Arthur Ayers was injured playing football four decades ago, lost somewhere in a pile of helmets, shoulder pads and bodies on a special teams play.
He would never walk again.
In an instant, Ayers went from an athlete to a man trapped inside a motionless body. But what Ayers’ family remembers most is how strong his spirit and outlook remained for years. Ayers, who was paralyzed in that 1976 Cosumnes River College road game, died this past week from health issues related to his paralysis after 46 days in a Fresno hospital. He was 58.
“I saw him take his last breath, and we already miss him,” said his sister Connie Ayers, who works for the city of Sacramento.
A memorial service for Ayers will be held Saturday in Fresno.
Connie Ayers continued, “How Arthur handled his injury, being in a wheelchair, paralyzed from just below the shoulders, inspired all of us. He never changed his positive outlook. He was such a foundation to our family. He was our rock, always.”
After graduating from Johnson High School, Ayers dabbled in boxing. But he especially enjoyed football. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Ayers cast an imposing figure in gear, which belied his otherwise cheerful nature, his sister said.
The eighth of nine children, Ayers dreamed of earning a football scholarship to a four-year program. At running back, Ayers scored on a sweep for CRC in that Sept. 18, 1976, game at Menlo College in Atherton, then a two-year school. He was on the kickoff team seconds later, the outside man. The Menlo ball carrier, Ayers and two others all met at once, everyone going full speed, and everyone going down. The Menlo ball carrier sustained a separated shoulder and broken ribs. Ayers wound up on his back, his eyes open, his legs and arms unable to feel anything, or move. Ayers had severed his spinal cord.
“I get goose bumps thinking about it,” said Dick Cristofani, then an assistant football coach at CRC and the school’s boxing coach. “It was such a traumatic experience for all of us, especially Art and his family. We’ll never forget him. Really sad. Art was such a great kid.”
Coit Conant, the former CRC head football coach, said Friday that he cherishes a black and white photo of Ayers wearing his CRC uniform. It hangs prominently in his den.
“Oh, God yes, Art meant a lot to me,” said Conant, who plans to attend the service. “Coaches have a lot of things glued into their minds, and that was one of them. It was a real tragedy.”
Doctors told Ayers’ family had he not been in such good physical condition, the injuries might have killed him on the field.
“My brother had such big muscles in his neck and body, and that’s what initially saved his life,” Connie Ayers said. “We were told that Arthur might live 10 years. We said we’d take anything. It was his faith that carried him, and we had him for another 38 1/2, a real blessing.”
Steve Kenyon, a longtime area football and strength and conditioning coach, said protective measures in recent decades have prevented catastrophic injuries and possible on-field deaths. Kenyon was on that kickoff team with Ayers.
“It is a very vivid memory to me,” Kenyon said. “I was trying to set the defensive huddle after that play while they’re working on Art. It was hard on all of us. Football wasn’t important the rest of that game.
“Art was a very energetic, very upbeat, very positive guy. It doesn’t surprise me that he got into counseling. That’s what kind of man he was.”
Conant stayed with the Ayers family well into the night at the Stanford Medical Center, where Ayers remained for three months. Ayers eventually returned to Sacramento, living with family and requiring around-the-clock care. He graduated from Pacific Coast Bible College in Sacramento and worked as a counselor through his church in Fresno for years, his sister said. And he never bemoaned his condition.
“If he was down, or complained, or felt pity, he never shared it with us,” Connie Ayers said. “Arthur never dwelled on his injury, the ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda.’ He lived a productive life. He didn’t let a wheelchair prevent him from traveling, from enjoying life. And he loved being a counselor. He was such a great listener. I was so proud of him.”
Ayers also remained a football fan.
“He was a 49ers die-hard fan,” Connie Ayers said. “He’d have a 49ers blanket with him during games. I asked him why he still watched games and he said, ‘Because I love the game.’”
CRC dropped football following the 1978 season due to low participation numbers. The Ayers injury didn’t doom the program, but it certainly dulled the football spirit. Conant, Cristofani and others on the staff, such as Steve Krisiak, never coached at any level again. Each said the Ayers injury affected them deeply.
“I’m very touched to hear that he had a productive life and had such a wonderful family,” Conant said. “Art touched a lot of people.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.