The comeback kid


The Mirror

Wrestlers are known to be a little different breed. They thrive on being mentally and physically tougher than their opponents. That’s kind of the goal of the sport.

Todd Beamer High School sophomore Peter Daugherty is the definition of that wrestling attitude and he has the scars and story to prove it.

The 15-year-old is actually pretty lucky to be alive after falling off a six-foot ladder directly onto his head last spring. The accident left him with three fractured vertebrae in his neck and confined him to a movement-restraining halo device for six long months. The only thing that saved Daugherty from being paralyzed or killed was his spinal cord stayed aligned vertically after the fall.

“It’s a pretty miraculous story,” said Beamer wrestling coach Brett Lucas.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Just getting the halo unscrewed from his head and resuming a regular teenage existence wasn’t enough for Daugherty. He was still a wrestler. Daugherty still had that passion burning inside him to get back on the mat and nothing, including a broken neck, was going to stop him.

“The first thing that I said after it happened was that I wanted to be able to wrestle again,” Daugherty said. “I knew I really wanted to wrestle.”

Mission accomplished.

Eight months and five days after the accident, Daugherty’s name was introduced over the PA system at Thomas Jefferson High School as the Titans’ 140-pound varsity wrestler.

“He is so lucky,” said Daugherty’s father, Bret. “It is just a miracle. The first thing out of his mouth when he was lying in the hospital was ‘Oh my God, what about wrestling?’”

The TJ match didn’t end the way Daugherty wanted — he lost a 9-3 decision to Steven Ruesser — but getting beat never felt so good.

“Broken bones never get back to 100 percent,” Daugherty said after getting a clean bill of from doctors following numerous CAT scans and examinations. “But it’s as good as it gets.”

As a freshman last season, Daugherty put together a solid year in the rugged South Puget Sound League South Division at the first-year school. As a 130-pounder, he compiled a 10-17 record and fell just short of qualifying for the Class 4A Mat Classic state wrestling tournament, losing at regionals. Following the season, Daugherty was voted by his teammates to be a captain as a 10th-grader and he was looking forward to making a run at the state tournament.

“When I first heard, I really couldn’t believe it,” Lucas said about the accident. “I truly thought he would not be able to wrestle at all this year or maybe ever again. However, when I heard he was coming back, I couldn’t believe it. I was nervous and excited.”

There’s no doubt that Daugherty isn’t back to 100 percent on the mat. It would be impossible for him to be. But like most athletes will tell you, the neck injury doesn’t even enter his mind during a match.

“Right now I think I’m around 75 percent to 80 percent,” he said. “Every once in a while (one of the broken vertebra) will get real sore behind my shoulder blade. But I don’t want anybody to take it easy on me that I go against.”

And that hasn’t been the case, according to Lucas. During the first month of the current wrestling season, Daugherty has fought off five challenge matches from other Beamer wrestlers to hold on to his varsity roster spot. But the coach does watch Daugherty a little bit closer than the rest of his wrestlers at practice and during meets.

“Even though his doctor said if he didn’t know any better it was as if Peter had never broken his neck at all,” Lucas said. “I cringe a little more when Peter gets in a precarious situation, which is usually always because of his style of wrestling. The other coaches and I have a little more body English when we are coaching him. Mentally he’s back, but wrestling and physically speaking, he is lacking a little from where he ended last year.”

The return to the wrestling mat has also been hard on Daugherty’s parents, Bret and Dolores, who attend most of his matches.

“It’s pretty tough,” Bret Daugherty said. “I think it’s a little more stressful on us. We’ve seen all the X-rays and CAT scans and we know he’s OK, but when he gets put in a half-nelson my wife and I are kind of cringing.”

“I hear them on the video tape ohhing and ahhing when I’m wrestling,” he said. “I know they get nervous because wrestling is not the gentlest sport.”

The life-changing fall off the ladder happened in the blink of an eye, according to Daugherty.

It was April 4, 2004, and students in the Federal Way school district were smack dab in the middle of Spring Break. It was around 4 p.m. and Daugherty was standing on the top rung of a 6-foot folding ladder holding a cardboard sign with the title of a homemade movie. The whole thing was being filmed by fellow Beamer student Ryan Canfield.

“We were just kind of goofing around,” Daugherty said about the “Jackass”-type, screw-off movie. “We were just doing the opening scene and hadn’t even done any stunts yet. We were just doing the name of the movie. It was just bad luck.”

After Canfield got the opening shot, he turned off the camera and Daugherty started down the ladder.

It was then that the he slipped and fell directly on his head. Daugherty couldn’t get his hands down to break his momentum because he was holding the sign.

“He didn’t get the actual fall on tape,” Daugherty said about Canfield. “I only remember a split second and then things went black.”

When Daugherty came to, he couldn’t feel anything below his neck.

“It was like my whole body from the neck down was asleep. Like when your arm or leg fall asleep and it gets all tingly. I was trying to move my hands, but couldn’t.”

After a few tense seconds, the feeling finally returned throughout Daugherty’s body and things seemed back to normal.

“(Canfield) helped me up and I went back to my bedroom and laid down on my bed,” he said. “That’s when a really bad pain happened in my neck.”

It was then that Daugherty’s parents were reluctently told. He was immediately rushed him to the hospital. Doctors at Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma notified the family that he had broken three vertebrae (C-1, C-2 and C-7) and immediately put him in the halo device.

“It wasn’t real fun wearing that thing,” Daugherty said. “All I did was watch a lot of TV and lots of videos. I was chubby and I was in terrible shape.”

During his time in the halo, Daugherty’s weight ballooned from about 140 pounds to 170. But that didn’t last long for the hard-working sophomore.

“Peter is in a group of about three or four wrestlers who stay after practice everyday to run stairs, jog, lift, or get some extra wrestling in with the coaches,” Lucas said. “I know he will close the gap soon.”

Closing that gap on the wrestling mat should be the easy part, considering what he’s been through in the last year.

“I got pretty lucky,” Daugherty said. “Not a lot of guys can say they broke their neck and came back and wrestled.”

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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