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Fountain Valley's Hinnant on way to full recovery
FOUNTAIN VALLEY – J.D. Hinnant's crutches rest quietly next to his physical therapy table but they are hard to miss. So is the scar on his leg.
Both are fresh reminders of a violent accident in November. But Hinnant's eyes shine brightly as he looks up from the timer in his hand.
The Fountain Valley offensive lineman eagerly completes a series of leg exercises with seemingly little difficulty, politely affirming his improving strength to his therapist.
Hinnant hasn't been cleared to walk without crutches, but his attitude needs no assistance. He is upbeat about his recovery and confident that he will fulfill his dream of playing football in college.
"I'm just lucky not to be 6 feet under," he said. "(I) take nothing for granted."
Hinnant doesn't remember Nov. 2, the day his car accident rocked his family and a close-knit community. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior, however, is able to piece together a timeline.
He was on his way to Fountain Valley High for a pregame meal before the Barons' season-finale when the accident occurred around 2:45 p.m.
Hinnant said he was driving from his girlfriend's house near the school when he pulled in front of a pickup truck while attempting to make a left turn onto Ellis, not far from the high school.
"My parents told me that I was depressed all week because (Nov. 2) was my last senior game," Hinnant said. "My parents think that might have been why I really wasn't paying attention. I was over-thinking the game (against Marina)."
The truck collided with Hinnant's compact Pontiac Sunfire on the driver's side, smashing the door in by about 2 feet.
Hinnant's parents and two younger sisters were together when they received news of the accident. They saw the fire trucks and paramedics as they approached the crash site.
"You seriously felt like your heart just stopped," said Laurie Hinnant, J.D.'s mother. "When we arrived and I saw the car, that's when I lost it. I thought there's no way someone could have survived this."
Hinnant, who was wearing his seat belt, was transported to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.
The two occupants of the truck escaped major injuries, Laurie said, but Hinnant – found to be at fault in the accident – had serious injuries.
Hinnant suffered a broken tailbone and several fractures to his hip in the accident. A small, metal plate was used in surgery to realign his hip, his mother said. He also suffered two brain contusions.
Hinnant remembers waking up in the hospital surrounded by teammates.
"At that point, I thought I was in the hospital because of a football injury," he said.
Hinnant spent about three weeks in hospital. He said he was constantly buoyed by support from family, friends and teammates.
His father Blake slept at the hospital while teammates, such as Wyatt Christensen, Sean Finley, Nick Tipple, Jeff Smolkin and Jay Walsh, visited twice a day.
"That showed how big of a brotherhood we have," Hinnant said.
Hinnant returned to school in early December to a warm welcome from his fellow students, who put posters outside his classrooms.
Hinnant said the support helped fuel his approach to therapy. He has been going twice-a-week for about the past four weeks to START Physical Therapy in Fountain Valley. His sister, Whitney, 16, helps drive him to the appointments.
Hinnant also receives speech therapy. The nearly straight-A student has noticed some slurred speech along with difficultly with short-term memory.
He is expected to make a full recovery, and this coming week, he hopes to be cleared to begin walking under his own power.
"J.D. is so positive about the whole thing," Finley wrote in a text message. "Most people would sit back and wonder why? But even when we visited him days after the crash, he was smiling."
Hinnant said his goal of landing a college scholarship motivated him to stay diligent and positive in his recovery.
After the accident, he feared the colleges that had recruited him before his accident – he had scholarship offers from eight Pac-12 schools – would be scared off by his injuries.
"I just told myself that I had to be positive about everything and I had to work harder than I ever had before," he said. "Everything is on the line if I don't work my butt off."
The medical test results have been encouraging. He has been cleared by a neurologist and orthopedist to continue his football career, his mother said.
The response from most colleges was encouraging, too, as most continued to show genuine interest.
Earlier this week, Hinnant decided where he wants to play. He committed to Cal, picking the Golden Bears over his other finalists, Duke and Oregon. He looks forward now to signing his national letter of intent Feb. 6.
Unil then, there's still plenty of therapy in his future, but that won't be a problem for a young man who says he is lucky to be alive.
"Just to see where he is today," Laurie Hinnant said, "it's nothing short of a miracle."
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