Landon Severson’s trip to Nebraska started months ago, during marching band practice in the center of South Dakota.
The 14-year-old felt his legs tingling. And then he didn’t feel them at all.
“My legs quit and I fell down,” the three-sport athlete said.
The principal and another student carried him into the band director’s office, an ambulance took him to a hospital in Pierre and his parents drove him to specialists in Sioux Falls. Since Sept. 9, he’s been a patient at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, recovering from the infection that attacked his spinal cord and left him temporarily paralyzed.
The teenager’s trip to Nebraska ended Thursday on the 15-yard line at Memorial Stadium, surrounded by his three new and unlikely friends, and their wheelchair, walker and two canes.
He was headed back to South Dakota next.
“It’s kind of a mixed blessing,” he said. “I’m wanting to go home, but these guys, they’re pretty much family.”
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Gavin Christiansen beat Landon to Madonna by a day.
In early August, the 14-year-old had been a healthy football player just a few days from starting his freshman year at Omaha’s Westside High School. Then he was in intensive care.
“He was at a friend’s house, went into the bathroom and didn’t come out,” said his father, Brian. “They found him laying on the floor.”
The 14-year-old had suffered a stroke. He’s had four brain surgeries since, his father said.
“He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk, he basically couldn’t do anything when he got here.”
Andrew Brockman moved into Madonna’s rehabilitation unit a day before Gavin. The 17-year-old senior from West Point suffered a brain injury in a June 19 car accident, putting him in a wheelchair and wiping out most of his senior year at school.
The three teens had already formed a friendship when Olivia Griffin arrived a month later. The 17-year-old Westside senior had been feeling fine until tumors were discovered in her pancreas and liver, she said.
She would then develop encephalitis, a swelling of the brain.
“I passed out one day, and it got worse from there,” she said.
Each teen was going through something different, but they were all going through something.
The four became inseparable.
“They have encouraged each other,” said Tami Rudder, a Madonna spokeswoman. “They’ve gone way above a normal relationship.”
They’ve eaten lunch together daily. They’ve played blackjack, and they’ve watched each other get stronger, and they’ve just hung out.
“If I were here with a bunch of little kids, it would have been boring,” Landon said. “I would have sat in my room and watched TV all the time. It made it better having kids in the same age range.”
It made it better for their parents, too. They had also been thrust into a new and frightening world, but they found other parents who understood.
“I can’t imagine going through this experience without someone who was going through the exact same thing,” said Colleen Brockman, Andrew’s mother. “It’s almost like you’ve been friends your whole life.”
Brian Christiansen considers the teens and their parents part of his family now. He’s planning a "rehab reunion" this summer, hoping to get them all to gather in Wisconsin, he said.
His son Gavin has moved back home and receives outpatient therapy, and they could go to the new Madonna hospital in Omaha. But Brian drives his son to Lincoln daily, and sometimes again at night if there’s a card party planned.
“Because of this right here,” he said, pointing to the four teens gathered around the table at lunch. “All of his buddies are down here. I have a feeling we’re all going to be really good friends for a long time.”
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Thursday’s outing was Olivia’s idea. As part of her rehabilitation, she was assigned the job of organizing a field trip -- selecting a destination and then following through with arrangements.
“I thought all the boys would just love to go to the stadium,” she said.
The Nebraska boys, Gavin and Andrew, are Husker fans. Landon likes North Dakota State, but he wore red Thursday, too.
They spent more than an hour at Memorial Stadium with their parents and therapists. They took selfies, watched in awe as the Huskers poured out of their locker room on the way to practice, and lingered at the trophy cases and plaques.
“Mom, mom, mom,” Andrew said from his chair, pointing to a display devoted to Ndamukong Suh.
“Mom, mom, mom,” he said again a few minutes later, pointing to a picture of Kenny Bell.
Near the end of the tour, they replicated the tunnel walk, with Andrew’s new friends urging him to stand up out of his wheelchair to tap the spot of the famous horseshoe (it wasn’t up Thursday).
On the field, Brian Christiansen turned to Gavin.
“Can you imagine playing here?
“Yeah,” his son said. “Yeah.”