Declared dead, valley man plays soccer again

Posted at 6:33 PM, Apr 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-01 22:38:08-04

Often times the triumph of the human spirit can be found in sports. No one knows that more than one Valley soccer player.

Growing up in a soccer family, Nick Burriel played for the U.S. Olympic Development team before getting a scholarship to play at the University of San Francisco. "Some coaches think they have a crystal ball and they say you're not good enough," said his father Dominic, a former player himself. "He obviously got some of that but kept pushing, worked hard and made his dream come true."

But in November of 2013, that dream turned into a nightmare. At a restaurant in Fresno Nick was assaulted and knocked unconscious. The man who attacked him struck his head repeatedly after Nick was knocked out and he later went into cardiac arrest.

Doctors say Nick was clinically dead for 25 minutes. "It's the news you never want to hear as a parent," said Mr. Burriel. "Regardless of what we had to go through it was nothing compared to what Nick had to go through."

Nick was in a coma for two weeks and still has no memory of the time after he woke up. "I was in the bed for a few weeks until I walked and my walk was not a walk. It was more of a dragging," he said.

By chance Nick's mother heard about the work being done at the Centre for Neuro Skills in Bakersfield and immediately worked on getting Nick the help he needed.

Used to scoring goals his new goal was recovery. Neurologists at CNS say the fact that Nick was an athlete may have helped that process. "From his starting point he was a physically active, cognitively capable person so that's a good place to start from," said Matthew Ashley, a consulting neurologist at CNS. 

The recovery process didn't happen overnight but thanks to the staff at CNS and the support of his family Nick was finally able to return to doing what he loved; playing soccer. 

"This journey is not a 100 yard sprint, it's a marathon," said Mr. Burriel. "And that marathon is grueling sometimes."

While Nick is back to sprinting, two weeks ago he completed the second half of his dad's analogy and ran in his first half marathon. But it wasn't a smooth race and he fell down more than once. "He actually took pride in the scrape on his knee and the dirt on his knee because he's like 'I fell down, I got back up and I finished," said Chris Persel, the director of rehabilitation at CNS. 

While Nick's playing days may have been cut short, he's found a new perspective on life and is ready to cheer on his younger brother Tiger who is set to play college soccer himself. "I know what it's like to not walk or talk," said Nick. "I've been there. Now I'm very fortunate. I just got lucky that I'm able to do this now."

Nick has been living in a semi independent facility and his caregivers at CNS think he's ready for the next big step. That is to live on his own again.


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