They say you're a little closer to God on Saddle Mountain. Soaring 2,770 feet above sea level in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, it owes its name to the two curved peaks, where the Divine is thought to nestle. At its base rests a town called Sparta, a foresting-and-farming community of 1,800 people.
The town has three stoplights, hundreds of smoke-spewing chimneys and spotty cellphone service. During its long winters, residents rely on logs they've harvested, filling wood-burning stoves to survive the season. Sparta serves as the seat of Alleghany County, which produces more Christmas trees than almost anywhere in the country, and claims North Carolina's third-highest suicide rate.
Sparta also boasts one of the state's richest wrestling traditions. Boys as young as 4 learn their first grappling moves in a special hayloft outfitted with a mat. Despite its small size, Alleghany High, the county's lone secondary school, has sent dozens of top-ranked wrestlers to state championship tournaments, where they relish a flicker of glory before adulthood becomes a permanent opponent. A few wrestle in college. Others join the military or leave town in search of opportunity.
On the outskirts of Sparta, framed by a forest of white pines, there is a little blue farmhouse with a wooden ramp. The ramp connects to a porch strewn with cartons of Gatorade, cases of Bud Light and a pair of dumbbells that haven't been lifted for some time. It leads to a pair of French doors guarding the bedroom of a young man who united the community in 2011. Townsfolk call him a hero; wrestlers call him a legend.
He changed the way the game is officiated in North Carolina, earning homage from the High School Athletic Association in Raleigh and admiration from grapplers across the country. Everyone in the state wrestling community knows who Luke is.
"The response to his accident," said Phil Davanzo III, the head coach at Jordan High, in Durham, "speaks volumes for our sport."
On Dec. 3, 2011, Luke Hampton rose from bed at 5 a.m. one pound overweight. The No. 1-ranked wrestler in the 182-pound weight class of the state's small-school division, Luke needed to sweat off the extra pound before weigh-ins of the annual Jamie Tuttle Memorial tournament. A 17-year-old senior captain at Alleghany High, he was 9-and-0 in the young season.
After grabbing a shower, he roused his brother Jake, a freshman wrestler. The sun had not yet poked over the snow-topped trees of Saddle Mountain, and frost was glued to his 1999 Dodge pickup.
Cold as shit, Luke thought as he felt the winter chill push through the farmhouse walls. He threw on a hoodie and cotton jacket, laced up his work boots and pushed a mesh baseball cap over a mop of brown hair. He and Jake were out the door by 5:30.
Pound for pound, Luke was the strongest boy in Sparta, and one of the most aggressive wrestlers ever to take the mat for Alleghany High. His body was massive, with melon biceps and cannonball shoulders, the kind of cut that would make him look like a 23-year-old linebacker were it not for his baby face and boyish curls.
Luke started wrestling at 4, in a local resident's hayloft. Coaches remember the boy with baby teeth tossing pint-sized bodies around while staring up for the coaches' approval. By 4th grade his body had begun filling out, thanks to a part-time masonry job hauling blocks of cement.
"Boy, I am lickin' my chops," his high school coach said to himself when he first saw Luke's aggression on the mat.
In his sophomore and junior seasons Luke earned fourth-place finishes at the state championships. Who could forget that tournament in West Wilkes, when Luke's opponent delivered a cheap shot to the groin, prompting Luke's head-butt, nose gash and a disqualification? Who could forget the junior year regional tournament when he beat the defending state champ in the final 20 seconds, prompting a near melee when the opposing coach accused him of being undeserving? Why, Luke lunged toward the coach and would've steamrolled him had his own coach not intervened. "I was goin' after his ass and cussin' him every damn step," Luke told his parents.
And then there was that grin, which made foes most fearful. It appeared once in Charlotte, when his opponent delivered a mocking slap to the face. Luke stepped back, paused to smile, then shot a double-leg, lifting the boy over his head and slamming him.
He also played football. A 5'11", 205-pound tailback and linebacker, he was named team MVP as a senior. That year, he racked up 295 yards against rival Elkin, putting the team in the playoffs. After he kicked the winning field goal, the fans turned to one other. "Old Luke's a one-man show."
Still, Luke's coaches worried their young charge was perhaps too aggressive. He had one speed—full-speed—and they questioned whether it might one day get the better of him.
On the cold morning of the Jamie Tuttle tournament, Luke plowed his key into the ignition of his Dodge while Jake dozed in the passenger seat. Luke planted a pinch of long-cut wintergreen Grizzly dip in his lower lip, part of his can-a-day habit. He started chewing tobacco when he was 10 and had become so accustomed to the juice that he'd swallow it at his desk in school, where he was an honor student. As the brothers pulled out of the driveway, Luke popped in his favorite pre-tournament CD, allowing Eminem's "Lose Yourself" to purr though the speakers. He pulled away from the little blue farmhouse, unaware he wouldn't return for four months, and set out into the darkness of Sparta.
Luke's mother, Benita Hampton, spent much of her youth in neighboring Ashe County, where she plucked chickens and raised horses. Her father served in the Army, her mother was a homemaker and her grandmother worked for a country restaurant baking 3,000 biscuits each morning for 35 years. Benita envisioned opening her own restaurant, where her three sons would work.
After marrying a local construction worker named Randy, Benita christened her first son Jeremiah, after the movie Jeremiah Johnson. A few years later, 9-pound Luke arrived. "Jeremiah and Luke" sounded like the name of a western gang, pleasing Benita. Next, another son came. She named him Jake—a portmanteau conjoining the names of her two eldest.
Inside the farmhouse, the Hampton boys raised a baby lamb, bottle-feeding it in the basement near the wood-burning stove. Outside, they tubed down the New River and peddled their dirt-bikes to fields. They spent summers baiting turtles and killing catfish, while each fall they hunted deer, grouse, rabbits and squirrels, then returned home to deep-fry them.
After getting his first rifle at 8, Luke traveled to his Nanny's Christmas tree farm, where he'd squat in a lawnmower shed, aim the .222 out of a window and shoot deer. Benita would accompany him for target practice with beer cans; her long blonde hair whipped in the wind as she eyed her target though wire-rimmed glasses.
One day, while riding shotgun in Randy's truck, young Luke stuck his rifle out the driver's side window and drilled a fox. Back home, Benita salted the fox's tail, pairing it with a tail from a fox Randy had shot. She pinned both to her favorite sweater. "A Hampton original," she boasted. "If you can't eat it, you can wear it."
Such is a necessary philosophy in Alleghany County, one of the state's most sparsely populated areas. The median household income in Sparta is $30,845, 68 percent of the state average. In the last 25 years, several factories have closed. The Dr. Grabow Pipe plant, which employed 2,000 people when it opened in 1943, maintains a small percentage of that number now.
The two remaining factories employ about 15 of Luke's former classmates, many of whom will never leave town. Timber and livestock are Alleghany's chief industries, and nearly half the county is blanketed by woodland. Farms sprout Fraser firs, white pines and blue spruces; and the largest farm supplies Walmart with the bulk of its Christmas trees and Halloween pumpkins.
Luke, more than any of his peers, embodied Sparta's spirit of self-reliance; by age 10, he'd become its most reliable hired hand. If you needed a tree chopped or a fence mended or a deer skinned or a roof laid or a ditch dug or a barn erected or a log busted or a hay bale loaded—anything physical—the townsfolk said, "You just call Luke Hampton, he's the strongest boy I know." At 11 Luke was hauling cinderblock and laying rock for the hardware store. By 12 he was chopping down trees in the summer heat. At 14 he started his own logging business, cutting trees into 16-foot sections. and selling bundles for $100 a cord. When the trees were too tall to chop, he shimmied up to the top, gripping his chainsaw with his massive hands.
"Luke became my go-to guy," said Debbie Edwards, a middle-school computer teacher who hired him to deliver firewood and mend her fences. She would watch, mesmerized, as he hoisted her refrigerator and wood-burning stove onto his truck by himself. "He was the most physically strong person I've ever known—and an entrepreneur. If you gave him a dollar, he could find a way to do something."
Luke would rise to work early before school, sometimes on two hours' sleep after tournaments, and tend to jobs on weekends and snow days. He used an 18-pound steel splitting maul to bust wood, developing an upper body so thick that he never visited a gym for wrestling. "He's my mountain man," Benita would gush. "Built like a brute, just like his daddy."
But for all of his brutishness, the residents of Sparta saw a tender side. He was the boy who spontaneously dropped a bundle of a wood on an elderly couple's porch during a blizzard. The boy who bought gas for an old man in a bind. The boy who came to the aid of two kids broken down on the side of the road. The boy who leaped from his bed in pajamas after an errant ember set fire to the basement woodpile; Luke charged into the smoke-filled room and tossed the burning logs outside with his bare hands.
It was his independence that defined him. He fell in love with wrestling because he had only himself to rely on. At 5, Luke drew Benita a painting of a butterfly, with a message. "I am a little butterfly. I have a good mom and dad. But I am big now. I can take care of myself."
As Jake slept in the passenger seat, Luke drove his Dodge toward the high school as the sun began its ascent over Saddle Mountain. Luke rolled past the smokestacks, tractors and Christmas tree farms dotting Route 21 to the river. With its rusting metal, the Dr. Grabow Pipe water tower welcomed him into town. Luke sped past the town's three stoplights, the bowling alley, the gun shop, the hardware store and the Jubillee, which hosted weekly square dances, spinning bluegrass and George Jones songs for the town's old-timers.
Inside the locker room, Luke squeezed into three long-sleeved T-shirts and topped the ensemble with a plastic trash bag—technically against school rules, but he needed to shed the excess pound. The cinderblock wrestling room in the school's basement was heated to 90 degrees. For 30 minutes Luke shadow-wrestled on the green-and-gold mat. The wrestling banners on the walls bore the names of 16 state champions and several more regional champs, including Luke.
Despite an enrollment of about 430 students, Alleghany has won nine state championships, and shiny wrestling trophies dominate the glass shrines outside the gym. From 1974 to 2011 the team never had a losing record. At every tournament, the bleachers are packed with fans from across the county. Residents call wrestling coaches "a blessing." Alumni unwilling to leave the sport return to help. "If you want to be a star at Alleghany, you wrestle," says Bob Mauldin, an official who runs the sport's main newsletter out of Kannapolis.
Frederick Brown, a stocky scion of country cooks, was named Most Outstanding Wrestler in the 1989 state tournament, the first year Alleghany won the crown. He now works at Brown's Restaurant off Main Street, where the aroma of pork chops and coconut pie wafts into the parking lot and the smell of grease sticks to your clothes. The building is now decorated with wrestling memorabilia, anchoring a morning sanctuary where Luke and his friends congregated before homeroom.
With a bald head and cauliflower ears, recalling a time when grapplers didn't wear headgear, Brown explained that wrestling symbolizes Sparta's will to endure hardships. "In wrastling you don't give up," he said, taking a break from his cooking. "Six minutes lasts a real long time."
Inside Alleghany's wrestling bunker, Luke continued shadow wrestling. His teammates began trickling in, and at 6:30 they loaded on the bus, arriving 90 minutes later at Hibriten High School, where Luke tipped the scales one pound underweight.
From the corner of his eye, Luke observed how the gym's three mats were assembled. The two end mats were flush against the wall, and the edge of one crawled a foot toward the ceiling. But Luke didn't pay much attention to the set-up. In meets across the state, mats were commonly pushed against walls.
Luke ducked into the locker room and changed into his singlet. Back in the bleachers, he leaned back and thought about Laken.
She was one of the wealthiest girls in Sparta, and possibly the most beautiful. Her grandfather owned a construction business that established a near monopoly in Sparta. A junior, she wore pearl earrings, had long, wavy black hair and a slender 5'8" frame that helped her excel at volleyball and basketball.
Luke and Laken had dated on and off since he was 11. On weekends Luke would pull up to her house in his Dodge, and she'd slide in close to him. They'd drive for miles through Alleghany's dirt roads, windows rolled down, singing "Farmer's Daughter" by Craig Morgan. She'd steal Luke's hat to keep her hair from blowing. She teased him about his calloused hands, but appreciated how gentle they were, and how he made her feel safe. After graduation, Luke planned to enter lineman school, apply for a job with a power company and propose to her.
When Luke's name was called at 10:30, he grabbed a bout sheet and walked to the scorekeeper stationed behind one of the side mats. Minutes before, Jake, wrestling at the center mat, had dislocated his opponent's elbow, and tournament organizers had called for an ambulance.
The tournament featured big-name schools, and the stands were packed to near-capacity. Benita, clad in her green-and-gold sweatshirt, sat in the top row of the bleachers. She'd provided the team with post-weigh-in sausage biscuits, a Saturday morning ritual that evolved as her sons became star wrestlers. She studied all their moves, begrudgingly learned to cook to accommodate their diets and became president of the Alleghany High School Booster Club. Townspeople joked that if she gave birth to another son he would enter the world wearing headgear.
Next to Benita sat Randy, a thick-bearded, barrel-chested construction worker who poured Copenhagen snuff into his lip directly from the can. In addition to his construction work, Randy operated Sparta's pool hall, one of two bars in town. Inside he could hoist the end of a pool table to his head before allowing it to crash to the cement floor. Randy's father ran a slaughterhouse and dairy, and as a boy, after rising early for milking duties, Randy would toss hay bales in trucks, and kill 50 hogs each Tuesday.
Crediting Randy, Luke adopted a code held by generations of older Spartans, if seemingly outdated now. "If you're not someone I could trust my life with, fuck you," Luke would say. "But when people need help, you help 'em. When they're tired, you keep pushin' them. When you don't want to do something for yourself, you do it for someone else, even if you don't know 'em. Because they might help you sometime down the road."
With 30 seconds to go before the match, Luke donned his headgear. His opponent, Tanner Small, was a stocky, thick-legged sophomore from Cox Mill. Luke shook his hand on the mat.
This kid can't beat you, Luke thought. Just wrestle your match. Be the aggressor.
The official, Mike McCall, was a veteran involved with the sport for 50 years. When he blew the whistle, Luke burst forward and tied Small up. After disengaging, Luke shot a double leg, lifted Small and slammed him to the ground.
He could tell Small was scared. I could just pin you right now, Luke thought. Small managed to escape, and Luke gave him a shove. "Go baby, go!" Benita screamed.
With his head, Small whacked Luke's chin. And then, stepping back and circling the mat, Luke flashed that smirk—that cocky grin telling opponents he was ready to finish them. As Small stood upright, Luke charged hard, reaching for a crotch shot and plowing him forward a few steps. As Small fell backward, Luke powered headfirst into the padded wall.
McCall blew his whistle. Luke tried to stand. But like a pine tree chopped at its base, Luke's body dropped to the ground with a thud. He lay motionless as he felt a wave of pain rush upward from the tips of his toes.
Benita gasped. "No, no, no," she whispered into cupped hands, trying to ward off her intuition that something horrific was happening. She had seen Luke get knocked off dirt bikes and land face-first on the pavement. But this seemed different.
At the coach's bench, Derrick Calloway feared his star player had suffered a concussion. The crowd grew silent as Benita rushed to the mat.
"My neck hurts, Mama! I can't feel my legs. I can't feel my arms."
"It's gonna to be all right, baby. It's gonna be all right," said Benita, doubting her own words. Jake stood beside her. "Why can't he move, Mama, why can't he move?"
EMTs, already on site to treat Jake's opponent, loaded Luke onto a gurney and wheeled him through the gym doors as Benita rushed behind.
"Mama, I can't breathe!"
Outside, it had begun to flurry. Luke wondered why he couldn't feel the snowflakes on his skin. As the ambulance doors shut, Luke began to cry. "Call Laken!" he screamed to Benita, before losing consciousness. Throughout the ride, his breathing grew shallow as Benita held his hand. "I'm right here, baby," she murmured repeatedly.
The Intensive Care Unit at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem didn't have a waiting room, so Benita sat on the floor. Randy arrived, followed by Laken, in tears. A surgeon emerged. Luke had broken one vertebra and shattered another. His spinal cord was severely damaged, and his diaphragm had collapsed on his lung, cutting off the air. During the five-hour surgery doctors screwed together shattered pieces of vertebra with a rod and metal plate.
As Luke lay in a medically induced coma for two days, Benita refused to leave the hallway. Her sister brought clean clothes, and a patient's wife offered a rocking chair.
Word of Luke's injury traveled to Sparta. In two days the town raised $40,000. Benita was referred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specialized in spinal injury rehabilitation. "We'll take him, but we need him now," an assessor said. "The longer we wait, the less of a chance we have."
A company called Angel Flight offered to transport Luke. At 2 a.m. on Dec. 8, he was loaded into a helicopter while Benita and Jeremiah, her oldest son, a Marine, sped south: I must hold my ship together and protect my young'uns, she thought.
During the silent drive, Benita thought about Luke and wrestling, how he always fought for every second in order to win.
"Three two-minute rounds can seem like an eternity," Luke once said. "You have to have strength in body and mind, and the ability to react to unpredictable situations. On the mat, anything can change in a split-second."
When he arrived at the Shepherd Center, doctors shot Luke's heart with adrenaline to keep it from failing. Two days later he regained consciousness. Tubes were shoved down his throat and up his nose. His parents and Laken were next to his bed.
"What's going on?" he mouthed.
"You're paralyzed, baby," said Benita through tears.
Over the next 24 hours Luke tried to comprehend the situation. He had no sensation from the chest down. This isn't fuckin' happening to me. This can't happen to me. He asked for morphine to numb his thoughts. He didn't want to see anybody, talk to anybody.
During Alleghany's tournament that week wrestlers from every team wore green socks in Luke's honor, and students were decked in T-shirts reading "Luke Strong" and "Heart of Gold, Head of Steel." Each member of the 182-pound weight class took a forfeit against Alleghany. Jake, wearing Luke's wrestling shoes, won all five of his matches and was named Most Outstanding Wrestler.
The following week, a barbeque benefit raised another $21,000. Brown's Restaurant set up a donation jar. Zach Galifianakis, who owned a home in Sparta and recalled conversations with Luke at the hardware store, sent a check. A Christmas tree farmer launched a Wreathes for Luke sale. Faculty members organized vigils, and students wore green-and-gold ribbons and mounted a prayer wall.
Teams across the region hosted benefit tournaments, and letters poured into the hospital. "Luke, I never gave up wrestling for you," wrote a teammate. "We have been praying for Luke and your family," wrote a coach from Atlanta. A pastor from Anchorage wrote to say he'd suffered a similar injury as a high school wrestler and offered counsel.
Coach Calloway's inbox became clogged with emails from across the country, and the state's online wrestling forum lit up with prayers. "I hope Luke knows that he has touched many people, including me," said a coach. "We have a picture of him on our wrestling door which everyone sees before practice every day," wrote another.
"He's the strongest person I know," said Calloway. "When you tell him no, he's gonna say, 'By God, I can.' "
Nurses set up Skype sessions so Luke could watch his teammates compete. After tracheal surgery, Luke mouthed his first words: "Hi Mama." Benita started crying, delighted his first word wasn't a curse. Luke paused. "I want some mangos."
The wrestling team visited. So did cheerleaders from N.C. State. Randy's father, who at 77 still tended to the Hampton tobacco farm, left Sparta for the first time in his life to visit; he always admired the work ethic of Luke, the only person in town who could make him smile. When Laken arrived, Luke arranged for Benita to pick up a bouquet of birthday flowers for her. On his bedside table he kept a watercolor painting of him and Laken, copied from a photograph. Luke sported a backward hat and chin scruff. Laken's long black hair spilled over a turquoise jacket.
Luke spent his birthday in the ICU after balls of mucus had lodged in his lungs. His diaphragm still wasn't functioning, and Benita had a chaplain anoint him with oil. Two weeks later, Luke's legs spontaneously moved — "praise God!" said Benita—but it turned out to be nothing. Benita jotted a prayer in her journal: "Please Lord, let it be your will that Luke gets his arms/legs back. Will do or give anything—my own life—to have this for him."
Laken came to Atlanta for Valentine's Day. For dinner, Luke had reserved the penthouse room of the Shepherd Center overlooking the city. Her favorite color was blue, so he had the staff decorate the room with blue streamers, candles and two-dozen red and white roses, placed on a white tablecloth.
He paid his cousin to buy Laken a dress, necklace and new shoes. Benita prepared shrimp cocktail, garlic bread and Caprese salad. That night Laken wore a black sequin gown. Luke, who still couldn't talk, wore sweatpants. She cried when she got off the elevator. He gave her the watercolor painting he kept on his bedside table. She leaned over his motionless body and kissed him.
There were many athletes at the Shepherd Center: a gymnast, bull rider, Division I baseball player, several divers and another wrestler. There were also patients who suffered fluke accidents, like stumbling to the ground reaching for a penny.
By late February, Luke could speak on his own. One day he introduced himself to a fellow patient named Josh, a 19-year-old gang member from Columbia, S.C., who had been beaten with baseball bats by rival gang members and left for dead. A paraplegic, he only wore socks and a gown. No one ever visited him.
"Why don't I ever see you at physical therapy?" Luke asked him in the hallway.
"I don't ever leave bed 'cause I don't have any clothes," he said.
"Fine man, we'll roll your ass into the gym."
"Look man," said Luke, "you can move your arms. You know what I'd give to move my arms?"
Back in his room that afternoon, Luke gestured toward a box of T-shirts a friend had customized for him. "Mama, how much money we make selling those shirts?" he asked.
"Go to Sports Authority and pick out some gear and some tennis shoes."
The next day Josh wheeled himself into the gym in Nike pants and New Balance sneakers.
From then on Luke was known as the Shepherd Center ambassador for depressed patients. Nurses and therapists lined up to buy T-shirts and teased him about his chinstrap beard. "I'm not shavin' it till I get my hands back and can do it myself," he pledged.
"I see Luke as an old soul in a young body," one nurse told Benita.
Luke required round-the-clock care. A team of nurses used a suction machine to rid his lungs of mucus. They used an electric chest oscillator to extract phlegm. They tended to his catheter, telling Benita she would need to learn everything. "No!" she snapped back. "You don't know Luke Hampton! He won't need all that!"
But Benita learned. She took classes with mannequins, learning to treat bed and pressure sores, to use a ventilator, to change tracheal aids and hoses. She learned to use nets and lifts and cranks, hauling Luke in and out of his chair. She learned to bathe Luke in the shower, and to move his limbs up and down to keep his blood circulating.
"I don't know what the hail I'm doing," she muttered to herself. Sometimes her arms felt strained from the lifting and cranking. "Don't feel so bad, I'm totally useless every day," Luke deadpanned.
Luke learned how to wheel his chair by blowing and sucking through a mouth-tube—"like a five-speed without a clutch," he reasoned. With another joystick he learned to write words on a computer. "Five sentences is pretty hard," he scribbled during his first lesson. A few days later he wrote a Facebook message to Laken: "Hey baby I can't wait to see you this weekend." Two wrestling teams sent Luke posters with a verse from Isaiah, chapter 40: "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength... they will walk and not be faint." Luke asked to get the verse and a cross tattooed on his arm.
Benita hosted movie nights in Luke's room, fixing wings and nachos. On many weekends, Laken visited and fell asleep in his lap.
Each night, Benita slept next to Luke. Sometimes she just stared at him, listening to the ventilator. "You have to get better," she whispered, "because you're Luke."
One night, after staring blankly at the TV, she looked over and saw him crying.
"Why me?" he sobbed. "Why me?"
"Because the more good you did, the more the devil tried to knock you down," she whispered.
"Mama, I don't want to live like this. I'd been better off if I just died."
"No you wouldn't. None of us would. Baby, you're alive for a reason. The Lord has something in store for you, you just don't know what it is."
Complications continued, and Luke's lungs became resistant to antibiotics. He is aggravated by "being cleaned; being rolled; being bathed; being—being—being," Benita wrote in her journal. "He can do nothing for himself and it's not only killing him but it's killing me! Mothers are supposed to make things better—fix it! I can't!"
After long mornings, Benita walked across the street to the Black Bear bar with the other mothers—a parents-of-a-quad club they never expected to be in. She ordered lemon-drop martinis. The other mothers teased her about her fox-tail sweater. "You wearing road-kill again, Benita?"
Some days, while Luke was in therapy, she took refuge in her car, crying herself to sleep. At nights, she held her son's hand, even though he couldn't feel it. "I'll never leave you, baby, no matter what," she said. "I promise."
They say you’re a little closer to God on Saddle Mountain. As Luke recuperated at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, the Sparta community prepared for his arrival. Each day, townsfolk gathered at the little blue farmhouse, where they worked to erect a new bedroom, attached to a ramp. Luke, it seemed, had always sacrificed himself to help them with odd jobs. Helping him, they told Benita on the phone, was the least they could do.
During graduation Luke was the honorary speaker. “God throws things at you every day of your life to test you,” he said from his wheelchair. “You can pass the test!”
Luke kept up his logging business, employing Jake and his friends to work with old clients. He continued to coach young wrestlers. “The only thing I enjoyed more than watching him wrestle was to watch him coach,” said Mitch Franklin, the man who outfitted the hayloft Luke got his start in at 4.That fall Luke developed pneumonia in both lungs, sending him back to the hospital for several weeks. The wrestling tributes began fading away that winter. Several of Luke’s friends, once mainstays at the Hampton home, went off to college. Before departing, they wished him good luck and said goodbye.
This past January, two years after his injury, the ventilator attached to Luke’s tracheal tube whooshed in his bedroom. His dog, Cole, hobbled around on three legs—the result of being hit by a truck. Luke, now 20, had ballooned to 220 pounds. He took nearly 60 pills a day, swallowing mouthfuls at a time. In 12 months, he’d taken about 2,500 pills, a cocktail that made his hair grow kinky. The anti-depressants, once shelved, were back.Instead of the pinches of long-cut dip he once plugged into his lower lip, Benita popped tobacco pouches into his mouth, four at a time. Strewn around his bedroom were dirty water bottles, which Benita and his nurses placed under his mouth when he needed to spit. Luke learned to navigate the house with his chair, once running full-speed into a table when his tube fell from his mouth. He endured intense back spasms, causing his face to contort. He often felt itchy, numb, tingly. Many nights he didn’t sleep. Body temperature is controlled through the spinal cord, so Luke didn’t feel hot until he was incredibly hot, and didn’t feel cold until he was really cold. He didn’t feel hungry until he was tremendously hungry, and he didn’t feel full until he was really full. Though he lacked external sensations, he could still feel the inside of his body—the plugs of mucus inside his lungs and the nerve pain from head to toe. Sometimes he felt pulsations inside his fingers, causing a twitching feeling. “It might be my heart, it might not,” he told Benita. “I don’t reckon there’s any way to tell.” Every day, Benita suctioned his lungs to rid them of mucus, and doused his tubes with saline. She scratched his head and massaged his eyelids and brushed his teeth and rolled and bathed and dressed him. She changed the hoses for his ventilator and humidifier, providing moisture for the lungs. On the ceiling above Luke’s bed hung a mechanical hook attached to a heavy sack, which Benita used to lift Luke from his chair to his bed. She used a crank to lift him to his feet, though it was difficult for him to breathe. “We’re just gettin’ you ready for when the Lord’s ready for you to walk,” she declared. To keep the bones from getting brittle, Benita lifted Luke’s massive tree-chopping arms up and down. She collected Luke’s urine at the end of his catheter, near his ankle. Attached to his diaphragm, there was a pacing system with microscopic wires and electrodes. It connected to an external electric box, which Benita used to shock the diaphragm every five seconds. “You ready for me to turn you on?” she asked one day. “Yeah.” Benita flipped a switch, and Luke’s chest began to heave. “Luke, I just lit you up like a Christmas tree!”
As the newness of Luke’s injury wore off, he grew increasingly stoic. He found refuge at the 21 Quick Stop, known around town as “the Store.” Located at the base of Main Street, it’s a prime source of town gossip.On a recent night Luke sat in his chair behind the main counter, where the clerk and another man played cards next to jars of beef jerky and pickled eggs. An elderly man called Tater nodded off in a corner behind the register. Tater was known as the “Romeo” of the Jubilee, a devotee of square dance nights. But tonight was particularly cold, and his legs were too stiff to twirl. “Women won’t pay no attention to you if you can’t dance,” he lamented. Most of the customers at the counter greeted Luke. “How you?” they asked. “Fine, you?” said Luke. Another man in his 20s walked around the corner and sat down next to Tater. Luke said hello, but was frustrated that the man wasn’t trying to find work. “You’re fully capable,” he once told him. “Go do something.” The following night, Benita drove Luke to Randy’s pool hall, called Clyde’s after Randy’s nickname. Men come to the pool room to sell guns and knives, offering Randy a cut of the profits. Some barterers roll up with truck-beds full of second-hand items like washers, dryers and chainsaws. Hampton family wrestling trophies adorn the shelves behind the bar, near a collection of dusty beer bottles and, mounted on a plaque, a large-mouthed bass Benita had caught. Old Budweiser lamps sag over the pool tables. A wood-burning stove sits next to a pile of logs and a chainsaw. On the men’s-room door resides a small hole where a knob used to be. Throughout his childhood, Luke tagged along with Randy to the pool room, where he would stand on a barstool and mimic his father with a cue stick. Since his injury, he feels most comfortable in this dark den, with its older patrons. To Luke, Clyde’s represented an era where men stood on principle. “The old ways are leaving us,” he said. “When your buddy’s in a tough spot you pull them out of it. I thought I knew that. And by Gawd, I didn’t know it till I got hurt. That’s the old way. And it’s dyin’.” This past February, a clutch of locals were gathered at Clyde’s as country music crooned from the jukebox. Luke sat in the corner next to the flat-screen TV. A Duke-N.C. State basketball game was on. Luke talked with a man about the upcoming state wrestling tournament. Randy, dipping Copenhagen, rested on a cushy chair he salvaged a year ago, just before its owner tossed it into a dumpster. The patrons took turns pouring beer into Luke’s mouth. He raised his eyes toward the ceiling to signal to the men to pour faster, and lifted his head when he’d had enough. “I can’t chug like I used to,” he acknowledged, referring to the long-gone days of shot-gunning Bud Lights. “But I can still suck one through a straw pretty quick.”
Sparta has moved on. “We don’t get as many updates,” said a woman who runs a local café. Jake has taken over Luke’s logging business. “Jake’s my go-to guy now,” said Debbie. A junior, Jake quit the wrestling team and started focusing on baseball. The wrestling team, battling through coaching turnover, wins fewer matches. Last year Luke contacted Tanner Small, his final opponent, telling him he wasn’t to blame for his injury. After a few messages, they lost touch.Luke forces himself outside each day, going to the Store or Brown’s Restaurant or the local pawnshop to check out pocket knifes. This year he has pledged to earn a commercial contractor’s license, in order to bid on large jobs and subcontract them out. He wants to oversee the construction of a house near a quiet forest, where he can sit outside, look around and not see much of anyone. With life wearing him down, Benita has adopted a trainer’s mentality. As the family cycles through stay-at-home nurses, she stays up many nights to keep watch, then drags herself to her job as a continuing education administrator at a local community college. She makes weekly calls to her insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield, to wage battles. During a several-month stint of washing Luke in bed with a bucket of water, she continually begged for a shower chair. At first, insurance reps said the chair wasn’t medically necessary. The same was true for his humidifier: “Not medically necessary.” His catheter lines, hoses and leg bags: “Not medically necessary.” Luke was denied disability three times before Benita wheeled him into the social services office to prove he was paralyzed. When his ventilator broke it took the insurance company two days to fix it. When his wheelchair broke, a rep said they would send someone the following week. “No, you’re coming tonight,” Benita lectured, “and we’re going to sit up and wait for you. Luke Hampton is not going to lay in bed for 10 days.” Luke is sometimes short with Benita, who occasionally fires back. “That day, you understand, baby, I felt my heart break, too. And it’s been broken ever since. I prayed that God would let me take your pain, whatever it was, just to bring you back.” Sometimes she sits in the living room, waiting to hear Luke’s old laugh. But it rarely comes. More than anything, Luke wants to wean himself off the ventilator. Last year he enrolled in therapy at a hospital, working his way up to 12 hours of breathing on his own. But then the insurance company stopped paying. “Not medically necessary,” the reps told Benita. “We’ll reevaluate in the spring.” Lord almighty, reevaluate my ass, she thought. What Blue Cross Blue Shield doesn’t pay, the school sometimes picks up through a five-year policy for catastrophic injuries to athletes. But to Benita, the company, K & K, seems most intent on ducking expenses. “The case is under review,” said the letters arriving in the mailbox. Since his accident Luke’s medical bills have approached $1.5 million. Last year the Hamptons paid more than $20,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association follows the wrestling handbook of the National Federation of State High School Associations, an Indianapolis nonprofit that develops rules for high school sports for several states. According to the 2011–12 edition of the federation’s handbook, Rule 2-1(5) states: “The mat area includes the wrestling mat and a space of at least 10 feet surrounding the mat, as well as the team benches and scorer’s table where facilities permit.”The responsibility for mat placement falls on the head tournament official, but prior to Luke’s injury, the rule was largely ignored in North Carolina. “I officiated with mats rolled up against the wall a foot,” recalled Mauldin, the author of the wrestling newsletter out of Kannapolis. In response to a flood of emails after Luke’s accident, the state athletic association sent a statement to coaches and officials across the state. “By now, you may be aware of a catastrophic injury that occurred during a recent tournament,” it said, declaring that individual schools would now assume liability for accidents resulting from noncompliance with the mat rule. In the following weeks, officials rushed to ensure mats were positioned 10 feet away from walls. Superintendents arrived with measuring tape. Coaches refused to compete until mats were positioned satisfactorily. “I don’t care if it took them 10 days to fix it. Until they did, I said my guys would only wrestle on the middle mat,” said Calloway, Luke’s old coach. Meet durations extended deep into the evenings. Referees called their directors requesting portable bleachers. “It was a difficult time for wrestling,” recalled Jordan High’s Phil Davanzo. “Schools were not prepared.” Some suggested Luke’s injury was preventable. “It’s a shame that something bad had to happen for someone to pay attention to [the rule],” wrote a referee on the online forum. But mostly there was general confusion, without direct blame. “Did the fault fall on the ref or the state or the school?” questioned Calloway. “That’s the big question. Even as a coach, I ask myself, ‘What could I have done differently?’ ” But there is unanimous agreement on one point. Luke’s accident raised awareness among officials across the state, making them forever mindful of mat placement. “If he hadn’t gotten hurt, I don’t know what would have happened,” said Mauldin. “He brought the rule to fruition.” Mike McCall, the official who refereed Luke’s final match, has retired, though he does not attribute it to Luke. He’s a teacher now. “Luke's accident still haunts me,” he said. “It is extremely personal.” But, he added, “My feelings are nothing compared to what Luke and his family have been going through. I know they are a great wrestling family.” The Hamptons have retained a Raleigh lawyer and sued the National Federation of State High School Associations, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, the Caldwell County Board of Education and other parties, including McCall. They seek compensation to help pay for therapy to wean Luke off the ventilator. “I don’t want to take nobody’s food off their table, or take a roof from over someone’s head,” said Benita. “But I’m sick of fighting, and I want the damn insurance to take care of what Luke needs.” Athletic Association Commissioner Davis Whitfield, who declined to comment for this story, previously suggested there is “leeway” in how the mat rule may be enforced. This past February at Greensboro Coliseum, the High School Athletic Association hosted its 2014 championship tournament. Three wrestlers from Alleghany earned a berth. Several people from Sparta made the 100-mile trip from the mountains. Ten mats filled the gym space. The edges of the outer mats appeared to lie within only 5 feet of the gym’s walls. (Ironically, coaches say, the state tournament is about the only place where the 10-foot rule is not enforced. “Let’s not go there,” said Mauldin, when asked about it. “We have two officials on the mat at all times, and they’re pretty good sized mats.”) At the top of the stands, Luke sat with Benita, clad in her foxtail sweater. Just before the final round of the tournament, Calloway appeared at Luke’s side. One of Luke’s former teammates wanted him to be on the gym floor when he wrestled. Calloway also asked Luke if he would lead the small-school wrestlers out of the tunnel during the Parade of Champions. Thirty minutes later, the emcee grabbed the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special guest with us tonight. Give a big hand for two-time state qualifier, with more than 120 career wins, Luke Hampton!” His toboggan pressed to his eyebrows, Luke wheeled out of the tunnel, followed by a multicolored phalanx of brawny bodies. The crowd cheered. A Daughtry anthem poured through the speakers: Still undefeated, with my back against the ropes/Still undefeated, you can knock me down with body blows, but you cannot break my hope. Emptying from the tunnel, the wrestlers began their march of glory around the gym’s perimeter. Luke wheeled himself to a forgotten corner, and watched.
They say you’re a little closer to God on Saddle Mountain. On a frosty afternoon in February, Randy’s old Chevy rumbled through the barren woods to an opening called Air Bellows Gap, where the wind whipped so fast it sounded like an old woman wailing. Luke and Benita followed Randy in the van. Leaving the woods, the cars wheeled past a series of homes topped with red roofs laid by Luke. As the back roads receded into fields, the Hamptons rolled up to a Christmas tree farm owned by Luke’s Nanny. They had come for some target practice.During Luke’s stay at the Shepherd Center, the local chapter of the National Rifle Association gave him an apparatus that allowed quadriplegics to shoot guns by blowing through a tube. On a hill flanking Nanny’s farm, Randy fastened Luke’s Ruger 270 to the machine’s metal base and placed a computer tablet in front of the rifle’s scope, enhancing the image of the cross-hairs. In the Christmas tree field, Randy positioned a music stand, affixed with a piece of cardboard with a pair of bulls-eyes, about 150 yards away from Luke. Benita placed four tobacco pouches into her son’s mouth. Luke eyed the music stand, moving his rifle with a mouth-stick. His vision was so trained that he didn’t seem to need the computer tablet. “I can see the damn targets with a bald eye, ’bout 8 inches from the bottom of the cardboard,” he said. Satisfied with his aim, Luke used his tongue to grab the tube, which connected to a small rod in front of the trigger. “Cover your ears!” he said. He blew a puff of air. Pop. Rip. Dust. Bulls-eye. “That’s my Lukie!” squealed Benita. After a few more shots, Luke grew tired. His mind was distracted. He retreated a few yards, allowing Benita to take aim. In a forest abutting Nanny’s property, Jake and a friend coincidentally had arrived that afternoon to chop locust trees. They loaded the logs onto Jake’s flatbed and had hauled them to Nanny’s driveway. With their steel splitting mauls, they began chopping the logs into small pieces. Thud-thud-thud. As he chopped, Jake’s biceps flexed through his shirt. Benita beamed. “He’s usin' his man-muscle,” she said. It had been one of the coldest winters of recent memory in Sparta, and lingering snow capped the trees surrounding Nanny’s farm. Luke stared at his brother as the thud-thud-thud echoed through the mountain air. Thud-thud-thud, it rang over the pond Luke had fallen into as a boy, fished out by Jeremiah with a dog chain. Thud-thud-thud, it rang over the fence Luke had built for his cows. Thud-thud-thud, it rang over the lawnmower shed where Luke once squatted with his rifle, making deer do backflips. Thud-thud-thud, it rang over a childhood bicycle, still parked near the porch. Thud-thud-thud, it rang over the soaring locusts Luke chopped as a boy. Luke stared at his brother as the thuds rang out. Setting down his splitting maul, Jake began loading the logs onto his flatbed. The truck was parked next to a weeping cherry tree, leafless since December. When the weather warms it will bloom pink. But for now it will sit there, idle and bare, enduring, enduring, gracefully enduring.