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DU Student Jesse Martin Continues Recovery After Hockey Hit

Jesse Martin with DU athletic trainer Aaron Leu
Jesse Martin with DU athletic trainer Aaron Leu (credit: CBS)

DENVER (CBS4) - Things are slowly getting more normal in University of Denver student Jesse Martin's life.

The player for the DU Pioneers hockey team was badly injured on the ice when he was blindsided by a North Dakota player during a game on Oct. 30. The hit broke his neck in three places and left him temporarily paralyzed.

He had to undergo surgery at a hospital in Minnesota and has been doing intensive rehab at both Craig Hospital in Englewood and with athletic trainers at DU ever since.

Martin now has to wear a neck brace at all times, except for during his frequent rehabilitation appointments, and he gets a tingling, painful feeling in his hands that feels something like ants crawling around under his skin.

This spring he's back in classes and he's even hanging out with his teammates at their practices.

Martin, a native of Edmonton, Alberta, recently invited CBS4 photographer David Wille to join him as he made his way through a typical day.

The odds weren't good for Martin after the hit. It's the kind of injury that kills or permanently paralyzes most people.

"You can look at it like hockey was taken away from you or you can look at it like your life was given to you," Martin said. "A great majority of the people die from an accident like this and of those that survive an even greater majority are in wheelchairs and quadriplegics.

"So for me to sit here and feel sorry for myself because I can't play hockey just doesn't make sense."

Martin's neck is now showing good signs of healing properly and he's mostly returned to a normal student's life. Things are a little tough on Mondays and Wednesdays when he has to sit in class for four hours in a row, but Martin says he's excited to be back among his peers on campus.

"I think just being able to just get back into a routine and back on a schedule that you stick to that helps not just with the pain but helps mentally get you involved and keeps you focused."

Martin walks with friends in the DU neighborhood
Martin walks with friends in the DU neighborhood (credit: CBS)

The rehab really is still in the initial stages. He's working on his range of motion and there's a lot of strengthening that still needs to be done. But it's incredible considering what could have been.

As soon as he was knocked down on the ice during that game, Martin says he knew there was a problem right away.

"I came out of the corner, lost control of the puck a little bit. Kind of went to the slot and I kind of reached out for it and next thing I know I'm in the corner kind of looking at the boards and looking at the ice and I can't move anything, can't feel anything, can't feel my arms, can't feel my feet.

In a November appearance before the Denver media Martin sat next to his doctors and told them more about that moment.

"I thought maybe I was just winded. And then I ended up realizing that I wasn't winded and then I started to get a little bit concerned; I can't move my arms and I tried to move my legs to get up and that didn't happen."

The memory of the moments on the ice still linger more than four months later for Martin.

"I had about 25 seconds by myself before a trainer got there and that felt like 2 hours to me."

Martin says he went through everything that was important to him "and how that was going to change. Not being able to walk or take care of myself for the rest of my life."

But he is walking -- just a little more carefully (and with the large protective neck brace). And while he's not feeling good enough to be there every day, Martin says being at Pioneers practices and cheering his friends on is just one more helpful part of his recovery.

Jesse Martin
Martin at DU hockey practice (credit: CBS)

"It's obviously as close as I'm going to get to being on the ice," he said.

Martin has never blamed Brad Malone, the North Dakota player who delivered what Martin still considers a clean hit. He has even called Malone on the phone a few weeks after the game.

"I kind of just told him that I didn't hold him responsible for anything. I didn't want him to carry the guilt around."

Martin says that as his condition continues to improve he hopes he can be an inspiration to others who find themselves in similar situations. He hopes to "maybe change their perception a little bit or their frame of mind."

Jesse Martin
Martin at home (credit: CBS)

"I have my brain. Not saying it was great before, but it's still there now and I can still think for myself and take care of myself."

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