When Tyrone Area High School senior lineman Justin Reader sits down to Thanksgiving dinner with his family in less than two weeks, he knows he'll have plenty for which to be grateful.
Regardless of whether the Golden Eagles are playing for the District 6-AA football championship this year, or not.
On June 2, 2010, while target-shooting with a .17-caliber rifle in the woods near his grandparents' Grazierville home, Reader suffered a life-threatening injury.
Photo for the Mirror by Manning Photography
Justin Reader walks across the field with his father Rich Reader and mother Rhonda Russell during senior night.
Reader took a pause from his hobby of shooting at tin cans that day, and leaned his gun against a tree while standing at the top of a cliff. While going to retrieve the rifle, he lost his footing.
With his thumb inadvertantly resting on the trigger.
The gun discharged, and a bullet rung through Reader's ribcage and into his right lung. Calamity ensued.
"I was really scared when it first happened,'' said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Reader, who starts on both sides of the line of scrimmage for Tyrone, which hosts Cambria Heights in a District 6-AA quarterfinal-round playoff game Saturday night at 7 p.m. "My ears were ringing, and I couldn't hear anything. I couldn't breathe at all. When I was trying to breathe, blood was spraying out of my chest. I told myself that I needed to get out of the woods as quick as I could, or I was going to die.''
Reader was only 15 at the time and had just finished his sophomore year at Tyrone.
"I just tried to walk out of the woods,'' Reader said. "I collapsed in the woods when a neighbor found me. The ambulance rushed me to the hospital.''
The neighbor who lived right down the road from Reader's grandparents was a middle-aged man named Russ Coady, who reacted quickly to the crisis.
"He knew exactly what to do,'' Reader said. "He applied pressure to my chest and kept me conscious. If it wouldn't have been for him, I knew I wouldn't be here today. He saved my life.''
Coady, 65, tried his best to assure Reader that he would survive.
"My wife, Debra, and I had heard him screaming for help,'' Coady said. "He was coming down out of the woods, he was laying on the ground, and I made sure that he kept still, because when he moved, blood would gush out of the wound. My wife gave me a clean towel to apply to his wound, and I applied pressure to the wound and kept him from moving. He kept asking me if he was going to die. I kept reassuring him that everything would be OK, once he got to the doctors.''
Coady said that his wife called 911, and no more than 10 minutes later, an ambulance was at the site. Reader's father, Rich, was working his shift at the Tyrone paper mill when the call about his son came through.
"I heard the ambulance sirens blaring in the background,'' Rich Reader said. "When I found out what was happening, it's a parent's worst nightmare. We almost lost him.''
Justin Reader was rushed to the Altoona Regional Health System's Altoona Hospital campus, where he spent the next two weeks, including the first eight days in the intensive care unit.
"He had a collapsed lung,'' Rich Reader said. "[Doctors] couldn't risk going in there to remove the bullet. They put a tube in his lung, to drain everything out. The bullet remained in there, like pieces of pencil lead. They kept the lung drained, and they had to re-inflate it. They kept a close eye on him.''
It took a long while for things to get back anywhere close to normal for Justin Reader, who is also a starting heavyweight on Tyrone's wrestling team.
"It was really hard,'' he said of the recovery process. "I lost a lot of weight while I was in the hospital and a lot of strength. Just getting up and walking was hard. When I got up, I'd be out of breath.''
A 50-yard walk down the hospital hall was a major accomplishment.
"I started out walking about 50 yards, then the next night 60 yards and the next night 70 yards,'' Reader said. "It was a long, hard process.''
Reader eventually worked up to doing three-mile runs once he left the hospital. His desire to return to the football field never waned. When he returned for his junior year, he played about a half-dozen games before problems resurfaced in the middle of last season.
"By the fifth game last year, I was coughing up blood,'' said Reader, who was breathing with the help of inhalers. "I told myself that I had to get it checked out.''
Reader was on the sidelines for the rest of last season, including Tyrone's magical run into the state championship game - a December loss to Lancaster Catholic at HersheyPark Stadium.
"Every day, I wanted to get better so badly,'' he said. "I had a lot of friends on the team, and every week was more exciting as we won the district championship and went on to the state championship game. I would have given anything just to be on the field.''
Thanks to his hard work and his return to full health, Reader has returned with a vengeance this season. He leads the Tyrone team in quarterback sacks, and he also provides stability for an offensive line that has been one of the team's biggest strengths.
"His motor just keeps on going,'' first-year Tyrone head coach Steve Guthoff said of Reader. "To come back this year after not playing last year, and to win a starting job on both offense and defense, is amazing. He doesn't take a play off on the field.''
Or a moment off away from it. Reader puts in all the necessary extra hours weight-lifting, running and conditioning to keep himself in top physical shape.
"He got it into his head that he wasn't going to let the injury stop him,'' Rich Reader said. "He's always been a great kid.''
And the fact that he cheated death helps Justin Reader put something like a high school football game into the proper perspective.
"I really worked hard to get to where I am now and to be able to play this year,'' said Reader, who recently celebrated his 18th birthday and has plans to continue to compete in sports in college. "I'm thankful for that. But the biggest part is that I'm thankful to be alive.''