Hilmar coach sees some progress by injured player

Hilmar linebacker Joseph Bello practices on Wednesday (11-20-13) in Hilmar.
Hilmar linebacker Joseph Bello practices on Wednesday (11-20-13) in Hilmar. bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com

Hilmar High football coach Frank Marques makes a weekly trip to Santa Clara to visit Joseph Bello. After each visit he comes home feeling more positive about the progress he sees.

Bello is a senior at Hilmar and was a star linebacker for Marques, earning the top defensive player award in the Trans-Valley League after recording 138 tackles to lead the Yellowjackets to a TVL championship and a berth in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 championship game this past season.

Bello’s life took a dramatic turn, however, on Feb. 15 when he was seriously injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident while vacationing with his family at Pismo Beach.

Bello, 17, was riding his quad bike at the Oceano Dunes when he was flipped off the vehicle coming down a hill. The vehicle landed on top of Bello, fracturing two vertebrae and leaving him without feeling or movement from his chest down.

Bello was flown to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. He underwent surgery on Feb. 18 to fuse the two fractured vertebrae.

Marques wasn’t as optimistic after his first visit with Bello after he was transferred to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in late February.

“I was scared after seeing him the first time,” Marques said. “Just seeing the situation he was in. I guess I wasn’t prepared to see how slow the recovery would be for him.”

Marques has been able to measure the progress with each weekly visit.

“There have been significant improvements that I’ve seen from week to week,” Marques said. “He has more hand movement. He’s able to operate the wheelchair by himself. He’s able to move his neck pretty well. He started out on a breathing tube. The first time I was there he was on a ventilator all the time. Then it was some of the time and now he’s off it all the time. Two weeks ago, he had his trach (tracheotomy) removed and last week, he had his C spine collar taken off.

“I guess the average person might now see these as huge improvements, but the body isn’t going to repair itself in leaps and bounds.”

Bello still has no movement from the chest down, but there have been moments where he’s felt sensations in his lower body.

“They call it sparking,” Marques said. “His muscles will fire and he’ll feel a sensation and then it goes away. It’s nothing major, but he does get sensations.”

Teammate Beau Balswick was surprised when he visited Bello.

“The first time I saw him everyone was prepping me what to expect, so I was expecting to see the worst,” Balswick said. “I walked in and it’s the same Joseph. He had a smile on his face. He was cracking jokes. I know some people who saw him say it’s a shocker when they see him. But most of those people know Joseph from his athletic ability or from around school. When I saw him he was the same Joseph, telling jokes.”

That’s what impresses Balswick. Despite everything Bello has been through in the past two months, his attitude hasn’t changed.

“You look at everything he was with football and the potential he had, and it was all taken away like that,” Balswick said. “It changes your perspective on life. It makes you appreciate what you have. Honestly, if I was in the same position, I’m not sure I could be as positive as he is. He just keeps chugging along.”

The community has come together to offer its support.

According to Marques, dairy farmers from Hilmar and Turlock joined forces to raise more than $24,000 toward Bello’s college fund after holding a heifer sale. Other people have donated gift cards so the family can eat out when they are visiting Bello in Santa Clara.

“The family didn’t ask for money but the community just wanted to help in some way,” Marques said. “I know the family was blown away from all the well wishers and everything they’ve received. They’re very humbled by the gifts and prayers and all the support they’ve received.”

Bello is scheduled to be released from the the medical center at the end of the month. He’ll return home but will travel to Santa Clara three times a week for physical therapy.

The prognosis for Bello’s recovery is unknown.

“I think there is optimism, but the doctors are very reserved,” Marques said. “I think they have to be to prepare the family for the worst. I know I get excited to go up there each week just to see what he’s doing next.

“I’ve learned to measure success in small increments. His parents have taught me this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “This is going to be a long haul, and Joseph is the most optimistic kid I know.”