It's been more than eight months since Kevin Everett sustained a life-threatening injury on a kickoff return during the opening game of the 2007 season. Since then, he became the feel-good story of the NFL by overcoming incredible odds and recovering from being almost permanently paralyzed from the neck down. His story affected millions of people, but it had a significant impact on his teammates, and the Bills organization.
On May 13, the Bills made a difficult decision by placing Everett on the waived/failed physical list, and officially releasing him from the team. The move was made to give Everett the ability to apply for the league's benefit plans for injured players. Everett can now receive $224,000 a year from the league over the span of his injury. He can now also be reimbursed with a one-time payment of $75,000 under the league's Player Health Reimbursement Plan.
This move obviously had very strong emotional implications, emotions that carried the Bills through the 2007 season. Everett served as an inspirational leader for the team, without even being in the locker room.
The odds were stacked against the Bills all season, but, like Everett, they seemed to defy expectations and overcome their obstacles. One big obstacle was their constant battle with injuries. The team suffered countless other injuries throughout the season, with 16 others being placed on the injured reserve list, and impact players like Trent Edwards, J.P. Losman, and Marshawn Lynch suffering injuries.
Another obstacle was the team's youth and very steep learning curve. The team had rookies starting at many positions including the leadership roles of quarterback and middle linebacker. Also, head coach Dick Jauron was only in his second year of coaching the team. Jauron and his rookies had a tall order to fill, as the Bills had the NFL's toughest schedule in 2007 facing opponents with a winning percentage of .539.
This recipe of rampant injury, inexperienced youth, and daunting opponents could only yield trouble for the Bills. However, the Bills hurdled over doubters by finishing the season at a respectable 7-9. They were also still in the hunt for the playoffs with two games left in the season. The team could have easily been 9-7, had it not been for two games that ended in last-second field goals – one being the memorable game against the then-undefeated Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. The 25-24, last-second defeat showed the Buffalo's incredible resilience and willingness to battle every minute of every game. This perseverance can be largely attributed to Everett's willingness to persevere and overcome his injury. The team rallied around him, and embraced his attitude towards beating the odds.
Kevin Everett exists his vehicle to visit the Bills before their game against the Giants
Signs of this rallying were present throughout the season, starting minutes after the injury occurred. The images of the team huddling for a prayer while Everett was carted off the field in an ambulance are unforgettable and symbolize the team's attitude all season long. Everett recorded a pre-game message for the team and fans that was played prior to the Sunday night game against New England in November. He also spoke to the team in person, in the locker room before the December 23rd game against the Giants.
His presence was everywhere.
Everett's road to recovery was well documented throughout the year, as millions were awed by his miraculous progress in the hospital, and later at a rehab clinic in his home state of Texas. He made several highly publicized appearances on national television programs including Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show to tell his amazing story. His story was also made into a book, Walking Tall: The Kevin Everett Story. His incredible year culminated with being Commissioner Roger Goodell's guest of honor at Super Bowl XXLII.
With their teammate doing everything he could to recover from his injury, the Bills wanted to honor him with their play on the field. They didn't reach the postseason, but certainly defied everyone's expectations. This is why, despite being released, Everett will forever be tied to the Bills. He represents one of the fundamentals of the Buffalo Bills franchise: getting up to fight, no matter how hard the fall.
The Bills have always been categorized as perennial losers. Four straight Super Bowl losses. An eight-year playoff drought. Countless heartbreaking losses. It doesn't matter how many times the team hits rock-bottom- the team, franchise, and city will always rebound and come back with the same intensity the next Sunday.
Everett took the scariest fall of all, but was able to get up again. He is now one of the examples of what it means to be a Bill. Much like the teams of the early 90's, he is a champion of perseverance. Never giving up when the going gets tough. That will be Kevin Everett's legacy. He joins a storied Bills history of weathering the storm, and standing tall in the end, no matter the result. Everett may no longer be a Bill according to the roster, but he will always be a Bill where it counts most, in his heart.
Marc Heintzman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.