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  • Mark Leffingwell / Daily Camera

    Occupational therapist Lauren Delulio, left, is helping Miles Pancoast gain his strength and flexibility back after a car accident.

  • Mark Leffingwell / Daily Camera

    Miles Pancoast, right, works out with his physical therapist Kim Hutchinson at Craig Hospital on Tuesday.

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On a stunningly gorgeous October Saturday, Miles Pancoast’s life couldn’t have been any more perfect.

The only thing more idyllic than the script that played out Oct. 11 in Nederland was the pristine setting. Pancoast, a defensive end for the Panthers, played a key role in Nederland’s 56-12 rout of Longmont Christian that sun-soaked afternoon. Pancoast recorded a sack in the win to increase his season total to eight, a mark that led all of 8-man football.

The victory that day also gave Nederland a 4-3 record. Boasting a winning record was a source of great joy to Pancoast and his fellow seniors, who earlier in the season had finally snapped a trying and often demeaning 24-game losing streak. As if the on-field elation wasn’t enough, that night Pancoast was crowned Nederland’s homecoming king, an honor bestowed upon him through a vote by the entire Nederland student body.

In short, Pancoast had won the popularity contest in addition to a football game against a league rival.

Less than 48 hours later, everything changed.

• • •

Pancoast remembers the steering column going out in his car and the sudden fear that consumed him as the car veered abruptly to the right, heedless of his panicked efforts with the steering wheel.

He remembers being surprised he was able to right the ship, getting the car back on the straight-and-narrow so adeptly his passenger, teammate and fellow senior Nick Kassera, commented, “Good job.”

Pancoast remembers how he was about to pull over to figure out what the heck happened when his control of the car vanished once again. This time they veered left and, once the wheels titled to a full right angle, they flipped down an embankment. Pancoast was ejected from the vehicle. The next thing he remembers were the lights beaming down into his face, and the harrowing thought that he couldn’t feel his legs.

“I think the tires went from straight to completely sideways, because we flipped end over end,” Pancoast said. “I remember taking an immediate left and then seeing a barbed-wire fence, and then that’s all that I remember.”

Family friend Ryan Roberts, a Nederland fireman, was one of the faces Pancoast recalls from that terrifying hour.

“He was one of the first people there, and I remember looking at him and a bunch of other faces that were circled around me,” Pancoast said. “My neck and shoulders were hurting, and then I remember waking up in ICU.”

Pancoast and three of his teammates had spent the day — Oct. 13, the Monday after the homecoming win against Longmont Christian — helping Pancoast’s mother, Bee Brogan, move from Blackhawk to a new home in Nederland. They had just retrieved Pancoast’s car from Black Hawk and were returning to Nederland to spend the first night at Brogan’s new digs when disaster struck.

Junior Jack Abendroth, riding with senior Ben Jurisich in a car ahead of Pancoast and Kassera, saw Pancoast go off the road in his rearview mirror. They found Kassera battered but intact in the car. Pancoast, however, was nowhere to be found.

“At first I was in shock, like did I really see that?” Abendroth said. “It was just starting to be night and you couldn’t see them from the road. We found Nick right away. He was still in the car. Ben got on the phone with 911 and I went back to look for Miles. He wasn’t in the car. I don’t know how long it took, but it felt like it took forever.”

The first responders could tell immediately the situation was grave. Soon Pancoast was airlifted to St. Anthony’s Hospital.

• • •

Bee Brogan is a familiar face at Nederland High. Her daughter is one of the Panthers’ cheerleaders, and Brogan serves as the clock operator at the football games. That is, when she’s not enthusiastically greeting just about everyone in the stadium with a beaming smile.

It was no surprise a handful of football players offered to spend their downtime helping with the heavy lifting of her move. She was just beginning to wonder where the boys were when the phone rang. It was the Nederland police.

“It was like a dream voice talking,” Brogan said. “He said he has some hard news and that it’s a grave situation. I was crying so hard. I thought I was talking but I was just hysterical. In my mind I was speaking and asking questions, but everyone kept telling me to calm down.

“I felt this sense of loss immediately. Like if he’s gone, what am I going to do?”

Pancoast wasn’t gone, yet he would never be the same. He was diagnosed with a fracture of his C4 vertebra in his neck, as well as a dislocation of the C4 and C5 vertebrae. In a stroke of good fortune, Pancoast’s spinal cord was severely traumatized but not severed. He would never walk again, though, and even the use of his arms was in question.

Aaron Jones has spent the past decade as Nederland’s football coach. In perhaps the understatement of the year, the first inkling Jones received regarding the situation was a text message early the next morning from Kassera’s mom saying her son and Pancoast would be unable to make practice that day because they had been in an accident.

After ascertaining the true gravity of the situation, Jones rushed to the hospital. Yet in true coach fashion, he already was wondering how to deal with the rest of the Panthers’ team with one of their most popular players fighting for his life.

“I tried to check myself from thinking the worst,” Jones said. “I got there and it was pretty serious business. (Pancoast) was actually pretty coherent compared to where he was a few days later.

“It was hard for me. And I know that sounds selfish, because it’s not about me. But you feel responsible for your players. What stuck out to me was that Miles was relieved this didn’t happen to Nick, and that his friend was able to walk away.”

•••

Pancoast soon was transferred to Craig Hospital, the nationally renowned rehabilitation center for patients dealing with cataclysmic spine injuries. It would be easy to believe an 18-year-old who was a standout athlete and avid outdoorsman would be cursing the world for his dispiriting plight.

Yet nothing would be further from the truth.

“I’ve been pretty grateful, for the most part,” Pancoast said. “I have to count the blessings. I could have no arm movement, or have a trach the rest of my life. Or I could’ve died. I can do a lot more now, and it’s nice to be able to at least talk to people normally.

“That’s the toughest part — I missed the last few football games of my senior year. I’m not going to be able to play my senior year of basketball. I’m a huge fisherman, which I should still be able to do, but it won’t be the same.”

The ensuing months have seen Pancoast make marked improvements. When he first arrived at Craig he could barely move his arms. While the fine motor skills — such as writing, or holding a utensil — remain absent, Pancoast can now move his arms somewhat freely. The fractures are healing and he is scheduled to finally shed his neck brace before the end of December.

Pancoast has been accompanied at Craig throughout his entire stay by Brogan, his father Jeff Pancoast, and his girlfriend, junior Nederland volleyball player Addie Jacoby.

A glance around Pancoast’s room at Craig reveals the amazing depth of generosity that has been directed his way. The football programs from Longmont Christian and Fairview have aided in fundraising endeavors. At a volleyball game shortly after the accident, Nederland’s rivals at Gilpin County donated the gate receipts from the match against the Panthers and also passed around a collection box.

There are footballs and volleyballs signed by the respective teams from Nederland, but the outpouring has not been limited to the high school ranks. In early December Pancoast attended an Avalanche game and received a game-used puck. There were visits from the cheerleaders of the Broncos and Nuggets, as well as a signed football from Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas.

Jones and the Nederland athletic department plan to retire Pancoast’s No. 88 jersey in a ceremony later this school year.

“A lot of people have raised a lot of money, and the generosity has just been overwhelming,” Brogan said. “It has really helped get us through this. It helps so that he can focus on his therapy and his healing. We’re just so grateful for everyone’s help and support. We don’t feel alone.”

Pancoast tentatively is scheduled to return home from Craig on Jan. 22. He has been able to catch up on his school work and plans to be with his graduating class at Nederland in May.

After that, much remains in the air. Pancoast still plans to attend college, but has not yet decided if he will go the online route or attempt to attend school. He had always dreamed of working one day for the Division of Wildlife, but that goal may need to be altered.

From now on, it truly is just one day at a time.

“(Graduation) means a big deal to me because most of the kids I’ve known since kindergarten,” Pancoast said. “It will be awesome to walk with all of them.”

Donations can be made for the Miles Pancoast Special Needs Trust, care of Centennial Bank, P.O. Box 69, Nederland, CO.

Donations also can be made at the family’s Give Forward page.

Pat Rooney: rooneyp@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/prooney07