Jesse Leaman: Fall

Jesse Soccer 1995

Jesse Leaman, star forward for the East Stroudsburg Cavaliers, 1995.
/ Leaman Collection

Writing By Brad Rassler

Jesse Leaman, astrophysicist, knows the cosmos. It’s his turf, in a manner of speaking. So we don’t interrupt when he explains the inner and outer reaches of the universe as he wheels through the University of Nevada, Reno’s (UNR) Fleischmann Planetarium, where my project partner, R.R., and I have met up with him to learn about the last 16 years of his 35-year old life: Such as it was, such as it is, and such as he hopes it will be.

Jesse, for his part, is just happy to be here. He’s friendly and chill, and he’s duded out in a sporty canvas jacket, jeans, and two-tone oxfords. He wears his sideburns long. When he looks up, which he does often, light filters through the lenses of his glasses and illuminates his eyes, which are as blue as a a cloudless Eastern Sierra sky. I watch as he slaloms between the exhibit hall’s dioramas in his super-deluxe electric wheelchair — an Invacare FX, worth about $16,000 — by making a series of shrugs and bobs to trigger the infrared sensor in the head cradle. As he shoots by the moon, he explains it’s a chunk of our own Earth. He pauses by the model of the International Space Station, which he describes from bow to stern, as if he once tenanted the place (in a manner of speaking, he has). And then there is the black hole simulator – the gravity well — into which Jesse instructs us to drop ball bearings as he delights in mentally calculating their orbits as they criss-cross in ever-tightening ellipses around the black hole itself. And though the fate of those chrome marbles is inevitable — they will indeed succumb to gravity — seeing them spin through Jesse’s eyes instills a poignancy that elevates the otherwise simplistic simulation.

After all, gravitational forces inexorably altered Leaman’s own phenomenal journey.

East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania: 1996

Lightning Leaman; that’s what his mates on East Stroudsburg’s soccer team called him. He could out-sprint and out-maneuver defenders, steal the ball from them, and net it before anyone figured out what happened. A lean 5-foot-7, with piercing blue eyes, and a remarkable shock of golden locks, the 18- year-old lived in his body full-time, and in his brain only when he had to; truth be told, he didn’t have to try too hard to excel at anything, even pulling top grades and honor awards.

Jesse had led his soccer team to a conference championship in November 1995, and had been voted to the All Star team, as much for his can-do attitude and natural leadership as for his athleticism. In just six months, the high school senior would graduate in the top 5 percent of his class. He was already accepted to the Florida Institute of Technology, with a scholarship to study in its marine biology program, and in August he’d drive down to Melbourne, FLA. In a few years he hoped to be training dolphins and catching rides on the backs of killer whales at Marine World. At least, that was the plan.

Jesse had to admit that 1995 had been a very good year indeed.  And all signs were pointing to an even better 1996.

And now, on New Year’s Day, the forecasters were calling for an enormous storm to truck in from Quebec, and this one would dump four feet of cold smoke powder onto the local mountains. Jesse would be up there soon, because he was a ski instructor at Shawnee, and he was all but guaranteed the best turns of his life since leaving the Austrian Alps, where he had learned to ski ten years earlier.

No one in East Stroudsburg was prepared for the ferocity with which that nor’easter drove down from Canada into the Mid-Atlantic on January 7. Later to become known as the Blizzard of 1996, the resulting gale-force winds pushed the two feet of snow into drifts four feet high that laid waste to the roads and paralyzed the region from Philadelphia, to Manhattan, to Washington, D.C.

That was ok with Jesse. The schools were closed, and the skiing would be epic. In the meantime, snow drifts surrounded his family’s house. He and some friends were hanging out on the upper outdoor deck, and they occasionally eyeballed the 15-foot drop to the snow billows below.

When Jesse said he was going to jump, no one tried to talk him out of it. Why should they? They didn’t doubt his ability to stick the landing, even when he announced he was going to an attempt a front flip. He’d make the right moves; that’s what Lightning Leaman did.

Jesse would later learn that when he hit the ground head-first, the impact obliterated his fourth cervical vertebra. He had shattered both his C3 and C5 vertebrae in his neck, and his lungs had collapsed. At Allentown’s Lehigh Valley Hospital, the ER doctors reinflated his lungs, fused bone from his hip to his broken neck, and encased him in a halo vest, which they had attached to his head by driving lag screws into his skull.

For now, he lay in the snow, preoccupied with the grim business of drawing breath. His family and friends urged him to hang on. When the paramedics finally arrived, Jesse let go, and his world went dark.

Jesse High School

The Pocono Record’s clip about Jesse’s accident / Leaman Collection