A routine tackle left Ben Abercrombie ’21-’23 paralyzed from the neck down. But five years later, Abercrombie is slowly but surely making progress, with a wide coalition of allies by his side.
That coalition includes his parents, Marty and Sherri, who live with him in his Winthrop House suite, his teammates, as well as an unlikely source — El Jefe’s Taqueria. On Tuesday, El Jefe’s will host the 5th Annual Ben Abercrombie Day fundraiser, with all sales between 8 a.m. and 4 a.m. going toward the Benson M. Abercrombie ’21 Fund, founded by the Harvard Varsity Club to finance Abercrombie’s rehabilitation and travel to and from his home in Alabama.
When he arrived on campus for his freshman fall in 2017, Abercrombie was like any other student athlete. But in that year’s season opener against Rhode Island, the defensive back’s life was altered forever. Although the hit looked benign at first, it quickly became clear to veteran head coach Tim Murphy that the consequences would be severe.
“I’ll never forget it,” Murphy said. “I knew immediately, as anyone who was right there, because it just happened to be directly in front of me on the sideline … but I knew immediately, just intuitively, this was something very, very serious.”
Abercrombie had come out of Hoover High School in Alabama as a touted prospect. At Hoover, he was part of three state championship teams across football and baseball, and those Buccaneers football teams were close-knit squads anchored by a fierce defense. Abercrombie started at safety his junior and senior years, and he was named to the All-State First Team after his senior year.
“We hated to let teams score,” Abercrombie said about the Hoover defenses. “We were trying to get a shutout every game, basically.”
When he came to Massachusetts on a recruiting visit, Murphy and several other recruits made an early impression on him. One fellow Alabamian, safety Tanner Lee ’17, gave Abercrombie the nickname “The Badger” for his tenacious play and his resemblance on the field to Tyrann Mathieu, the former LSU defensive standout who currently plays for the New Orleans Saints. Lee and other veteran players like Raishaun McGee ’17 later became some of Abercrombie’s early mentors on the team.
Throughout Murphy’s 28 seasons as Harvard’s head coach, one of his top priorities has been to develop bonds between players, making sure all freshmen have an upperclassman mentor. The unassailable community the Crimson program has forged was evident in the hours after Abercrombie’s injury. Instead of traveling back to Cambridge with the team, Murphy and his wife stayed with the safety into the early hours of the morning at Providence Hospital.
“I actually had a chance to speak with Ben just as he was being wheeled into emergency surgery,” Murphy recalled. “I had the chance to let him know that we were here for him.”
The first month after his injury, which he spent in the hospital, presented tremendous challenges. He suffered from pneumonia, as patients recovering from traumatic spinal cord injuries typically struggle with temperature regulation. Listed at 175 pounds entering his freshman season, he lost nearly all of his muscle mass in the hospital, dropping to 130. He also had to re-learn basic functions, such as eating, speaking, and drinking.
At that point, Marty recalled, the family’s focus was on survival — getting Abercrombie accustomed to breathing with a ventilator, for instance, and teaching his family how to attend to his needs, as he required someone to be with him 24/7. One of Abercrombie’s early strides was regaining the ability to eat normally, which he celebrated with a meal from a Mexican restaurant with a speech therapist who had been working with him.
Throughout these early days, he had the support of several teammates and Harvard football alumni. Shortly after his injury, Harvard Athletics released a video of several players vowing to dedicate the season to him. Additionally, in a 26-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 3, 2017, two members of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers — tight end Cameron Brate ’14 and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 — wore cleats dedicated to Abercrombie as part of the league’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign. Fitzpatrick even sent his shoes to Abercrombie after the game.
Former Harvard players showing their support for the safety has been commonplace since his injury. An alumnus whom Abercrombie had never met before came to visit him at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a specialized hospital focused on brain and spinal cord injuries, where he was transferred after his month-long stay at the hospital in Providence. McGee, his former Harvard teammate, founded the Bowl for Ben fundraiser, an annual event to kick off Harvard-Yale weekend that donates all of its proceeds to his recovery. This event also serves as a reunion for several former players from Murphy’s early years with the team, who aid in Abercrombie’s recovery despite never having shared the field with him.
“We went to the Bowl for Ben and there were some guys who played for Coach Murphy decades ago,” Marty said. “You can just tell that connection’s there.”
In 2019, after taking two years off to focus on his rehabilitation, Abercrombie returned to campus and re-enrolled in classes, where he found an academic home in Economics and lived in a suite in Weld Hall. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic presented another challenge, with his injury making him more vulnerable to the virus, but Abercrombie continued taking classes remotely before moving into his current home in Winthrop in fall 2021. His room reflects the people and the sport that has shaped him, with flags representing the Crimson and the Alabama Crimson Tide, his original hometown team, adorning the walls.
Abercrombie’s favorite class this semester was one on finance, which he cited as the best that he’s taken at Harvard. After graduation in May, he hopes to work in sports finance, representing professional athletes. Wherever his career takes him, though, he will likely continue to be a presence for the Harvard team.
In addition to attending every home game, Abercrombie watches the away games in his suite with friends and family, and he occasionally attends defensive backs meetings. His football insights have continued to be valuable to Murphy, as the head coach meets weekly with Abercrombie and his family, where they usually talk about college football, including the upcoming week’s opponent. Abercrombie has also promised to keep Murphy abreast of promising prospects who, like him, hail from the Yellowhammer State. Along the way, the two families have built a deep personal relationship.
“They always stop by once a week to chat, and for me, it’s by far the most enjoyable and inspirational part of my week,” the coach said. “We’ve grown very close to Ben and his family. … The remarkable closeness, resilience, and such big hearts, whether in these circumstances or not, they’re a very charismatic family in the best possible context.”
Even as he has reintegrated himself back into campus life, his emphasis on his physical recovery has not waned. Throughout the course of his rehabilitation, Abercrombie has focused on regaining the muscle mass that he lost in his first weeks in the hospital, and on keeping his muscles strong. Since 2018, he has attended therapy sessions at a facility in Canton, Massachusetts, called Journey Forward, a non-profit, activity-focused rehab center, which is “dedicated to bettering the lives of those with spinal cord injuries or disability.” Journey Forward tailors its programs to every individual patient, focusing on improving clients’ weaknesses.
“With spinal cord injuries and any neurological injury, everybody is a snowflake,” said John Walters, the vice president and program director at Journey Forward. “Everybody’s unique and different in how they present and in their recovery.”
For Abercrombie, the emphasis is balance, stamina, and breathing. At Journey Forward, which he visits every Friday, Abercrombie uses a variety of equipment to strengthen his muscles and stimulate the neural connections involved in walking and standing. The Lokomat, for example, is a machine that resembles a full-body harness and which moves Abercrombie’s legs in a walking motion. He continues his training at home each day, by using his specialized wheelchair to stand up and an exercise bike, by which electrodes can be connected to his arms and legs in order to stimulate the nerves and allow him to ride. One prominent goal is to get him off the ventilator and tracheostomy tube that he currently uses to breathe.
“We [do] a lot of trunk work,” Walters said of the weekly sessions. “We do a lot of standing activities and a lot of balancing things, through his shoulders, his neck, and his head.”
All of these exercises help prepare his body for any breakthrough in spinal cord injury treatment that could come with advancing medical research. Abercrombie’s father pointed to a clinical trial beginning this year for a compound intended to boost nerve regeneration after spinal cord injury as a potential difference-maker. The family also travels to Chicago every few months to take part in rehabilitation studies there.
Abercrombie talks about his recovery with a sly smile, which breaks out into a full grin when he talks about the Harvard team or the college football predictions that he makes each week. People who know him well rave about his optimism and energy throughout the last few years.
“I grew up watching Ben from afar, as he was a couple grades ahead of me at Hoover,” a fellow Hoover native, senior cornerback Alex Washington wrote via text. Abercrombie cited Washington, who is two years his junior, as one of his closest friends on the team.
“When you talk about character, you generally talk about very basic — good person, highly motivated, resiliency skills, adversity skills, leadership skills,” Murphy said. “Ben would be the absolute epitome of all that through the most challenging of circumstances. We’re always looking for the next Ben Abercrombie.”
Walters echoed this sentiment from his time working with Abercromie.
“You got to have a sense of drive and determination and character,” he said of Abercromie’s motivation to continue his studies, his rehab, and his involvement with the football team. “It’s definitely inspirational.”
Another person who entered Abercrombie’s life after his injury and has since been struck by his personality is John Schall, the owner of El Jefe’s and the organizer of the Ben Abercrombie Day fundraiser. Shortly after the injury, he emailed the Harvard Varsity Club and later introduced himself to the Abercrombie family. On Dec. 12, 2017, he hosted the first Abercrombie Day.
Schall has a deep understanding of what Abercrombie faces: 46 years ago, his younger brother, Mike, suffered a spinal cord injury from a car accident that left him paralyzed, at the same age of 18. Mike was also a state champion athlete in track, but his decades-long road to recovery has presented challenges that Schall and his family have faced together. Schall also gave back to another high school track star in 2011, when he hosted a fundraiser at his other restaurant, Fire + Ice, for Brenna Bean, a state champion pole vaulter who had been involved in a serious car accident the year before and was paralyzed from the waist down.
“Once Ben got hurt, I knew I was going to do something,” Schall said.
Five years later, Schall’s efforts have combined to raise over $127,000 for the fund, which helps finance Abercrombie’s recovery and has pledged to support any other future athletes who may suffer spinal cord injuries while playing for the Crimson. The day is an all-hands-on-deck effort, and that doesn’t only include every El Jefe’s worker, it also includes the football team, which stands outside the restaurant’s doors each year to bring attention to the cause. Schall is hopeful that, after the franchise moved to a new, larger location in August, the 2022 edition will be the biggest yet. His goal — $40,000.
“More people fit inside here as well,” Schall said. “We can do greater volume out of here than we could do out of that smaller store. … Partly, this is just about how many people we can get through and how quickly can they get through.”
On Tuesday, hundreds of Harvard students, dozens of Abercrombie’s current and former teammates, and Abercrombie himself will flood the store, generating thousands of dollars towards his recovery and further installing El Jefe’s as a prominent Harvard institution in the square.
As for what Abercrombie will be ordering?
“I like their nachos,” he said.