ENID, Okla. — April 25
“No one I know is tougher than you.” — Dylan Hatchel, Aguirre’s teammate
Car Aguirre looks strange confined to a wheelchair.
The story of how the newly-minted Hennessey grad got there is told loosely through a digital jigsaw puzzle — an accident, a near-tragedy, an outpouring of support, a recovery, all expressed in Facebook posts and internet traffic.
Aguirre, still well-built from years on football fields and in weight rooms, seems mostly unwavered by his predicament, punctuating every other sentence with a nervous laugh. Most of his features haven’t changed. Aguirre’s face is still framed by a trademark wirey beard and long black locks, but his left eyelid now is accented with red scars that extend from behind his hair like tree branches. His nose is flecked with more scar tissue, and behind his bangs is another long gash on his forehead.
The topical damage is minimal compared to the scattered state of his insides.
Aguirre, usually the strongest presence in the room in any sense, now sits on the wrong end of the most challenging five months of his life.
In bad luck and in life, Aguirre isn’t used to doing things halfway.
“Go big or go home,” he said.
“One of the Doctors in the ER told him that it was a miracle that he was alive.” — Brad Mendenhall, Aguirre’s pastor
He was almost done.
It had been five months after his right knee fell apart in his final high school game. Aguirre’s last play as a Hennessey Eagle was a 32-yard reception in a 56-21 playoff win against Washington, but the play, and his career, ended when the ensuing tackle tore his ACL, PCL, MCL, meniscus and patellar tendon.
The injury all but dashed his hopes of a collegiate football career, perhaps at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, where a brother coaches, but at least the sad story of Aguirre’s knee was almost over. On April 10, the morning after one of a handful of springtime winter storms hit Enid, Aguirre was driving to his last knee appointment.
At 7:49 a.m., a vehicle traveling north near the 3400 block of South Oakwood lost control and swerved off the road, then into Aguirre’s southbound lane. His 2011 Nissan Maxima struck the 2012 Dodge Ram at over 50 mph.
“I saw the guy run off the road,” Aguirre said. “His truck went across the lanes really fast. I had no time to even stop, to do anything. All I remember was hitting it, and a loud crash, and I was out.”
The news spread quickly, if not accurately.
Aguirre was fine. Aguirre was hurt. He was in a fender-bender. He was ejected through the windshield. It was nothing. He might be dead.
“It was shocking, because something like that happens, and you don’t know what to believe and what not to believe,” said Rick Luetjen, Aguirre’s football coach. “It was just a mess trying to find out what happened.”
Among the last to hear was Aguirre’s mother, Tammy Plaster, who was waiting for her son to pick her up so the two could ride together to Kingfisher for his appointment.
She called his cell phone at 8:25 a.m., then again at 8:28. She texted, “Son, where are you?!”
Finally, she received a call from her his phone.
“This is the Enid Police Department,” the voice on the other end said. “Your son was in an accident.”
“We love you, Car!” — Hennessey prom tribute
For the next week, a revolving door of doctors holding X-ray and test results entered Aguirre’s room in Oklahoma City, rarely with good news.
“Every day, there was a new injury,” Plaster said. “It wasn’t like we heard it all at the same time. Every day, they’d do a new X-ray, and they’d find something else wrong with him.”
The ball of his right hip was in four pieces. His liver and spleen had lacerations. He fractured three ribs, the C7 vertebrae in his lower neck and his right wrist. His left eyelid was split open, as were his nose and forehead, the latter requiring 12 staples to close.
Most troubling was a weakening in the wall of his aorta, where a rupture would open an uncontrollable flow of internal bleeding from the body’s largest artery.
Aguirre, who fully embraced religion after his November knee injury, converting from “a fan to a follower,” tried to lean on his faith. He tried to take the laundry list of ways his body was broken in stride, tried to laugh off his brush with death, a threat he still wasn’t free from.
But he couldn’t always.
In a moment he can’t remember — the meds did their job, he jokes now — Aguirre stared at his right knee, just days ago almost back to normal but now mangled anew, a tension cable pierced through it to keep his hip in place.
“Mom,” he asked. “Am I ever going to walk again?”
As he hurt in his hospital room, his classmates did for him in Hennessey, and members at World Harvest Church did in Enid.
“It breaks my heart,” Luetjen said. “He’s such a great kid — in 1000 different ways he’s such a great kid. The football gets taken away from him at the end, and he feels like he’s bouncing back from that, and in pretty good shape, then the car accident happens.”
The response started where the news first spread, as Facebook profile pictures became mediums of support for Aguirre — Luetjen’s own changed to a photo of Aguirre’s No. 44 and the letters IAMBK for “I am my brother’s keeper,” the football team’s motto and a phrase that took new meaning under the circumstances.
The Hennessey softball team played with “#44” on one cheek and “P4C” (Pray for Car) on the other, and visitors sat hours in waiting rooms in exchange for minutes with him.
Hennessey prom-goers even filmed a tribute for their missing classmate, and a day after the dance, Aguirre’s date for the event, Annie Duell, visited him in his room, prom dress and all.
“It was almost crazy that that many people would do that for me,” Aguirre demurred. “I look in the mirror, and I’m just Car.”
“Ain’t no stopping him now.” — Tammy Plaster,
Aguirre was out of danger and into physical rehab, likely a two-week process learning how to walk, shower and change clothes in his still-fragile condition.
No more waiting for bad news, just physical labor and milestones, much more in the wheelhouse of an 18-year-old two-time state title defensive and tight end.
Aguirre said two weeks was too long — he wanted to go home in five days.
When asked for one step, he took two. Two steps? He climbed some stairs.
He offered to help paint walls when Plaster took him for a roll around the Southwest Medical Center grounds, and stopped to chat with passers by.
Aguirre rose each morning ready to work and ended each day exhausted but another step closer to normal, a state he’ll come close to before he’s completely finished. He wanted out, and with the support of so many at his back, failure meant letting down the hopes of hundreds that grew to thousands following his progress.
“Throughout my walk every day, or my roll every day now, I kind of watch myself with how many people are looking up to me or looking to me for support and strength,” Aguirre said.
Five days after he entered rehab, Aguirre was released — the fastest discharge the Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Center had done, Plaster was told.
“Typical Car,” Luetjen said. “He bounces back quicker than anyone ever could have dreamed.”
“This is just a little part in my life.” — Car Aguirre
Aguirre wanted a graduation he could recall fondly, not one remembered through pictures of him rolling across the stage in a wheelchair.
He’d use a walker to cross the stage. At least he’d be upright.
When he crossed the stage on Friday, he ditched that, too. He limped and struggled his way to his diploma, his face expressing the moment perfectly — halfway a smile, halfway a wince.
“There are still some days I get frustrated,” he said. “I love playing summer volleyball, and stuff like that. (Wednesday), they were all playing volleyball, and I thought, ‘Why did it have to be me?’
“But when I look back at it, I’d rather it be me than anyone else on my team or anybody else that I know. I’d rather it be me than anyone else.”
Aguirre has a daunting future ahead. What likely would have been a football career in college has become a clean slate, one that will be filled parallel to another year of rehab, meetings, soreness and sadness.
He has a loose idea of what’s next. He might study music — he was a involved in Hennessey’s theater productions, and his own Facebook page is dotted with impromptu performances from the surprise singer-songwriter, Aguirre playing simple guitar rhythms to carry his twangy but smooth country baritones.
He might coach football. He might join the ministry.
For certain, he’ll keep the one thing that came out stronger out of his trials close — his faith.
“Every day it was tested. But getting mad at God, what’s that going to do?” he said. “This is just a little part in my life. Six months to a year, that’s just a little part.”
The big part comes next.