#25 - Sam Paneno
In 1999, national attention fell upon Sam Paneno, a soft-spoken reserve running back from La Cañada, who appeared in eight games as a redshirt freshman in 1998 (the bulk of his action took place 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, 1999, in the second game of the 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. Shortly thereafter, he received treatment at a Salem, Ore. hospital, and later, at UC Davis Medical Center. Since that injury disrupted blood flow to the lower leg and foot, Paneno underwent emergency surgery. 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. This surgery took place on September 20, nine days after that game at Western Oregon.
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 college players who initially only knew of UC Davis from its national rankings and past playoff results.
Paneno first visited his teammates the week after his surgery. As the Davis Enterprise's Brandon Frink wrote, 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 about Paneno'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, and rock climbing.
The UC Davis football team retired his No. 25 jersey the following year. Miami Dolphins' lineman Trace Armstrong was so touched by Paneno's story, when he watches 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 earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from UC Davis in 2001, and 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.