his son had less than a one-percent chance of walking again.

"Now he was all smiles," Don Mackay said, recalling the doctor's thumbs-up on removal of the upper-body cast. "He said, 'Boy, you sure did heal up good. When you start getting stuff back, you let me know.'

"Cory looked at me like, 'Did you hear that?' It was a complete change of attitude. There were no rewards [before] coming from them, that's for sure."

Cory's rehab takes three forms: He has a makeshift gym and a pool at home, and he has begun work at a Redmond facility called Pushing Boundaries, where one of the regimens puts him on a sophisticated treadmill simulator designed to spur neurons to reconnect by mirroring the walking motion.

"It can tell how much energy you're putting into it and how much the machine is doing for you," Cory says. "Yesterday, they told me to try to lift my knee up, and the graph moved.

"You're supposed to see a lot of improvement after being on it for a while."

None of it is easy, not the month in constant pain after the accident and the internal struggle of whether to continue taking medication for it, not the rehab, not the uncertainty ahead.

"It's all mental, really," Mackay said. "Some days I have good days, some days I have bad days." He mentions "loneliness" and "just not being able to do some stuff I used to do."

The accident

The scenario that led to his accident is one that has been played out thousands of times by students at WSU and the nearby University of Idaho. It was the end of exam week, and Mackay had been studying late the night before for a general education final.

He was tired when he got into the truck and headed west. He dipped into Washtucna, ascended the long grade past it, and then shortly after the highway straightens out, began to nod off.

Mackay awoke before the crash, hitting the brakes as his truck drifted toward the right shoulder. He doesn't remember what happened next — a state trooper's report said the truck went airborne and flipped — only that he found himself lying there with the vehicle atop him.

A couple of motorists stopped to come to his aid, including the woman who called Don and Linda Mackay. She's still the "mystery lady;" Don Mackay says she left a wrong number and to this day they've never connected.

The Mackays called state police in Spokane. Soon, Cory was airlifted to a Richland hospital, where his parents finally were able to talk to him by phone. He kept apologizing. They kept soothing him.

They were backing out the driveway of their home, hastily starting a four-hour drive to Richland, when they got word he would be airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. They met him there that night, and the next morning he had surgery to fuse broken vertebrae. Cory's father has said the spinal cord was swollen, but not extensively damaged.

As for the chance he could play football again, Cory says, "Right now, I'm not even focusing on that. My whole focus is on getting my legs back and walking."

Good days, bad days

Steadily, they came to see him. There were coaches and old friends and teammates at Eastlake High. Washington State coaches were frequently there, his primary recruiter Mike Levenseller and position coach Malik Roberson.

One schoolmate told him he'd been hopelessly injured in a street-bike accident, rendered comatose and paralyzed, and beat both conditions and walked through high school graduation.

WSU running back Logwone Mitz of Redmond, a prep rival but now a close friend, was constantly there, seeing the emotional ups and downs and willing Mackay to weather them.

On one day when he felt particularly miserable, Cory sent word out that Mitz and a friend probably shouldn't see him.

Mitz was stung, but he came to understand.

"Those days are going to happen when you're going through something like that," says Mitz.

They talk a lot, but mostly, they don't even talk about Cory. When they do, Mitz says, he tries to convey a message of perseverance.

"I let him know he's a man and he can do whatever he needs to do to get wherever he wants to be," Mitz says. "You've got to hit it like you're doing a workout over here. If you failed your test yesterday, you've still got workouts the next morning.

"His is a little more dramatic, but it's going to pan out for him in the end. That's obviously what we all hope."

The well-wishers are everywhere. Still, this is Cory Mackay's fight. He plans to be a worthy adversary.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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