Wednesday December 12, 2012

CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. -- He sits in the chair in his living room, casted leg on the ottoman, where he has a clear view of a mostly undecorated Christmas tree and the television, which usually is tuned to ESPN.

A strong 17-year-old, Matt Hardy should have been anywhere but here Wednesday.

At school. At varsity basketball practice.

With Deanna.

That Hardy can sit in his chair, though, is his mother's forever Christmas present.

Hardy, a junior at Shenendehowa High School in suburban Albany, is one of two survivors from the devastating Interstate 87 crash Dec. 1 that killed two Shenendehowa seniors -- football team captain Chris Stewart and softball player Deanna Rivers, Hardy's girlfriend.

Hardy suffered numerous injuries, including two breaks in his left leg, two fractures in his pelvis, a concussion, broken knuckles, a broken bone in two spots of his lower back, and several contusions. Bailey Wind, a 17-year-old senior and standout diver at nearby Shaker High School in Latham, suffered fractures in her neck and a broken jaw. She is recuperating at home.

Eleven days after the horrific accident, Hardy, along with his mother, Patricia, and his older brother Mike, spoke with The Eagle on Wednesday in an exclusive interview about the tragedy that has sparked extensive local TV coverage and a national outpouring of sympathy for the victims and their families.


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Patricia and Matt recounted the night of the tragedy, expressed their gratitude to New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow and others for their overwhelming support, and talked about a future that looks different than it did at the beginning of the month.

Matt, who finds comfort in his faith, also wants to know the reason that he lived and two others didn't.

"When I prayed in the car to stay alive, he answered my prayers," Matt said.

Both Matt and his mom want to know the reason that God spared him.

"We're waiting for it. We both are," Patricia said.

On the night of the accident, Matt Hardy, Rivers, Stewart and Wind were on their way home from the Siena vs. the University at Albany basketball game -- a local tradition -- at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany. The two couples had made a quick stop at Wind's home, then headed for Rivers' home in Clifton Park.

With Stewart behind the wheel of his Ford Explorer, they entered I-87, known locally as the Northway. Stewart drove in the right lane, preparing to exit and head to Rivers' house. New York State Police said Stewart had no fault in the crash.

Police said the accident occurred at about 10:20 p.m.

Matt Hardy -- one of two survivors from a devastating crash on New York Interstate 87 crash on Dec. 1, 2012 -- shares his story with the Berkshire Eagle as
Matt Hardy -- one of two survivors from a devastating crash on New York Interstate 87 crash on Dec. 1, 2012 -- shares his story with the Berkshire Eagle as he talks about his recovery from his injuries and life without his girlfriend, Deanna Rivers, and friend, Chris Stewart, team, who were killed in the accident. ((Erica Miller / The Saratogian))
when 22-year-old Dennis Drue of Clifton Park rear-ended Stewart's SUV at a high rate of speed, causing it to roll over several times into the median on the left side of the highway.

Drue failed an alcohol breath test there, but a blood-alcohol test has shown he had a low level of alcohol in his system. State police and the Saratoga County District Attorney's office are awaiting results of a toxicology test before filing charges.

Hardy said he remembers little of what happened. He recalls being partially ejected from the car and feeling pain in his midsection from the seat belt and a piece of twisted wreckage pinning against his body.

"I was trying to stay as calm as possible," he said. "I was just praying."

Awakening to a new life

Hardy woke up at Albany Medical Center the next morning, a Sunday, and asked his mother where he was. She told him about the accident. He asked about Chris. About Bailey. About Deanna.

Patricia Hardy told her son the truth, that his football teammate was gone. So was his beloved Deanna. Wind was in the same hospital with significant injuries.

"I just told him calmly," Patricia said. "I prayed and hoped that God would give me the strength."

"I just started crying," Matt Hardy said. "I couldn't believe it was real."

That day, members of the Shenendehowa community rushed to the hospital, keeping vigil with Patricia Hardy and her family, which includes 12-year-old daughter Olivia. By the dozens, friends and teammates poured into Albany Medical Center, as did school officials and several coaches on teams that Hardy played. Matt and Mike's friends from their tight-knit neighborhood stayed by Matt's bedside, helping him to ease the pain and get his mind off the accident.

Surreal. Real. A new chapter for Matt Hardy.

The Twitter effect

The Shenendehowa and Shaker communities were devastated.

Separated by fewer than 15 miles, Shen and Shaker are enemies on the courts and the fields. This tragedy brought them together. Adults in the two school communities spent the next week dazed. Even if they didn't know the teens involved, the tragedy hit home. The victims could have been their loved ones.

Largely fueled by Twitter, students at the two schools made a pact to support each other. Other area rival schools joined in. Two daysafter the accident, as stunned teens returned to class after the weekend, students in schools across the Capital Region wore forest green in honor of Shen colors; the following day, they put on the royal blue of Shaker.

All this time, Hardy was in his hospital bed, unaware of much of what was happening in the outside world. He had no idea that in the early evening, the neighborhood group had launched a Twitter campaign to encourage Tebow to call their friend. The simple plea, #TebowCallMatt, was retweeted more than 50,000 times in just a few hours, according to Hashtag.org, which follows Twitter usage.

Matt's buddies left the room and huddled in the hallway, leaving Hardy with a neighbor and her daughter. They entered and told him someone wanted to speak with him. He greeted the unknown caller and heard, "Matt, it's Tim Tebow."

"Right there, I just froze," Hardy said.

An injured teen and his football idol talked for about 10 minutes, starting with the accident. Hardy told Tebow he was doing OK, then asked about Tebow's injured ribs. Tebow asked Hardy if there was anything he could do for him.

He asked Tebow to pray with him for the students in the accident. Tebow led him in prayer.

"It was beautiful," Patricia Hardy said.

"It was the best prayer I've ever heard," Matt said.

The news of Tebow's call made national news, with USA Today and ESPN among the media spreading the word nationwide.

Eric LeGrand, the paralyzed Rutgers University football player who has regained some movement in his body since suffering an on-field injury two years ago, shared a 30-minute inspirational phone call with Hardy. Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain has left voice mails, but the two haven't connected.

The outpouring of support hasn't stopped. The Hardys' refrigerator overflows with food from the community. Their dining table is filled with cards, balloons and memorabilia, such as a signed basketball from the Siena basketball team and a Jets helmet signed by Tebow.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski called Deanna's mom, Deborah Rivers, and offered his condolences. Hardy also has been offered an all-expenses-paid trip to the BCS title game in Miami in January; his physical condition will dictate whether he can attend.

Deanna

Hardy got to know Rivers at the start of the 2011-12 high school basketball season. Hardy, a hustling small forward on the junior-varsity team, and Rivers, one of the team's stat keepers, had an instant attraction.

"She was just always happy," he said, choking up when talking about her.

Gina "Gigi" Zappone, Rivers' cousin and best friend, shared the stat-keeping duties with Rivers. Hardy said that before one scrimmage, while the team was warming up, "she told Gina I was hers."

And he was. Their one-year anniversary was Tuesday, and Hardy tweeted: "Happy one year Deanna Marie Rivers, I would do anything to have you here with me. Your my angel and always will be. #iloveyousomuch."

For the past year, the two were inseparable when Rivers wasn't at softball practice, or Hardy at football, basketball or baseball practice. Rivers picked Hardy up every morning at 7:15 and drove him to school. She came over after school and did homework with him. To help Patricia Hardy, a single mom who works long nursing shifts, she would clean the house.

"She was so special," Patricia Hardy said. "She fit in. She fit like a glove here. She was amazing."

"It's certainly not the same," Mike Hardy said. "She was practically a sister."

Rivers had applied to the College of St. Rose in Albany; after her death, a letter addressed to her said she had been accepted. Patricia Hardy said Deanna inspired Matt to keep his grades up so that he could attend the University at Albany. They both hoped to become elementary school teachers, get married and live a happy life, Patricia said.

All high school sweethearts think they can make their love last, and most don't. Patricia Hardy was sure Deanna would become her daughter-in-law.

"I actually think that would have happened," she said. "Even her mother [Deanna's] said that to me."

The next step

Last week was emotional for Matt Hardy. He attended a candlelight vigil among thousands of others at his high school after being transported there by ambulance, and he was at the funerals of Chris and Deanna.

"It's one of the hardest things I'll ever go through," Hardy said. "I knew Deanna was looking over me. That's the thing that made it feel so real."

His reality now is getting better.

He walks slowly with a walker and undergoes physical therapy three times a week, trying to strengthen the body that customarily dove on basketball courts with reckless abandon. He's making progress and getting stronger from one PT session to the next, his mother said. A long rehab journey awaits.

Tutoring at home begins next week, with three hours a day of learning. A return to school probably won't come until the new semester in late January.

Matt used to walk to classes with Deanna; her cousin Gigi told him she would fill that role. Hewants to heal and return to his sports, with running onto the football field next fall his goal. Patricia Hardy said she'll cry the day that happens, happy tears this time.

They also must endure the potential criminal case against Drue; the state police are in constant contact with the Hardys. Matt said he wants to forgive the driver, knowing that people can make one bad mistake. Patricia said she felt that way at first, but not anymore.

"As time goes on and I miss Deanna so much, I feel a bit of anger," she said.

If Matt Hardy is sure of anything out of this tragedy, it's that Deanna will always be with him.

"She's my guardian angel."