In The Cosmo Hot Seat: Gene Tejada And His Walk To Freedom

In honor of Independence Month, columnist Bianca Valerio sits down with former PBA player Gene Tejada as he chronicles the liberating miracle of his recovery from a paralyzing accident.

As an ode to Independence Month, we bring you a different take on what it truly means to be free for one special man.

Former professional basketball player Gene Tejada, who is now a motivational speaker, shares how he courageously endured his journey towards physical, emotional, and spiritual healing in the aftermath of a tragic accident. 

This is Gene then, and the man now. 

What's your claim to fame? Did you always want to play pro basketball?

My claim to fame is playing PBA Basketball for three and a half years. It was always a dream of mine to play basketball in the PBA because my Dad played basketball here during the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) days. 

I played for the Alaska Aces from 2003-2006 then for San Miguel Beer Men and Chunkee Food Giants in 2006.

Did you finish school or go straight to playing pro basketball?

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I attended High School at James Logan High School in Union City, California where I received my high school diploma. Then after that, I attended Junior College at Chabot College in Hayward, California and received an Associates Degree. I then transferred to Holy Names College in Oakland, California to pursue my Bachelors Degree, but after a year I left college to follow my dream of playing pro basketball.

How and when did you injure yourself?

I got injured on Mother's Day, May 14, 2006, at the time I was playing PBA Basketball for Purefoods. We were matched up againt Red Bull. It was a routine play the during the end of the fourth quarter. My teammate Roger Yap was driving to the basket and got fouled. I was close to the basket, looking to grab the rebound when Roger Yap fell into my leg, causing me to fall to the floor. As I was falling backward Mick Pennisi of Redbull fell onto my neck, pushing it forward and causing my C-5 and C-6 vertebrae to snap, leaving me paralyzed form the neck down.

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What were the medical findings based on your injury? How did these make you feel?

At the time of the injury I knew I was paralyzed but not to what extent. When it happened it felt like an electric shock went thought my body then, as if someone had turned off the switch and I could no longer feel anything.

After an MRI at the hospital, I received the news that my C-5 and C-6 vertebrae were fractured. They told me I had a 4% chance of ever walking again. 

It was devastating news to hear. I was worried about my career and whether I could ever play basketball again. Not knowing what the rest of my life was going to be like was scary.

How did your basketball team and family take the news?

I think the basketball community took it hard because as I was entering the hospital, I could see that different players from different teams were already there with the look of worry in their eyes. 
My family also took it really hard. It was Mother's Day in the States and my sister's graduation party when they received the call of what happened. It was surreal to them, they could not believe it. Being so far away and not being able to be by my side, with the only connection being a phone, was very difficult. 

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They immediately took a flight to come to the Philippines.

Did you ever feel like giving up or commiting suicide?

Not at first. I kept an optimistic attitude, thinking that everything was going to come back. But as soon as I got the States to do rehabilitation, I suddenly felt really depressed because there were no more visitors and it was just me and my injuries and thoughts. 

I can remember the night I contemplated taking my life. I was thinking, 'Is this all worth it?', because all this work I was putting into rehab was all for nothing. I wasn't seeing too much progress and it was sinking in that this was going to be how I spend the rest of my life as a quadriplegic. From being an elite athlete playing at the highest level and feeling on top of the world to a person that needed to be taken care of and barely being able to move any part of  my body. 

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So that night I had all my pills next to me, thinking if I take all these pills, it would end this nightmare I was living in. As I was about to take the pills, an image popped into my head of me in a casket with my mother and family and friends crying over my casket. That image alone ended my thoughts of 
suicide alone for ever. That image made me feel that too many people would be hurt by my selfish act and I knew I could not do that to them.

You had women and fans adore you at your prime. Have you been treated differently since the accident? In what way, good or bad? How does that make you feel back then and now?

When I first got injured, I was basically embarrassed at my situation being in a wheel chair. I lost all confidence in who I was. I was worried about the way other people perceived me. Everyone that would look at me made me feel like I was a cripple. I think that was more my own perception. 

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Now that I think of it I don't think that I was treated any different. I think I wasted a lot of years being depressed and embarrassed of my situation, instead of embracing who I was. I was still Eugene Tejada on the inside. The only change was physical; this reality check inspired me to accept the fact of 
what happened to me and led me to want to inspire others with my story.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you could've done now that this has happened to you? 

I have one regret, going into the game that I got injured. I wish I had not played in that game. My coach Ryan Gregorio asked me if I wanted to come into the game, and I wanted to get some extra playing time although I was coming off an ankle injury. I knew that every opportunity to play was important and wanted to help the team in any way, especially knowing that it was a vital game to reach the playoffs. 

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There were also "what if" moments, what if I didn't go up for the rebound, but being the player that I am I could not take that play off and had to play every play at 100%. But I accept the fact that it happened. I believe that it was all part of God's plan.

What is a typical day for you back then and now?

A typical day back then was like a 9-to-5 job. I would wake up, have breakfast, and go straight to the gym for practice for 3 hours, then hit the gym and lift. Then pylometrics. 

And now a typical day for me now is basically Groundhog Day. I wake up and go to therapy. Come home, watch my niece and nephew, and repeat again the next day. My days now are pretty boring compared to the days back in the Philippines. But they have taught me to appreciate the small things in life. 

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How has this experience changed you?

This experience has changed me tremendously. I have a great appreciation for those small things, like being able to get out of bed and dress myself and prepare for the day as any able-bodied person could do. 
I appreciate family and friends and all those bonds I have. It has brought me closer to everyone around me. I also appreciate the value of money, from spending frivolously as a PBA player to now struggling to find enough money to pay for my rehab.

Basically I have a a lot more love for everyone and everything.

What realizations do you have regarding yourself, life, friends, and career?

I realize that nothing is more important than the relationships you build, the experiences you have, and the love you have for people. Not all the materialistic and superficial things that the world makes you believe is important.

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How have you used this experience to better the quality of your life, and that of others who may be going through the same thing?

I have used this experience to inspire not only the people I know, but also the people that are going through the same thing I have gone through. Just by being an example for them that there is hope and life is not so limited. Not to sound cliche, but hard work really does pay off. 

Just within my therapy sessions others can look at me and see me and see how far I have progressed and believe within themselves that it does get better. And that there is hope of recovering from a similar injury.

I was told that I may never walk again but now I am literally a walking testament that anything is possible. You can overcome.

Do you wish to play ball again? How do faith and hope come in the picture?

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No, I do not wish to play basketball again. I appreciate the chance and opportunity that I was given. I have closed that chapter of playing basketball. 

I really was never a religious person but with my friends Alex Compton (Powerade Assistant Coach) and Robert Johnson (Former PBA player) always reading me bible verses, it planted a seed within me that faith in God would help me overcome. And it slowly blossomed in me to be hopeful about the future, and with God, He would give me the strength I needed to persevere and overcome this devastating injury in my life. With God, nothing is impossible. 

You're currently working on a documentary and other projects. Tell us about it.

I have a book in the works. It will be 33 chapters of life learning lessons and the journey of what I have gone through. It is 33 chapters because it was my jersey number that I wore playing in the PBA. I want this book to be available for all to read, not just here within the  Philippines, but across the world. 
They are currently filming for my documentary that will tie in with the book. I am working with a great team that is helping me get my story out. 

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I am also going around speaking at events with the hopes of inspiring others that there is hope. I wish for this to be seen and read by everyone so that I may show that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

For you, who is the new Gene Tejada now?

The new Gene Tejada is a person that is not so self-centered, not so selfish, not worried about all the money and fame the world can offer. I am here to inspire the uninspired. I believe I can have an impact on those who need inspiration. This platform will help me get my story out way more than shooting jump shots could ever do.

There are many out there who feel "crippled" in their lives. Any words of comfort and advice to them?

Everyone in the world faces challenges everyday. These challenges help you build your soul. 
No matter how small or big, embrace the challenge and strive to overcome. Take it head-on, knowing that after, you will be a stronger and happier person. 

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My advice is to never give up, you will never see the beauty of overcoming a "crippling" event by giving up. Stay strong and put your faith in God and He will see you through. I am an example that, with faith and hope, that anything is possible.

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