The scar stretching from the base of Delvin Breaux's skull down his neck to roughly his shoulder blades is a constant reminder of how fortunate the Hamilton Tiger-Cats rookie defensive back is to be alive.
"I thank God and am so blessed," Breaux said this week at the CFL team's training camp at McMaster University. "I appreciate football much more because a lot of people wouldn't take a chance on me.
"I'm just so glad to have the opportunity to play again."
The 23-year-old cheated on death Oct. 27, 2006, just two days after celebrating his 17th birthday. Having already committed to LSU, one of the top programs in U.S. college football, Breaux was covering a kickoff during a high school game in New Orleans when the force of making the tackle broke the C6 vertebrae in his neck and caused both the C4 and C5 to dramatically shift.
His right vertebral artery, which carries blood from the heart to the brain and spine, was also severely damaged.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Breaux said. "Scouts from LSU, everybody, was in the stands and I wanted to make a play.
"So I ran down and led with my head. That was the wrong thing to do but I wanted to make a play and I wasn't using my eyes and being smart about it. There I was, lying on the ground, I was out."
Amazingly, Breaux walked off the field and upon reaching the sidelines told his coaches he wanted back in. But he began experiencing neck and back pain, blurred vision and difficulty swallowing because one of the discs in his neck slipped into his throat.
"(Trainers) tried giving me two ibuprofens but I couldn't swallow and it was hard to breath," Breaux said. "My dad asked how I was doing and I said, 'I'm good but call an ambulance.'"
It was at the hospital that Breaux realized just how lucky he was.
"The doctor told me afterwards I should've died on the football field, " Breaux said. "When I was first hurt, I didn't take it too seriously because my adrenalin was pumping but when I found out how bad it was, I broke down.
"My parents, everybody, were crying."
The six-foot-one, 196-pound Breaux required two operations, the first to fix the broken artery and provide stability in his spine. A metal plate was inserted into his neck during the second procedure.
Breaux, who wore a Halo Brace to support the muscles in his neck and keep his head from moving around, lost roughly 30 pounds.
Surprisingly, doctors told Breaux afterwards he'd likely be able to resume playing football if his recovery went well. Trouble was, it took nearly six years and while Breaux attended LSU on an athletic scholarship, he never got medical clearance to play football there.
After university, Breaux worked construction and as a bouncer to make ends meet. He played flag football before catching on with the semi-pro Louisiana Bayou Vipers.
Breaux began the 2013 Arena Football League season with the New Orleans VooDoo before signing with Hamilton as a free agent.
"He's getting better every day and we're really pleased with how he has performed," Tiger-Cats head coach and general manager Kent Austin said of Breaux. "He has an unbelievable attitude, he's a great story."
And a sobering one.
"These players risk a lot to play the game they love," Austin added. "We try to do the best we can to take care of them in practice but unfortunately things happen.
"Good for him that he was able to overcome that situation and get back on the football field."
Breaux said he didn't have to overcome fear when he resumed playing because his injury made him a smarter player.
"I'm still physical but I just take more precautions," he said. "I don't go running in there with my head down, I don't just go running in there (blindly) and make tackles if I don't have to.
"I play with my eyes, that's what I started doing more ... and it has helped me be more prepared. It's about being cautious and safe."
In full pads, Breaux's athletic ability shines through. He has the quickness to stay with a speedy receiver but can quickly pivot on a dime to get back in on a running play.
Off the field, he's very engaging and quick to flash an infectious smile. But when the pads come off and he turns away, the focus turns immediately to the horrific scar that runs down his neck.
"When many people see it they ask if it's a tattoo or if they can touch it to see if it's real," Breaux said. "To me, it's a sign of adversity and fighting through adversity.
"Many people would've quit, it wouldn't have been in their heart anymore to keep playing. But I'm a different breed, I want to keep playing."
Throughout his long recovery Breaux never doubted he would one day resume playing football.
"I always had the thought of coming back even though many people told me my career was over ... I should go back to school and get my degree," he said. "But I never thought about quitting football, I always knew I'd come back.
"When I was leaving the hospital one of the doctors said, 'Make sure you send me Super Bowl tickets when you make it.' That was my motivation. It was like, 'My doctor believes, let me go take this chance again.'"
But Breaux's dream now is to get his hands on the Grey Cup. And to do that, he'll have to adjust to a new game that's played with one less down on a longer, wider field.
"Man, the field is wide and big, especially coming from arena football," Breaux said with a chuckle. "But it's just understanding the game and watching the veterans work the field.
"Football is football. Whatever position the coach puts you in you have to make a play. If you play on this field and have a helmet and shoulder pads on, you must be an athlete."
For rookies like Breaux, one of the best places to impress the coaches is special teams, a challenge Breaux readily welcomes.
"I'm ready," he said. "I want to remember that I broke my neck on special teams so let me go down there and try this again.
"I can't wait."Suggest a correction