Meet Eddie and Chris Canales, founders of Gridiron Heroes

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This Texas father-and-son partnership supports injured high school football players with their organization, Gridiron Heroes

“It’s really hard for these guys down the road. They become forgotten athletes.”
~Eddie Canales, co-founder of Gridiron Heroes

Football is more than just a game in Texas.

Hundreds of Texas communities revolve around the excitement of high school football season. For top players, the high school football years can be the best ones of their lives—the young men taste success, competition, and glory.

But there is another side to high school football. Every year in Texas, about three young men sustain spinal cord injuries; the total injured is about a dozen annually for the entire United States.

Chris Canales was one of those young men. In 2001, in his senior year, he was injured while making a touchdown-saving tackle. Doctors told his father, Eddie, that Chris’ spinal cord injury meant that he would likely not be able to move anything below his shoulders.

The Canales family adjusted to their new roles as caregivers; Eddie quit his full-time job to care for his son while Eddie’s wife, Pita, assumed the role as full-time breadwinner.

At another football game, everything changed for Chris and Eddie again

On the first anniversary of his accident, Eddie invited Chris out to a high school football game, hoping to cheer up his son by sharing an activity they had always enjoyed.

During the game—the first one Chris had attended since his accident—the father and son watched in shock as a young man went down on the field and could not stand up. The two men knew instantly what had occurred.

Eddie recalls:

“It was the year anniversary date of his injury. It was starting to sink in that he was going to be in that wheelchair and playing football was over for him. He had already graduated and all his friends were gone. Chris was on a path of depression, wanting to isolate himself from the outside, not wanting to go to rehab and shutting down emotionally. So I took him to a State Championship game. This was the first high school game he attended since his own injury.

I merely wanted to get him out of the house, hoping to snap him out of that mode of feeling sorry for himself. We had no clue, we would witness someone else suffer a spinal cord injury.”

After watching the injury and seeing the player, Corey Fulbright, being lifted and put on a cart, Chris turned to his father and said, “Dad, we needed to go and help him. I know what he is going to go through and you know what the parents are going to go through. We need to go and help them.”

Eddie and Chris spent time at the hospital with the injured player and his family, providing emotional support during the player’s transition to his new life.

From that time, Eddie and Chris realized their calling: to create Gridiron Heroes, a non-profit organization to help high school football players with spinal cord injuries and their families.

“It was as if the Lord revealed his plan for Chris and our family,” says Eddie.

Helping the most vulnerable athletes, those who are injured and forgotten

Eddie and Chris Canales with Gridiron Heroes at a State Championship Game

Unlike college and pro athletes with injuries, high school football players with spinal cord injuries have neither a financial nor emotional support systems.

The parents and the player are left trying to make sense of the injury and figure out how to cope.  The team, other students, and the coach are often unprepared for the situation and have few resources to guide them.

Perhaps most trying of all is the agony the injured player feels as he watches his friends go on to college football success, while he must struggle with extreme physical and financial limitations.

“It’s really hard for these guys down the road,” says Eddie. “They become forgotten athletes.”

Eddie and Chris are determined to provide hope to these injured athletes, encouraging them through the mundane-yet-important parts of rehab and helping to inspire the young men to go on living life to the fullest.

Gridiron Heroes also supports the former athletes through financial means as well, providing funds for wheelchairs, vans, pressure-reducing mattresses, and monthly $100 Wal-Mart gift cards to help buy necessary supplies.

The duo has no corporate sponsor and raises all the funds themselves through donations from the football community and benefit events. “We make our funds go a long way,” says Eddie. “Spinal cord injuries can cost a family hundreds of thousands of dollars, so we do what we can to ease their burden.”

One thing remains the same: the love of football

Eddie and Chris Canales with Gridiron Heroes at the Dallas Cowboys training camp

You might think that after dealing with a spinal cord injury sustained from high school football, Eddie, Chris, and other people associated with Gridiron Heroes would be against the sport.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Gridiron Heroes is not about deterring people from football,” says Eddie. “We still love football—and all the young men we work with say over and over that if they had it to do again, they would still play. The game of football is a bond we all share.”

Eddie does believe, however, that the football community can and should do more to recognize these young athletes and their sacrifices.

“We hope that the football community will take a bit from the military and start ‘taking care of their own,’” Eddie says. “No one likes to think of the injuries that can happen, but we must deal with these issues as a community so that players get the support they need.”

Eddie Canales and the Gridiron Heroes organization is currently vying for $250,000 in prize money from the CNN Heroes project. People can vote for Eddie as “Hero of the Year” up to 10 times a day until 12/7/11. Please see www.gridironheroes.org to learn more.

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