He’ll never forget the phone call.
It was Jan. 3, 1991 – a couple of hours before the Tippecanoe High girls basketball team he coached was to play West Milton – when he learned two of his players had been in an auto accident near school.
“I jumped in the car and went over, but when I got there, there were no cars, no police, nothing,” said Tom Rettig. “I figured it wasn’t too bad.”
He was told the two players – sophomore starters Lisa Clawson and Amanda Vallo – had been taken to the hospital in Troy.
“When I got there I found both girls on gurneys side by side,” he said. “I went up between them and held their hands, but Amanda wasn’t gripping me back.”
It was the first time the budding hoops talent had not firmly grasped the situation at hand.
As a young grade school girl – part of a group called the Magicians that performed at halftimes of the Red Devils varsity games – she regularly out-dribbled, outshot and outplayed the boys who competed next to her.
Her first year in high school, she forced Rettig – thanks to coaxing by some of his older players – to push aside his unwritten rule that freshmen almost never were brought up to varsity.
“At that point I didn’t think too much of freshmen, but I did take her with us when we scrimmaged up in Toledo before the season,” he remembered. “We played Maumee one night and Sylvania Southview the next morning. I had five seniors and wanted to appease them, so I didn’t put her in right away.
“When I did, she stole the ball at midcourt and drove toward our basket, dribbling right handed. One of their kids came flying in and I figured there’d be a collision and it wouldn’t be pretty. But she went up, brought the ball back down, then came back up with her left hand and scored.
“One of the seniors on the bench said, ‘Coach, if you don’t bring her up, you’re stupid!’
“Another said, ‘It’ll probably cost me playing time, but I don’t care. She’s special.’”
Amanda certainly was, and after playing a prominent back-up role as a freshman, she was becoming a star as a sophomore and already was drawing interest from colleges.
Right before the accident, she had 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over Versailles and then 16 points, coupled with a superb defensive effort, as the Lady Red Devils topped Alter.
After school on the day of the accident she was headed home to change into her uniform.
She was riding in the back seat of a car driven by Clawson’s brother when another driver ran a red light at Tippecanoe Drive and Ohio 571 and T-boned their car right where Amanda was sitting. She was not wearing a seat belt and while Lawson and her brother escaped unhurt, she said she was trapped in the vehicle.
“It happened a block away from my mom’s office and somebody had run and gotten her,” Amanda remembered. “I just wanted to get up and tell her I was OK. I tried, but my body just didn’t respond.”
She eventually was taken by CareFlight from Troy to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, where doctors discovered the fifth and sixth vertebrae in her neck were fractured, but the spinal cord was not damaged all the way though.
Initially paralyzed from the neck down, she underwent anterior fusion surgery, but the early prognosis was grim, said her dad, Steve Vallo, who now lives in Centerville:
“At the hospital, a doctor came out and said, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Vallo, you must prepare yourself. We don’t know how much recovery, if any, there will be.’”
Rettig – who has since been enshrined in the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame after a career at schools in Mansfield, Toledo and around the Miami Valley, especially Tippecanoe, where his teams won 11 sectional titles in 23 years – said Amanda remains “Arguably, the best player I ever coached.”
And that’s why he was so stunned after the accident when he said a Miami Valley nurse gave him a blunt assessment:
“She told me, ‘She’ll never play another game. She’ll never walk again.’”
Amanda got similar news.
“We went for a second opinion and a doctor who didn’t know me from Adam wrote a report that said, ‘She’ll always have to have a very sedentary life.’ He just wasn’t very optimistic.
“To be truthful, I didn’t know who he was writing about.
“I just knew that ‘quit’ wasn’t in me. It was just something fundamental that wasn’t part of my being.”
Always a competitor
Some 27 years later, much has changed from the initial diagnosis, in part because Amanda, now 43, has continued to hold onto that one trait that served her so well before the accident.
“I’m competitive to this day,” she said from Overland Park, Kan., where she works as a therapist, writes an entertaining blog and has become an ESPN-watching sports junkie.
“I was joking last night that I’m taking this meditation class and now I’m a competitive meditator,” she laughed.
“I play online scrabble with my 91-year-old grandmother who lives in Minster and I just cannot let her win. It’s in my blood … aaah … I wish it wasn’t so prominent, but it is.
“And it certainly served me well in my rehabilitation.”
Although she’d spend four months in Miami Valley Hospital, she made such strides early on that she was allowed to briefly return home just a month after the accident and was wheeled into the gym for her team’s last regular-season home game.
The crowd gave her a two-minute standing ovation.
“The whole town was sort of stunned by what happened,” said Sue Starr, Amanda’s mom, who lives in North Dayton. “She was fun to watch, and people were fond of her. Everybody knew she was going places in athletics. She was good in volleyball, too. It just hit people that it was so unfair.”
But what endeared her even more was the way she refused to yield to the situation. Two months after the accident she stood on her own. Four days after that she walked six feet. A month later, with some help, she went 100.
She was embraced by the college basketball world, too. Rettig said Ohio State coach Randy Ayers and former Buckeyes star Jay Burson contacted her.
Amanda remembers getting a “very nice letter encouraging me” from Basketball Hall of Fame coach Vivian Stringer, then at Iowa and now at Rutgers.
While in the hospital she was tutored by Tom Rogers, her volleyball coach and the next-door neighbor who had the outdoor hoop where she’d spent long hours honing her basketball skills.
Advancing more than most people who have suffered similar injuries, she eventually walked, mostly with crutches, and other times used a manual wheel chair.
A straight-A student in high school, she spent a year to Bowling Green before transferring to Wright State, where she got a degree in psychology. At Ohio State she earned a master’s degree and nearly completed her doctoral work.
Her mom said one hitch was some disagreement on the topic of her thesis, where the premise was “that former athletes and talented people who have been injured still consider themselves athletes in every sense of the word … and I believe Amanda does, as well.”
After moving to the Kansas City area, where she’s a licensed professional counselor, Amanda began to work out regularly at a recreation center.
She also launched her well-received Amanda’s Blog – found at amandavallo.wordpress.com – that mixes keen insight with poignant reflection and puckish humor, all delivered beneath an array of engaging headlines like: Church Giggles, Purple Tambourine Lady and Sarah’s Death.
‘How could they still think of me?’
Her years of relentlessly pushing through that shortsighted prognosis have taken a toll on her body though.
Because of a sometimes herky-jerky stride — that Anne Rettig, Tom’s wife and Amanda’s friend, described as “like a broken doll walking” — there have been knee problems and other issues. She’s also had real trouble keeping weight on, and that’s added to the wear and tear.
Through it all she refused to capitulate and used a manual wheelchair until just recently being convinced to add a SmartDrive power system she can activate when needed.
That concession came after she went to the renowned Craig Hospital in Denver which specializes in neuro rehab and research of patients with spinal cord injuries.
A nurse there suggested the SmartDrive, as well as a service dog that could help her do daily chores and provide companionship.
Amanda found Freedom Service Dogs of America (freedomservicedogs.org), an Englewood, Colo.-based non-profit organization that rescues dogs from local animal shelters, retrains them and places them with people in need, everyone from children and military veterans to other adults dealing with things like traumatic brain injury, autism, PTSD, spinal cord injuries and certain disabling diseases.
The dogs are taught do more than 50 commands, including opening doors, picking up items, turning on lights, pulling wheelchairs and, just as importantly, enhancing everyday lives with social interaction.
It costs about $30,000 to train a dog start to finish, and those costs are handled by donations. There is a long waiting list for recipients and, once people are selected, they must make a couple of trips to Colorado to ensure a proper bond with their animal and to be trained, as well.
That commitment – including one two-week stay – can be especially costly for someone like Amanda who is dealing with other out-of-pocket medical expenses, too. And that prompted Anne Rettig to launch a GoFundMe page to enable Amanda to get her dog.
People quickly stepped up, and more than $12,000 has been raised – much of it from the Tippecanoe High community.
“I was just totally blown away by that,” Amanda said. “How could they still think of me? It was really wonderful. They take care of their own for sure.”
Her dad wasn’t surprised:
“I remember the way people came to the hospital when she was first hurt. Every square inch of counter top and wall was covered with mementos and well wishes and photos. Family, friends, fans, they all showed love and encouragement and support. And many of those same people came forward again. It’s really humbling. She has touched far more lives than she realizes.”
Susan agreed: “It was heartbreaking what happened, but she’s still brilliant and beautiful and people love her. And so you celebrate the wonderfulness of her.”
Inspired and gaining health
The GoFundMe page (gofundme.com/helpcomeswithfourpaws) remains open, and along with getting a SmartDrive and trying to formalize plans to finally get a dog – Amanda said she’s 35th on a list for 40 dogs that will graduate later this year – she plans to send any additional funds to Freedom Dogs so more animals and people can be rescued.
With a service dog she sees her world opening up. Her older brother Eric lives in Oregon and she hopes to do more outdoor activities there.
That idea was nurtured by a bond with her late prep teammate, Sarah Gross, who was a three-sport star at Tippecanoe, a much-honored University of Dayton student and Sinclair professor and avid outdoorswoman and dog lover
After Gross was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, she and Amanda reconnected and helped each other through their challenges until Sarah’s death last November.
“Sarah was a couple of years older and she had looked out for Amanda when she joined the team as a freshman,” Susan remembered. ‘They had formed a real connection again. It was really special.”
Amanda agreed: “It really did feel like two teammates pulling each other through some difficult spots…It’s hard to think of a world without her in it.”
Inspired by Gross and getting healthier now, Amanda has returned to the gym.
And that yielded a colorful encounter she had with an annoying fellow gym goer, one she had endured before and finally wrote about in one of her blog posts.
Here’s her description:
“Gray hair, gray 1970’s gym class sweatsuit, the kind with no logos and easy pit stains, black thick-framed glasses, old model Asics running shoes and stinky hand towel that looks like he stole out of his wife’s bathroom.”
In a long row of empty elliptical machines, he commandeered one right next to her and began to pedal away, grunting and groaning louder and louder as he went on. Ever the competitor, Amanda vowed to outlast him.
After finishing the exhausting workout, she ended up standing atop her pedals only to have her leg give out and she melted into an awkward sitting position, unable to stand on her own.
Finally, the guy next to her said, “Can I help you fella?”
As Amanda writes: “I forgot to mention my difficult person thinks I am a dude.
“Which became very awkward when he hoisted me up from behind. He reached underneath both my armpits. One hand slipped and accidentally grabbed my boob. Oh lord, I thought. I know my body now has a little more mass. Sorry neighbor for the rude awakening. Now what…
“Awkwardly, he helped me to my wheelchair I nodded and rolled away. Calming myself with…maybe he thinks he just grabbed a good bit of man boob.”
Another myopic Mr. Magoo.
Like that doctor who read her so wrong so many years ago, he hadn’t known there was a lot more to Amanda Vallo than he knew.