NEW YORK – John Fernandez should not have been playing lacrosse in the Army-Navy alumni game at Madison Square Garden.
By all rights, the former U.S. Army first lieutenant should be dead. But luck intervened.
"It was just a matter of chance — pure luck," said Fernandez of Shoreham, Long Island, who was severely wounded in Iraq after a U.S. plane dropped a 500-pound bomb on his Humvee in a case of friendly fire on April 3, 2003. Shrapnel from the explosion shredded his legs.
"I crawled," Fernandez recalled. "I couldn't walk."
More than five years later, the soldier can do more than just walk. He can play lacrosse thanks to prosthetic limbs as he demonstrated during the Heroes Cup, which preceded the New York Titans professional game Saturday night.
"Change of direction is a little bit more difficult just because I don't have ankles," Fernandez said. "I get around. I'm not necessarily the guy who's going to be taking the ball and driving from behind the cage. I'm out there and playing. Running around, setting picks and scoring goals."
Fernandez speaks impassively when he recounts what happened to him. But his story is extraordinary.
Somehow the bomb, which ripped through his Humvee, spared Fernandez who was sleeping next to the vehicle on a cot south of Baghdad in Karballa. It did not spare his driver, gunner nor the platoon sergeant who was nearby in another Humvee.
Seven others were injured.
Afterward, Fernandez, 30, was flown to a naval base in Spain and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Doctors delivered a grim prognosis when he arrived. Part of his right leg had to go. They could try to save his left foot but it might be more trouble than it was worth.
There could be lasting complications.
Fernandez told doctors: "Just take it off. Cut it off and move on. It's literally cutting your losses."
Surgeons amputated his right leg eight inches below the knee. They also removed his left foot.
But Fernandez was undeterred. He returned home that June for many months of painful rehabilitation. The soldier in him refused to lay down — so did his wife Kristi who helped Fernandez recover. "We just kept looking ahead," she said while watching Fernandez play at the Garden, cheering the Army players who eventually lost to Navy 10-6.
The first few years were a learning process, but over time he adapted to his new legs. His latest set are made mostly of carbon fiber. He's been able to play sports for about four years.
"I put on my legs in the morning like you put on your shoes," said Fernandez, now alumni director of the Wounded Warrior Project in New York dedicated to veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And he never limited himself.
"I wanted to be able to do everything I could do prior to the injury," said Fernandez, who has two children and a third on the way.
One of those things was lacrosse. Fernandez played at Rocky Point High School on Long Island. He was also captain of his team at West Point.
Fernandez wasn't quickest player. He wasn't a star. But he had other skills.
"My saving grace was that I hard shot," he said.
When he takes the field with his prosthetic limbs, changing direction can be difficult though he was able to bound up and down the artificial turf at the Garden with little problem. His wife says he gets better each time he plays, and he scored in a previous alumni game.
The other players show him no quarter and certainly the ones from Navy did not at MSG. Most of the time, players aren't looking at his legs. They're looking to jar the bar loose with a good hit.
"I try my hardest," he said. "I try to put the ball in the back of the net."
Playing lacrosse at the Garden, perhaps, isn't his proudest moment on two legs since his injury.
Fernandez had intended to marry his wife in a big ceremony but had to quickly tie the knot in a civil service shortly before he shipped out to Iraq.
"The deployment got in the way," he said.
A proper wedding had to wait. Only seven months after Fernandez narrowly avoided death, the couple finally had one.
"I danced and walked down the isle," Fernandez said. "I did it all."