SAN JOSE, Calif. — There was a time when Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman wasn’t sure if he should – or even could – play football again.

In April 2006, a freak accident in an intrasquad scrimmage at Ohio State forever changed the lives of Coleman and teammate Tyson Gentry.

Coleman, a freshman defensive back looking to make an impression on the coaching staff, charged up from his position to put a hard but legal hit on Gentry while running a route.

Coleman jarred the ball loose and the defense picked it up and scored. Coleman celebrated what he thought was a terrific play.

That is, until a few seconds later when he noticed something horrible had happened.

Gentry wasn’t getting up.

“It was like my body disappeared from me,” Gentry said.

“Horrifying,” Coleman said. “I thought I made a really big play, and you look back and he’s not moving. You go from the top of the world to the bottom.”

Gentry, a converted punter, couldn’t feel anything below his neck. The minutes that followed were a blur to Coleman – the silence, trainers scrambling onto the field and the ambulance taking someone he’d never met before to the hospital because of a hit he made.

In that moment, two lives were forever changed, and eventually an unbreakable friendship developed.

“A bond formed through a tragedy,” Coleman called it.

The hit broke the C4 vertebrae in Gentry’s neck, paralyzing the then 20-year-old from the neck down, and leaving Coleman with grief and guilt.

Gentry underwent two surgeries.

It took a couple of weeks before Coleman mustered the nerve to visit Gentry. The frightened 17-year-old wasn’t sure what type of situation he was walking into at the hospital. He brought a friend for support.

But when Coleman arrived, he didn’t find resentment or bitterness from the Gentry family. Instead he found love and compassion, hugs and reassurances.

Gentry’s father, Bob, greeted Coleman at the door to the room, thanked him for coming, looked Coleman in the eyes and told him in no uncertain terms he didn’t do anything wrong. “He said, ‘I don’t blame you,’ ” Coleman said.

When Coleman walked to the bed, Tyson told him the same thing: It was a legal hit; he didn’t do anything wrong.

“It was a freak accident,” Gentry said from his home in Tampa, Florida. “But at that time I don’t think I understood the guilt Kurt was feeling. It was one of those things where I was so caught up in what I was going through.”

Coleman believes the meeting saved his career.

“This game, you can’t play it half speed,” Coleman said. “I think the moment that he gave me the reassurance that I was OK to play football, a tremendous calmness came over me.”

The two men’s lives have headed in different directions but they remain close friends.

“Whenever Kurt has an interception we just yell and scream,” said Gentry’s wife, Megan. “We love that he has found a home in Carolina.”

“I could not be more proud of him,” Gentry said. “To have the fortitude and work ethic he has … ”

When the Panthers reached the Super Bowl, Gentry sent a text message to Coleman telling him “You’re awesome, keep living the dream.”

Gentry hasn’t stopped living, either.

He recently received his master’s degree in injury rehabilitation. He remains paralyzed from the neck down other than some use of his biceps.

He can’t move his fingers but keeps forging ahead. Gentry recently started the “New Perspective Foundation,” which provides financial assistance for families of spinal cord injury victims. They’ve helped 10 families in Ohio and Florida and hope to reach all 50 states.

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