(Editor's note: Today is the 10-year anniversary of Adam Taliaferro's injury. This story is the chapter on him that appears in the Mirror's Paterno book, "They Know Joe," written by Neil Rudel and Cory Giger.)
It still gives many Penn State fans chills watching the video of the young man in his No. 43 jersey running out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel before the 2001 season opener against Miami. Adam Taliaferro was never supposed to walk again after being paralyzed on the field a year earlier. But there he was - the Nittany Lions' own miracle man.
Taliaferro has inspired so many people over the past 10 years with his remarkable story. That story, he says, would not have been possible without the inspiration he received from Joe Paterno.
"When I was injured and in the hospital, every Thursday, Coach would fly down from State College to Philadelphia," Taliaferro said. "No one really knew he did it. He would come down and bring three or four players with him, and we would just talk. We didn't really even talk about football. For him to do that during the season says a lot about him. I'm in the hospital three hours away from Penn State, and he would fly down. That's when I really realized he was more than a coach.
"When I was still in pretty bad shape, I remember the first time he came there he talked about how I was going to lead the team out of the tunnel the next year. He believed in me and really thought I could do this. I thought he was crazy at first because I was not able to move anything, and he was trying to brainstorm some ideas about how I'm going to come out of the tunnel.
"I was like, 'Coach, I can't walk.' He said, 'You're going to be walking next year, and you're going to lead us out of the tunnel against Miami, and this is how we're going to do it.' He was throwing out different ideas about how I would come out of the tunnel, and I was like, man, this is unreal for him to have that belief in me when things really didn't look good."
The Taliaferro file
Playing career: He played cornerback as a freshman at Penn State in 2000 before getting injured against Ohio State.
FYI: Taliaferro graduated from Penn State in 2005 and got his law degree from Rutgers in 2008. He's now an attorney in Philadelphia and appears at numerous engagements as a motivational speaker.
His thoughts on watching JoePa today: "I was at practice the Monday before the Blue-White Game. I walk out there, they're doing a hitting drill and he's in the middle of it. He's walking around, he's demonstrating it. This guy is 83 years old, but he's out there and still has the fire and the energy. He was just so enthusiastic. I just hope that I have his genes if I get to his age."
Taliaferro, a freshman cornerback, suffered a spinal cord injury making a tackle against Ohio State on Sept. 23, 2000. He was given a slim chance to ever walk again, but after undergoing surgery to fuse his C-5 vertebrae, he began a rigorous physical therapy process. Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley and team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli would make the weekly trips to the hospital and visit with him for about an hour.
"Coach would come in and ask me about what improvements I had made since the last time he saw me, and I would show him different things I could do," Taliaferro said. "You wait for the visit so you can put on a show for Joe so he can see that week to week I was making all these improvements. Just as excited as I was to show my parents, I was excited to show Coach Paterno. I knew how much my injury hurt him. He told me about how it was one of the worst things he'd seen, so I knew it would make him feel better seeing me do better."
Taliaferro and Paterno occasionally chatted about football and what the team was doing that week to prepare for the upcoming game. The talks Taliaferro remembers most, though, were Paterno constantly telling him how he would get better, that he would walk again someday and, of course, that he would lead the team out of the tunnel the next year.
"It was amazing because Coach Paterno is one of the most inspiring figures," Taliaferro said. "He gives you that look that he gives a lot of the guys. He looks you in the eye, and you know that he's telling you the truth. You get nothing but the truth from Coach Paterno. When he was saying that, I believed him. He gave me that hope, along with my doctors and my parents, and when you have enough people telling you that you can do it, you start to believe it.
"I got hurt the fifth game of my freshman year. I couldn't play for him anymore. I couldn't really help him. Him visiting me showed just how much emphasis he put on making sure I was OK. He never told anybody he was doing it. I'm the one who tells everyone that he made those trips, but he never made a big deal about it. It's something that he wanted to do, but he didn't have to do it."
This happened to a freshman player, remember, so it's not like Taliaferro and Paterno had enough time to build much of a personal relationship before the injury. "He recruited me, and I talked to him," Taliaferro said. "But as a freshman, you don't have that much interaction with Coach Paterno. I had most of my interaction with Tom Bradley when I was playing, so I barely even talked to Coach Paterno. Then when I had my injury, our relationship grew like crazy."
The strong relationship and Paterno's tremendous support continue today. "After I got out of the hospital and got back to Penn State, the first thing he said was, 'What do you want to do with your life, and how can I help you?'" Taliaferro said. "He wrote all my letters of recommendation. So when people say he's more than a coach, I witnessed it.
"Even to this day, I check in with him, and it's still amazing to me how much he cares. It's been 10 years, and every time I see him, he still asks me, 'Is there anything I can do for you? How you feeling? How's your family doing?' It really reaffirms to me the person he is, even more than a football coach. He's just a special guy."