In 1999, the national attention fell upon a soft-spoken reserve running back from La Cañada, Calif. Sam Paneno had appeared in eight games as a redshirt freshman in 1998. The bulk of his action had come in a home game against Western Oregon, when he rushed for 107 yards on just 15 carries - more than half of his career numbers up to that point. On September 11, the second game of his junior year, Paneno earned his first career start at running back. Coincidentally, the opponent was Western Oregon. He responded to the call by rushing for a career-high 114 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
On the first play of overtime, Paneno dislocated his right knee. He received treatment at a Salem, Ore. hospital, and later, at the UC Davis Medical Center. But the injury had disrupted the blood flow to the lower leg and foot. Paneno underwent emergency surgery, and blood flow was restored. However, complications arose from the initial injury and after further procedures, a team of UCDMC orthopedic surgeons deemed it necessary to amputate the lower portion of his right leg. The amputation surgery was performed on September 20, nine days after the game at WOU.
Support for Paneno came from all parts of the country. The host of the NCAA D-II Championships in Montgomery, Ala., created a website for fans to offer prayers and words of encouragement. Hundreds of sentiments flooded the website, including those from fellow collegiate players who only the name UC Davis from national rankings and past playoff results.
Paneno paid his first visit to his teammates the following week after the surgery. Wrote Brandon Frink of the Davis Enterprise, he "delivered himself to practice wearing a wheelchair and a smile." His positive attitude despite his ordeal proved to be an inspiration for all. Paneno displayed strength where someone else may have shown despair. He felt gratitude to his family, faith and friends, but never felt self-pity. And while ESPN had arrived on campus on September 20 to report on an athlete's tragedy, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated and even People Weekly later paid visits to UC Davis to report on an athlete's courage. Ever the active person, Paneno was later fitted with two different prosthetic legs - one for "everyday" use and the other allowing him to resume to such pastimes as running, surfing, even rock-climbing.
The UC Davis football team retired his No. 25 jersey the following year. Miami Dolphins' lineman Trace Armstrong was so touched by seeing Paneno's story as part of the CBS halftime report on Thanksgiving Day, that he invited him to attend the Raiders-Dolphins game as a guest of the team. In 2001, Paneno was formally honored by the NCAA when he was named co-winner of the inaugural Inspiration Award, bestowed upon a former student-athlete who has displayed "perseverance, dedication and determination" to overcome a life-altering event.
Paneno went on to earn his undergraduate degree in psychology from UC Davis in 2001 and later his juris doctorate from UC Davis School of Law in 2005. Today, he is an attorney in Los Angeles specializing in special education issues for children.
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