Bay Area high school grad overcomes rare disorder to play Division I football

Sports

SAN  MATEO COUNTY, Calif. (KRON) – The spring football season is underway at many colleges – Temple University held their spring football showcase on April 29th.

That day marked another milestone in the incredible comeback story of Owls long snapper and Sequoia High School grad Sam Fraley.

More than three years ago, Fraley was almost completely paralyzed by a rare disorder.

Photo: Sam Fraley

Fraley played on both sides of the ball at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, but in 2017 he was prepared to give up his passion to attend the University of Texas to be closer to his dad who was diagnosed with cancer.

Fraley was excited for that next step when he came down with strep throat during his senior year finals.

In the days after, something still wasn’t right.

“I woke up to get out of bed and I swung my legs over and I stood up and tried to take a step, and pins and needles shot up and down my legs and I slowly just crumpled to the ground,” said Fraley.

After several trips to the ER, Fraley was finally admitted to the hospital.

“I couldn’t even move my eyebrows, I couldn’t really smile and I hadn’t noticed that at that point. The pain in the sense of the headache had cleared up and had been replaced with this shutdown or a slow loss of control. And just to see that doctor like freaked out and concerned that’s when I was like oh crap what’s going to go on,” said Fraley.

Photo: Sam Fraley

A neurologist diagnosed Fraley with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disorder where the body’s immune system attacks its own nerves. It can be brought on by a virus or infection.

“I was young, I had been an athlete, I really had everything on my side compared to everyone who gets GBS, but they still couldn’t tell me. I wanted to desperately know when am I going to get discharged, when am I going to be able to walk again, when am I going to be able to start rehab? It was hard to wrap my head around that,” said Fraley.

The condition typically clears up on its own in time, but first you have to bottom out.

For Fraley, his lowest point happened to take place on the day of his high school graduation.

Photo: Sam Fraley

While classmates walked across the stage, Fraley was trapped in a hospital bed with most of his body paralyzed.

“It was just this overwhelming feeling of frustration that I was helpless at the time. I had done everything right to earn that moment, and it was taken away,” said Fraley.

Fraley’s high school football coach Joe Lopiparo sat with him in the hospital during graduation. The bonds of his football team served as a lifeline during Fraley’s darkest time.

“It was devastating, it was sad because he is such a good kid and he was like a part of our family. I sat there and tried to make him feel as good as I could, but it was hard seeing him like that,” said Lopiparo.

Then slowly but surely, Fraley started to recover.

“It kind of was a blur when I went to rehab. Like I said I was doing as much rehab as I could so when I wasn’t doing rehab I was pretty exhausted. And I would have a lot of people come by to visit me which meant a lot,” said Fraley.

After months of grueling rehab, Fraley was ready to head off to UT for the spring semester, or so he thought.

Photo: Sam Fraley

“I don’t think I’d been honest with myself with how the trauma of suddenly got sick affected me. I thought I could just go back to partying and doing the stuff I did before, but I didn’t want to leave my room,” said Fraley.

Fraley dropped out and came back to the Bay, where he joined the football team at Foothill College.

“It was slow, the first spring ball was hard. I got my ankles broken, I just didn’t feel like me being on the field. But I wasn’t going to give up on that. There was a few days where I almost quit and I went to coach’s office and he had to talk me down from the ledge,” said Fraley.

While Fraley’s primary position had been a linebacker, he began to embrace his role as the Owls’ long snapper – a skill his dad taught him years prior.

“I remember leaving that first kickoff feeling the pain and sadness of getting sick, but also like the pride and the relief that I got back to the point that I was at. So it’s just kind of a humbling, one of those real moments,” said Fraley.

However, before Fraley’s second season at Foothill, his dad lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.

“I went out to be there with him for his last two weeks and my brother and I gave him his medicine. When he was ready, he was ready. It was tough,” said Fraley.

Photo: Temple University Athletics

That fall the Owls went 10-1, and Fraley was so successful that his coaches encouraged him to pursue playing at a 4-year school.

Fraley posted highlight videos on Twitter, which led to a walk-on spot at Temple University in Philadelphia, a place his dad used to call home.

“I thought about my Dad a lot, he would think it was so cool if he was here. I know he would have moved me in and known the best spots around town,” said Fraley.

Fraley is now finishing up his first year as a Division 1 football player.

“I’ll be in practice sometimes and there will be a moment of clarity where it’s like wow I’m here after everything,” said Fraley.

A dream come true thanks to grit, perseverance, and maybe some help from above.

“Maybe I’m superstitious, or whatever, but there are times where I feel connected to him [his dad]. He was a man of really strong convictions. If I can be a fraction of what he was, I’ll be proud of myself,” said Fraley.

Fraley wants other people with GBS to know that they may not be the exact same person or be able to do all the same things they were able to do before the disorder. However, he says that’s okay, you can still have a fulfilling, successful and happy life.

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