In the next in our series of athletes overcoming obstacles, Neil Cohen shares the story of NYC Firefighter Matt Long’s inspirational comeback after a horrific cycling accident.
As sports fans, we spend hours each week watching and dissecting our teams’ efforts. We feel the euphoria when David Ortiz hits a breathtaking, game-tying grand slam to bring his Red Sox back from the brink and we feel the heartache when Torii Hunter just misses the greatest post-season catch ever and lands on his head in the bullpen—his World Series dream soon to be over.
We live for these moments; we marvel at athletes who can do things we can only dream about. We feel angered when they let us down and joy when they come through in moments when it seems all hope is lost. And every now and then, we hear about a story that helps us understand the true power of sports and why we love them so much. Sometimes these stories take our breath away.
I had no idea who Matt Long was as I sat down to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in August 2011. I imagine most people have no idea who he is or what he’s accomplished. Matt Long isn’t a professional athlete; you can’t buy his baseball card or see him when you turn on the games every Sunday. He’s just a “regular guy”—one of us—who has done something extraordinary.
Matt Long’s story starts on the morning of December 22, 2005. Because of a transit strike, Long chose to ride his bike to his job as an instructor for the NYC Fire Department on Randall Island. A few blocks into his ride, the driver of a bus chartered by the soon-to-collapse investment bank Bear Stearns made an illegal right turn, hitting and crushing Long in the process. Long wasn’t just hit by the bus, he was completely run over, sucked underneath and impaled by his own bike in the process. Emergency crews at the scene literally had to cut his bike away from him—it having sawed through his mid-section like something from a bad horror movie, only worse.
By the time first responders got Long to the hospital, and following a staggering 68 units of blood during the first 10 hours of surgery, doctors gave him less than a 5% chance of survival. In this Runner’s World piece his doctors described his initial surgery—more than 40 would follow–and the damage the bus had inflicted as worse than soldiers hit with mortar fire in Iraq.
Just some of his injuries included a crushed pelvis, fractured right shoulder, compound fractures of the left tibia, femur and foot, torn rectum, perforated abdominal walls and a fractured right hip. The pelvis injury would lead to one leg being shorter than the other. Doctors told Long that he might never walk again without assistance, let alone run. As Long would detail in his book The Long Run, however, the mental aspect of his recovery would, in many ways, be more difficult than the physical.
Prior to the accident, Long was in the best shape of his life, having recently qualified for the Boston Marathon by running a 3:13:59 NYC Marathon and an 11 hour and 18 minute Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid that included a 3:44:38 marathon. Long wasn’t world class as he neared age 40, but he was most definitely elite, and racing defined who he was.
Now, with all of his hopes and dreams dashed, he faced the prospect of an unknown future filled with many surgeries and hours upon hours of physical therapy. Long yearned to be the guy everyone knew before the accident, and ultimately he believed that running and competing in the sports he loved would return him to his former self.
After two years of rehabilitation, and before he could even walk without assistance, let alone run, Long set his sights on the 2008 NYC Marathon. He began training—running his first mile since the accident in over 17 minutes, a far cry from his former self, but a mile nonetheless. Long would finish the marathon in 7:21:22 and in crossing that finish line—followed by 10 push-ups of course—he knew he was “back.”
Not one to be satisfied with just a measly marathon, Long would compete the following year in the Lake Placid Iron Man completing the grueling race in 16 hours, 58 minutes, beating the 17 hour cut-off for official finishers by a mere two minutes.
Long’s doctors credited his elite conditioning and heart for keeping him alive following the accident. Sports had saved his life once, and it would save it again. He doesn’t grace the back pages of the local newspaper or cause an uproar with any tweets he sends, but he quietly represents all that sports can be when it’s right and the power of setting an outrageous goal and having the will to accomplish it.