Strides after paralysis

Adam Taliaferro at his Duane Morris law office next to a blowup of a Sports Illustrated cover featuring Penn State. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Look at Adam Taliaferro today, and you'll see a man on the go.

A normal day for this rising political star, who works at the law firm Duane Morris L.L.P. in Cherry Hill, is filled with interviews, representing clients, and meeting his obligations as a Gloucester County freeholder.

More than a decade ago, Taliaferro lay helplessly on the turf of a football field, unable to move, with no feeling from his neck down. It was only his fifth football game at Pennsylvania State University, and in one blink - one tackle - his life went from astonishing freshman cornerback for the Nittany Lions, to being paralyzed - with little chance of ever walking again.

What has happened since that fateful day is a remarkable story of courage, determination, perseverance, and the will to walk again.

Taliaferro's story has been well-chronicled: A smart, easygoing standout football player from Eastern High School in South Jersey joined the Penn State team in 2000.

Despite coach Joe Paterno's penchant for not starting true freshmen, Taliaferro wowed the coaching staff and earned playing time.

On Sept. 23, 2000, he suffered a spinal-cord injury while tackling Ohio State's tailback Jerry Westbrooks. Taliaferro's helmet hit Westbrooks' knee during the play, crushing a cervical vertebra in his neck and bruising his spinal cord.

Doctors told his father: Do not expect your son to walk again. Eight months after intensive rehab at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, Taliaferro indeed was walking again.

"I think my recovery really taught me good work ethics, and really taught me a lot about life and how to work with other people," Taliaferro said during an interview last month.

After his injury, Taliaferro returned to Penn State and earned his undergraduate degree in 2005. He then enrolled at Rutgers School of Law in Camden and earned his law degree in 2008.

And what's the next chapter for Taliaferro? A political career, perhaps?

"I became interested in politics fairly recently - as a matter of fact only after I was accepted into law school at the age of 25," said Taliaferro, who is now 30.

In November, the Woolwich Township resident was elected to serve on the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders. Recently, Taliaferro threw his hat into the ring to compete for one of three open seats on Penn State's board of trustees. Voting will begin next month and closes May 3, with winners taking their seats on the 32-member board in July.

So in this political season, all signs are pointing toward Taliaferro's entering a new arena - one just as rough and tumble as sports

"I think that sports is similar to politics, where in order to be successful, you've got to be ready and willing to work with so many different people towards a common goal," Taliaferro said. "I think my injury really prepared me for my role in politics right now."

Taliaferro said any political ambition he may harbor is not for personal gains, but rather to push certain issues and give something back to his community.

"I think generally, anyone who is involved with politics, your first line of business is to work for the people and try to help in any capacity that you can. And that's what I'm trying to do," Taliaferro said.

Looking forward to the board of trustees vote, Taliaferro said: "It's an opportunity to make a change at the college that I went to. Penn State has been a blessing in my life, and has helped me become the person I am today," Taliaferro wrote in an e-mail to Anne Danahy, a reporter for the Centre Daily Times.

Taliaferro has used his story as an inspiration to start the Adam Taliaferro Foundation, which offers emotional and financial support to student-athletes who suffer debilitating head or spinal injuries on the field. Since its founding in 2001, the foundation has raised more than $80,000 each year.

Inquirer sports writer Sam Carchidi, who coauthored the book Miracle in the Making: The Adam Taliaferro Story, says Taliaferro is one of the most inspiring people he has ever met.

"He's very successful in everything that he does," said Carchidi, who is The Inquirer's hockey beat writer. "He just kept working and working, and to see that really inspired me."

Today, Taliaferro, who is trim and and weighs less than the 190 pounds he did as a freshman, has the world in the palm of his hands.

"My aspirations right now are to really become the best person that I can be, just trying to learn and grow each day," he said.

"I really don't have any strong aspirations, to what I really want to do as far as politics or how far I want to take it, but right now it's just learning each and every day in the position that I'm in."

"I'm really excited for what the future has to offer, and I will give the same dedication I gave to football now to politics."

Keep an eye on Taliaferro. He's no longer tackling bruising backs on the field, but he may soon be tackling some of the more vexing problems of our time.