Near Death to Near Life

 Jordan Weise, 2011 Lowndes High School graduate, was living in Atlanta during the summer of 2012. Fresh off his first soccer season at Georgia State University and playing for the Atlanta Silverbacks Reserves, he experienced a tragedy that forever changed his life.

Growing up in Valdosta, Weise was exposed to many sports throughout his youth. Like many of his friends, he played football and baseball growing up and ultimately chose soccer and basketball when he got to Lowndes. During his sophomore year, he knew he had to devote more of his time to one, and that is when he concentrated solely on soccer.

“At that point in time, you have to make a commitment,” Weise said. “You can’t be spread out with so many things.”

Knowing he would be limited from reaching his full potential in South Georgia, Weise and his father traveled three hours after school, daily, so Weise could play for the Florida Rush, a high-profile youth soccer club based in Orlando.

During this time, Weise was exposed to some of the top talent the United States had to offer. Overall, he grew as a player and succeeded at the highest of levels not only in the region, but nationally and internationally as well.

As time came closer and closer for Weise to narrow down his college decision, many factors began to creep in. Weise attracted interest from programs such as Northwestern and Notre Dame. But, an ankle injury he suffered at a tournament in Disney World provided clarity in the end.

“I decided on Georgia State because being a Georgia resident, it was a no-brainer,” Weise said. “Going to Atlanta was nice. It was a nice change from Valdosta. When I got to Atlanta, it was awesome. Everybody loves this sport.”

During his one year in the Panthers program, Weise tallied three goals and two assists in 22 appearances. After the season, Weise stayed in Atlanta and joined the Atlanta Silverbacks Reserves. Bright stars often play at the club during the summer to increase their exposure. Chris Duvall and Chris Klute, two of his teammates, went on to play in the MLS.

Weise appreciated the experiences he had in Orlando and Atlanta. He credited the coaches and instructors he learned from along the way.

“I was fortunate,” Weise said. “Not many people in Valdosta can experience that without taking a military route.”

Then July 5, 2012, happened, a day that changed the life of one of the brightest soccer stars to ever come out of South Georgia. On that unfortunate day, Jordan Weise fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed him and left him in a state of paralysis. He underwent a craniectomy to allow his brain to swell out of his skull rather than into his spinal cord.

“Hearing the odds, with the level of my brain injury you’re looking at a 10 percent chance of surviving,” Weise said. “That stuck with me for a really long time.”

Weise is unable to recall a full picture of everything that happened that day and still is unsure about moments before and after.

“What’s amazing about the brain is maybe I don’t have the whole picture, but as someone starts to talk to me, pieces start to come back together,” Weise said. “I honestly do not remember anything from about a week or two before that.”

Weise added that his daily routine included working out with a former teammate at the time.

“We would go to the park [Historic Fourth Ward Park] and run,” Weise said. “We’d run there in the early mornings, and then I’d go back there to Silverback Park at about 10 a.m. for practice. Besides that, I can’t tell you a tremendous amount of stuff. A lot of the summer, even after that, pieces together.”

The next few weeks were trying for Weise as he began his recovery. One instance he recounted had a sobering effect on him that he still thinks about.

“It’s like I was brought down to reality,” Weise said. “As you sit in a hospital bed and look out the window seeing people walk down Peachtree Street, you’re drooling on the right side of your face; your right hand doesn’t work; you can’t move your right arm; you can’t walk; you’re struggling to remember your name, your age. You look out the window saying, ‘I want to be like them – I want to be like the person walking down the street.’” Weise paused for a moment. “That’s when it hit me. I really took too much for granted.”

Weise was discharged from the hospital at the end of July and returned to Valdosta for a few weeks before going to Atlanta’s Shepard Center for outpatient therapy. When he got back to Atlanta, he faced an uphill battle; performing daily tasks like walking up and down stairs, cooking, and getting on an exercise bike were a grind in the beginning, but relearning those activities was ultimately worth it.

“I felt like a child in the beginning,” Weise said. “Then, boom! One or two weeks later, it all clicked.”

Weise’s time at the Shepard Center impacted him in a lasting way. The rehabilitation program, Pathways, allowed him to meet many great physicians and nurses who helped him get better and ultimately find a new vision in life: having a career in the medical field, particularly physical therapy.

“It was a 9-4 type of thing,” Weise said. “I was continuing with therapy; physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and cognitive therapy. I can’t tell you which one was the most critical, but I could say that each had their own special thing that changed and molded me into what I am today. And what I’m studying right now. And why I chose to go to grad school and pursue what I’m going to do.”

Over the next two months, Weise got stronger and became more adept at using the right side of his body again. He worked on projects and tasks his doctors assigned for him to learn more about the medical field. They even allowed him to look at his own medical records and challenged him to diagnose what happened.

Weise returned to Valdosta in the fall of 2012, and despite what his doctors told him, he didn’t take long to delve into his new-found passion as he enrolled at Valdosta State for the spring 2013 semester as a biology major.

“It was a great step in the right direction,” Weise said. “There were a lot of times when I was leaving Shepard where the neurophysiologist would say, ‘You can’t go back to school.’ But to me – of course the moral support of friends and family was great – but it was that doubt that really motivated me the most. That’s why I decided to pursue it and pursued it so hard.”

During the Chemistry 2 course he took the summer session of 2013, Weise realized his hard work was paying off.

“I received a ‘B,’” Weise said. “A ‘B’ is not a great grade, but when you can’t stand up on your own two feet and you’re considered disabled, a ‘B’ within a year from having a near death experience is something to be proud of.”

Unfortunately, he suffered a slight setback in January 2014. During a game of pickup basketball, he was hit in the head and was taken to Jacksonville’s Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital because he was experiencing right-sided hemiparesis.

Luckily, because he wasn’t as affected as during the first injury, he jumped right into rehab, which lasted until March. During his second rehab stint, he was introduced to Tony Annan and Stuart Sharp, who invited him to the U.S. Paralympic Soccer facilities in Chula Vista, California, upon clearance.

In the meantime, Weise continued with school. Now enrolled at the University of North Florida, Weise focused more on studying physical therapy, taking all the prerequisites to get into physical therapy school. His reasoning for this focus was simple: “help others who were just like me.”

“I want to be able to find that next kid that has a brain injury that doesn’t feel motivated to get better,” Weise said. “I want to be able to tell him that I’ve done it…I’ve done it twice. And I promise you I’m going to do everything to help you do it too.”

During the summer of 2014, he accepted that camp invite to California. Much like his days as a youth, this opportunity led Weise around many parts of the world. This time he represented his country alongside others facing similar hardships, all while doing something as trivial as playing soccer.

“It was an awesome opportunity,” Weise said. “Fantastic group of guys. Coaching staff, physical therapists, physician assistants, doctors were great people. Some of these guys who have served for our country who’ve had ridiculous amounts of traumatic brain injuries and are still alive today happy to represent our country”.

It once again reiterated to him that there is so much more to be thankful for in life and that there are people worse off than himself who don’t let struggles discourage them.

“I always felt bad for myself,” Weise said. “‘Why me?’ Then I’d see some of the guys with cerebral palsy, who were born that way put a smile on every day, who’ve overcome so much and have a positive outlook on life.”

He played his last game with the national team a couple of years ago, as he’s finishing up with school. But if the right moment presented itself, he wouldn’t hesitate to be a part of it again.

Weise appreciates everyone who stood by his side through the difficult road, including his parents, friends, and physicians. But he wanted to particularly thank three of his former coaches: Brett Surrency, Ed Joyce, and Stuart Sharp.

“They were very important in giving me the opportunity to play for the Paralympic team and my opportunity to play in college,” Weise said.

As it nears toward five years since his accident, Weise still uses his experience as motivation to strive for success. He will spend the upcoming summer finishing his degree at UNF through an internship at EXOS before heading to Gainesville to begin physical therapy school at the University of Florida in August.

“I was dealt a bad hand of cards, but somehow I managed to get through the game,” Weise said. “I was just an average guy doing what I think anyone would do. When your back is against the wall, you don’t have much direction to go. When you hit the bottom, the only direction to go is up.”

ITG-SG June/July 2017

Jordan Weise

By: Lambert Bales

Photography by: Micki K Photography