The remarkable perseverance of Delvin Breaux: ‘I should have died on the field’

When Delvin Breaux arrived at Hamilton Tiger-Cats rookie camp five years ago, he was just another American player looking to carve out a career in professional football. But Breaux had a remarkable backstory, one that he shared with me just days after coming to Hamilton. With news that Breaux is returning to the Ticats, here’s that piece, originally published May 31, 2013.

Defensive back Delvin Breaux broke a vertebra in his neck and displaced two others while making a tackle during a high school game. Breaux had two surgeries, including one that left him with this scar, and it took him five years to recover.  Photo by Drew Edwards.

Delvin Breaux should be dead.

On Oct. 27, 2006 – two days after his 17th birthday – Breaux was playing a high-school football game in his native Louisiana when a devastating collision smashed the C6 vertebrae in his neck and displaced two more.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was going down on kickoff and I was anxious to make a play. There were a lot of LSU scouts in the stands and I was excited,” Breaux said this week at Hamilton Ticats rookie camp, where he’s trying to make the CFL team as a defensive back. “Around the 20-yard line … I hate talking about it … I dove into the guy running full speed and was just out.”

Breaux eventually left the field under his own power, unaware of not only the damaged vertebrae but of the artery in his neck, which was partially blocked by bone chips. He tried to go back into the game – his team needed him and there were scouts in the stands – but couldn’t.

Only later, at the hospital, did he realize how injured he really was.

“The doctor told me afterwards that I should have died on the field, ” he said.

Breaux had two surgeries, the first to repair the broken artery and stabilize his spine, the second to insert a metal plate in his neck – but continued to dream of playing football. The doctors told him that, if everything went well with his recovery, he probably could.

That recovery took five years.

He went to LSU on a scholarship but couldn’t get medical clearance to play and eventually his hope turned to frustration and anger.

“I got emotional because I felt I had the talent but I couldn’t get out there. I started messing up in school, partying more and I flunked out, ” Breaux said. “I had to grow up and start looking forward instead of focusing on the past. Just move on.”

Breaux went to work – real work, like construction – and played flag football in his spare time. Last season, he finally landed a tryout with the Louisiana Bayou Vipers, a semi-pro team, and delivered: 45 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles. That led to a stint with an Arena League team and now a shot with the Ticats.

At 6-foot-1, 196 pounds and with good speed, Breaux would seem to have all the physical tools to succeed as a defensive back in the pass-happy CFL.

New defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer, a former standout DB himself, certainly hopes so.

“He’s got good intensity and he’s a strong kid. I’m excited to see what he brings over the next couple of weeks,” Steinauer said.

Though familiar with Breaux’s injury history, Steinauer says it won’t be a factor, one way or the other.

“I’m interested in what he brings on the field, ” Steinauer said. “Everybody has a story and I love to listen to them, but I love to win football games, too.”

If his coaches aren’t thinking about his injury, neither is Breaux. He says he doesn’t shy away from contact but makes sure his tackling technique is as sound as possible.

Not once in all those years did he think about giving up the game.

“I never thought about quitting football,” Breaux said. “I was lying in the hospital saying I was going to play again. “And here I am.”

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