Former UConn basketball player Steve Emt almost died, twice; now he inspires others to live

Former UConn basketball player Steve Emt almost died, twice; now he inspires others to live

Steve Emt is an inspiration now. On March 24, 1995, he was a drunk driver. 

Emt is a 50-year-old Paralympian, America’s No. 1 wheelchair curler, a former UConn basketball player whose passion is to lift the lives of others. On March 24, 1995, he damned near took his own. Days later, he thought about ending it again.

Introduced by Jim Calhoun, Emt, whose autobiography “You D.E.C.I.D.E” goes on sale next week, gave a remarkable virtual talk Friday presented by Haddad & Partners. Those who know the history of UConn basketball know some of the details of Emt’s horrible accident and his personal transformation and athletic makeover.
On this day, his words were lush with details I’d never heard and filled with the emotion and hope that led him to scoff at the date.
“Friday the 13th, all this bad luck,” Emt said. “That’s garbage. Every day is lucky. Every day is beautiful. I’m lucky to be alive. I’m lucky to be paralyzed, sitting here talking to you today.”

He grew up in Hebron, 20 minutes from Storrs, and dreamed of being a UConn basketball player. He was a third-team All-American soccer goalkeeper. He was an All-State basketball player at RHAM and an all-conference baseball player.

Among the recruiting material, he fell in love with the idea of attending the U.S. Military Academy and being a Division I athlete. His dad said, “This is crazy, Steve.” He understood the rigors of West Point. In his freshman year, Steve was awoken in the middle of the night, brought to the company commander’s office. The cadet chaplain was there. Emt’s dad had died of a heart attack at age 57.

“He was my best friend, my mentor and at the time I looked at him as a hero,” Emt said. “He did everything for everybody. I was in total shock. I couldn’t move.”

His company commander brought him home. Army officials told him to take a semester off. No, his dad was buried on a Thursday and Emt returned to West Point on Saturday. He tried to hang on for a few years. He failed some classes. On probation, he couldn’t leave campus. He resigned his appointment and enrolled at UConn. Glen Miller saw him playing intramural ball and the next thing he knew Calhoun was on the phone asking him whether he wanted to try out as a walk-on.

Emt covered the phone and yelled, “Are you kidding me?”

Forget the rounded-off statistics, Emt said, he played 38.7 seconds over two years for UConn. He got into two games, including Senior Night against St. John’s at the XL Center. UConn was up big. There is video of Donyell Marshall pointing to Emt for Calhoun to put him in the game.

“I’m very proud of those 38.7 seconds,” Emt said.

He had the chance to be in study hall, lift weights, practice with Scott Burrell, Donyell and Donny Marshall, Ray Allen, Kevin Ollie. It was an incredible experience. His mom also was paying for college. Emt decided to get a job, carry his own freight.

“And that’s when my life got flipped upside down,” Emt said. “Literally.”

Two buddies asked Emt what they were all doing that night. Only one possibility. “March Madness, baby!” Emt said. They met at a commuter parking lot. He got out of his truck, into his buddy’s truck and went to a local bar to watch UConn beat Maryland.

“When I got into the bar, people recognized me as a former UConn player,” Emt said. “The bartender, the owner, the waitress came up to me: ‘Steve, whatever you want, it’s on us.’ ‘Your pitcher is empty, get yourself more beer.’ ‘If you’re hungry, let us know.’”

One drink led to another well into the night. He was told he got into a fight with another patron and beat him up badly enough for the police and an ambulance to be called.

“I don’t remember doing that,” Emt said. “My buddies were told to get me out of there pretty quick. They didn’t want bad publicity for the basketball program.”

Emt does recall turning the key in the ignition of his truck back at the commuter lot. That’s the last thing he remembers.

“I was invincible,” he said. “I was a stud athlete in high school. Guys wanted to be me. Girls wanted to be with me. I went to West Point. I’m a cadet. I was invincible. I’m the man.”

He says now, he also drank in middle school, high school, at West Point and UConn. He was traveling about 80 mph after 1 a.m. when he went off the road and hit a bridge embankment on I-84 near Exit 66 in Vernon. The truck flipped five times, cartwheeling 75 yards before it came to rest in a ditch.

The truck was on its roof. The windows were shattered. The tires were blown out. Thrown out the back window, Emt’s clothes were torn off, he was bleeding from his nose, his mouth, his ears. That blood also would measure .12, drunken driving.

“I was found by a police officer driving on the other side of the highway when his lights shined off the chrome of my truck,” Emt said.

In emergency medicine, there’s something called the “Golden Hour.” The period after a traumatic car crash injury, when chances of preventing death with prompt treatment help exponentially.

Police estimated Emt was in the ditch 30 minutes. LifeStar took eight minutes to arrive by helicopter. He was treated at the scene for eight minutes and it took eight minutes to get him to the hospital. Do the math.

“Six minutes to live,” Emt said, “because of a stupid, stupid decision to get behind the wheel.”

Six hours of surgery followed. He was cut open from chest to navel. He broke most of his ribs. There was massive internal bleeding. His back was broken in three places. He blew out both his knees. He had a head injury. He ruptured his spleen.

Worst, he severed his spinal cord near his belly button.

“Cut in half,” Emt said.

Paralyzed from the waist down. Even after a quarter-century, you can stick a knife in his leg and he won’t feel it.

“Two days in a coma,” Emt said. “Two days of hell that I put my loved ones through, wondering if Steve was ever going to wake up.”

Last rites were read. Doctors wondered aloud whether he was going to make it. The family was advised to start making funeral arrangements.

Steve Emt remembers how he came out of his coma, how a dream became reality.

“I was at my old house where I grew up in Hebron,” Emt said. “It was a warm spring day, but it was rainy and misty out. I was in my bedroom and a window was open. A cloud of mist blew in and I leaned forward into it to cool myself off.

“Something grabbed me and threw me into the corner of a closet, spinning me around in a circle real fast. As I was spinning, I saw a beautiful bright skeleton of a person. Bright facial features. All of a sudden all of those lights came together to one point.”

He awoke at 6 a.m. two days after his accident. People tell him that it was his guardian angel, his father telling him to do good, to accept the consequences of his actions and to help people.

“That’s why I do this,” Emt said.

His autobiography is also a presentation of his personal recipe for making a positive pivot in life. For few have ever made a bigger one. You D.E.C.I.D.E.

“Here I was in the hospital bed rotating side to side so I don’t get pneumonia, a respirator in my mouth doing the breathing for me, my hands handcuffed to the bed so I didn’t pull it out and die,” Emt said. “I couldn’t feel my legs, but I was in so much pain that I was medicated so I couldn’t feel anything from the neck down.”

The surgeon came in, looked Emt in the eye and told him the truth: “You will never walk again.” Five words. Emt’s mom walked into the room. She was crying. One teardrop fell on Emt’s face. She told her son she loved him.

“Believe me,” he said. “I felt that tear. And that was the most profound, deep feeling I ever had in my life. Realizing what I did to my mother, not to me, and family and all these people close to me. People coming to see me. Doron Sheffer calling overseas from a pay phone. The hell I put them all through.”

He had to learn things as simple as how to make toast and put on his shoes. He said he would have been out of rehab in record time, but his nurses dropped him on the tire of his wheelchair carrying him from his bed. A bruised tailbone could have killed him. He had to lay there on his side for two days, his butt cheeks taped open to facilitate healing.

“That’s when I hit rock bottom,” he said. “That’s when I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this world is a better place without me in it. Who’s going to take care of me the rest of my life? Who’s going to feed me and bathe me? Who am I going to be a burden on?’ I thought about killing myself. I was the most negative, miserable person ever to everyone trying to help me. I was screaming at them to get out of my room, to leave me alone.”

He healed physically enough to be brought to the rehab pool. With life vest on, he was slowly lowered into it. The sweet water of redemption. Right then and there, he said, “I’m done being that negative idiot. I’m going to live my life to the fullest. I’m never going to ever give it up.”

He didn’t. Get the book. The rest of his story could change your life.