In the blink of an eye, a high-flying athlete’s entire future hung in the balance. He was stuck in the passenger seat of a 2016 Nissan Altima, begging for someone to help him get out of the car. A teenager known for his gaudy leaping ability and ferocious dunks, he suddenly couldn’t move his legs.
It was three days before the start of school, Aug. 3, 2019, and East Marion star Vashon Sims was heading to the mall for school clothes with his brother, Ja’Quarious Jones, and two cousins, Keithshon Johnson and Elijah Brown, all three of whom have either starred or currently star in Eagles athletics. They were traveling eastbound on U.S. 98 to Hattiesburg and driving through Oloh when they passed a red pickup that was driving slowly in the right lane. That’s when a car, merging onto the highway from a neighborhood on the right side of the road, blew through a stop sign, crossed over the right lane into the left and crashed into the passenger side of their Altima.
Sims said he saw what was going to happen just for a moment out of the corner of his eye before the collision, which caused him to be tossed around in the vehicle and lose consciousness. When he woke up, smoke filled the car and he felt like he couldn’t breathe. He tried to get out to get fresh air but soon realized he couldn’t move his legs.
In the moment he thought it was just because he was in shock so he got his brother to pull him out. Jones leaned him up against the side of the broken down vehicle, where he was approached by a woman who witnessed the wreck. She was trying to tell him he was going to be OK, but the only thought in his mind was he needed to get away from the vehicle before it explodes because the engine was on fire. He tried again to move his legs and couldn’t. He asked the woman, whose name he can’t remember, to get him away from the car, but she couldn’t move his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame. So he yelled out for Brown to help, and Brown partially lifted him up and pulled him away. But when Brown got Sims far enough away, he dropped him thinking Sims could walk. He couldn’t and Sims instead had both of his knees crash into the pavement.
The paramedics arrived shortly thereafter and following a quick examination told Sims his back was broken.
“My what?” Sims recalls saying in disbelief.
He thought there’s no way that’s true so he reached back to feel it and felt his spine nearly protruding through his skin, confirming the dire prognosis. While Sims was in pain, he said he wasn’t scared because he knew he would get through it.
“It was still kind of devastating because I didn’t think that would ever happen to me. It was like stuff I see on TV,” he said.
Just five months prior, Sims lifted the gold ball trophy at the Mississippi Coliseum as a champion. As a sophomore on a stacked team that won 23 straight games on the way to the Class 1A state title, Sims averaged 13.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 46% from the field and electrifying every audience that watched him defy gravity.
The initial message East Marion head coach Calvin Brown got was “911,” that there had been an accident and Sims was one of the people in the vehicle. He didn’t know the extent and said all he felt was fear.
“I had no idea so my mind went from minor all the way to the death. Everything in between was a possibility,” he said.
When Sims arrived at Forrest General Hospital, the extent of his injuries materialized and he was immediately airlifted to University Medical Center in Jackson. He was bleeding to death internally from his spleen rupturing, and the doctors had to perform an emergency splenectomy to save his life. Then the attention turned to his back, which had just as bad of a prognosis.
He had a severe break and dislocation in the lower lumbar portion of his spine, and a major surgery was needed. Going into the procedure, Sims said the doctors were trying to sugarcoat how bad it really was when talking to him, saying that he was going to be just fine. But behind closed doors, they told his parents they needed to be prepared for him never being able to walk again.
“I knew something was up because they were telling me something completely different, saying I was going to be fine. They were telling me I couldn’t feel my legs because I was still in shock, but the whole time they’re thinking I’m paralyzed,” he explained.
Before he went into surgery, Sims told his mom, Venetia Griffin, and everyone there he was going to walk out of that hospital. During the operation, he had two flexible cord rods inserted with screws into his spine, allowing him to potentially retain flexibility in the off chance he wasn’t paralyzed.
Following his surgery, Sims called Marion County Constable Robbie Gill, who he considers to be an uncle, and asked Gill to come see him. When he got to his room, Sims told Gill to look down where he was moving his toes. Seeing Gill’s reaction in that moment confirmed what Sims had surmised, the doctors were telling the adults he was going to be paralyzed even with the surgery.
When the lead surgeon on his case saw Sims moving his toes, he admitted he had no explanation as to how Sims regained movement and had believed him to be paralyzed.
“He told me to look,” Gill said. “Then the doctor looked and said ‘Medically, I can’t explain that.’ I said ‘I can. It’s all God.’ It gives me chills thinking about it.”
Even though he could move his toes and had regained some feeling in his legs, Sims said he felt like he was still down and was done. At that time he wasn’t sure if that was all that would come back or if he would ever be able to walk again, let alone ever return to the basketball court. But he decided to take on the challenge and mold his mind into something greater.
“I looked at it as something different. I didn’t think I was going to play again; I told myself I was going to play again,” he said. “But I had that fear deep down, like ‘What if it’s over?’ It was like I had everything in my hands, and I just had it taken from me.
“That’s how I was thinking at one point, but my whole mindset changed and it was like I matured in the hospital. I looked at it as ‘I’m glad this happened to me instead of anybody else in that car,’ because I thought ‘What if their mind isn’t built to handle situations like this?’ I rather it happened to me because I told myself I was going to get back right.”
Sims committed himself to therapy and worked “crazy hard.” His first day in physical therapy straight out of the hospital bed they had him try to walk, using metal rails on each side of him to hold himself up. He could swing his right leg some, but he could hardly pick his left foot up off the ground because he had developed drop foot and was unable to lift the front part of his foot.
A woman who was shot in the back at 8 years old came to talk to everyone in the hospital attempting to work through a severe spinal trauma. She went through the same experience Sims was facing — she could only move one of her legs — and her story caused him to break down. He asked his mom, “What if this is me for the rest of my life?” because he wasn’t progressing as fast as he wanted to. It was almost his breaking point, but he was able to channel that emotion into his therapy.
To retrain his leg muscles, Sims would be helped up out of his wheelchair to ride a stationary bike that allowed him to move the pedals with his arms. As the weeks went by, he was finally able to begin pedaling with his legs rather than his arms. He would also be suspended in a full-body sling from a lift hanging from the ceiling and had to try to walk.
He had to do occupational therapy as well, beginning with trying to get out of his bed and into his chair. Sims said at first he couldn’t do it on his own and that it hurt so bad, but eventually he was able to start doing it on his own without the use of a slide board. One of his biggest “aha!” moments came when his occupational therapist challenged him to lift his left leg to get his foot into the footrest of his wheelchair. He didn’t think he could do it but tried anyway and managed to do it on the first try. Once past that hurdle, he was so determined to progress each day that he would get himself out of bed and brush his teeth before the occupational therapist even showed up.
Sims took that same approach with physical therapy. When he was supposed to only do 10 reps, he would push himself to do upwards of 50 until he physically could no longer do it. When tasked with doing a 30-second plank, he did a minute-and-30-second plank. He may have been rushing the process, but he wanted it so bad.
His next step was trying to walk with a more advanced parallel bar, and he kept making steady progress. One day, just a month from the day of the accident, he decided enough was enough so he told his physical therapist, Emily, to drop the rails. She was hesitant but dropped them a little bit lower just in case he started to lose his balance. He pushed himself up out of his seat, took one small step, then another and another until he reached the end of the walkway; then he walked backward to where he began.
His progress was nothing short of meteoric and made his physical therapist cry when he was able to walk through the halls. He was supposed to be doing it with the help of his walker, but instead he carried it as he walked.
“It was like everything was meant to be in there,” Sims said. “I had the perfect physical therapist. She was trying to get me to progress faster than anything. I was moving on to different stuff every day. She believed in me. She was that extra push in the hospital. Knowing that she believed in me, I thought ‘I’m not fixing to give up. I got everyone behind me; everyone wants to see me back’ so I pushed myself even harder.”
One of his biggest motivations was the love and support he received from the community, which he said was a bit of shock because he never realized how much he meant to them. It did creep into his mind that maybe some of the people supporting him were only doing so because of basketball, but ultimately that didn’t matter.
“The more I thought about it, it was like still that love and support, even if it’s about basketball, look how many people supported me and my dream. They supported my dream enough to go the extra mile for me so through all that therapy I thought ‘If I give up, I’m giving up on my whole town. If I fail, I fail the whole city of Columbia. I fail everybody that supported me in Jackson. I failed all of Mississippi basically.’ I couldn’t do that,” he explained.
Sims added his family was behind him every step of the way, including his stepdad, Charles Pittman, and dad, Shon Sims.
The rising senior spent a little more than a month at UMC and completed physical therapy in November just three months after his doctors believed him to be paralyzed.
Brown said being a witness to Sims’ journey is affirmation to how powerful God is because his progress has been like witnessing a miracle. Gill agrees and said to see Sims now, all he can think is “God is good.”
Sims now appreciates the accident and said God allowed him to see life from a different perspective, calling it an “assist to his metamorphosis.” He had his whole life planned out, only for it to be snatched away from him in an instant, but he’s grateful.
“I appreciate everything, not just the game of basketball. I look at stuff totally different. I look at how I go about myself different because now I know anything can happen, and it can happen in the blink of an eye,” he said. “But I’m glad it happened to me because it morphed me into the guy I am today.”
Gill said a lot of people don’t get to see how special Sims is beyond his physical prowess but that Sims is very intelligent, an A-B student and an awesome young man.
On the court, from appreciating his God-given abilities to watching the Eagles play from the sideline for a full season, Sims said he will play the game so much smarter.
“I changed and my mind is so open to the game of basketball other than just playing off of my athleticism. I really studied the game and can see it from a different perspective now. The game is really like poetry now,” he said. “You can see people’s reactions to certain things, and now you can see how to break down different defenses. I see it from a coach’s perspective now, and I can’t wait take that into the game.”
Sims said he feels like the game punished him for a year for not appreciating it enough or taking it seriously enough, but he’s learned his lesson. When he does return for his first game, he said he thinks it will be surreal, a dream come true and a rebirth all wrapped into one.
“I have so much in store for myself and have so much to show people — how much I’ve changed, how much I’ve morphed. I molded my mind in a different way. The game is going to mean way more to me than it used to. Every time I step on this court it’s like I have to show the world I’m back,” he said.
When he got out of the hospital, he was so anxious to get back to the court and wanted to shoot around, but Brown wouldn’t let him. To this day Brown said it’s difficult trying to get Sims to be cautious, especially because Sims is a “thoroughbred” with a never-ending motor and has a belief that he’s going to make it back. Until Brown gets the green light from medical professionals and Sims’ mom, though, he said he’s going to continue to be patient and pray for Sims’ recovery.
At this point Sims said he feels like he can do everything he used to be able to do but not as well yet. Right now he’s 235 pounds, down 11 pounds from his peak weight during rehab. His goal is to get back down to 210 pounds, and he spends most days working out with his girlfriend, Lia Smith, who plays for the Lady Eagles. He was slowed down slightly by catching the coronavirus last month, which he said wasn’t too bad apart from feeling sluggish and tired. He’s been doing workouts with a tractor tire, sometimes flipping it as far as a mile, ab workouts and a lot of running.
His 13.7 points per game during the 2018-19 season were tied for the team lead with then-senior and now Jones College big man John Rawls. The wing led the Eagles with 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting in the semifinals win over Potts Camp then had a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double in the title game victory over Okolona.
Although he was a bit streaky from 3-point range, making 28% as a sophomore, he had nine games where he made at least two from behind the arc, showcasing three-level scoring ability. With his elite explosiveness driving to the rim, forcing defenses to respect his jumper from deep allowed him to have even more success. His first-step quickness from triple threat position — holding the ball by your hip where you can either pass, shoot or attack off the dribble — is even more dangerous because of his ability to shoot. If that Sims returns to the court this winter, the sky remains the limit.
Prior to the accident, Sims had a few scholarship offers, including Southern Miss, and he has remained in contact with a couple of schools.
With a potential starting lineup of a healthy Sims, Caleb Rawls, Cameron Walker, Deuce Johnson and Carlos Stubbs, the Eagles will be as athletically gifted as most every team in Mississippi regardless of classification. If they are able to come together and play consistently, another deep postseason run is very much in the cards, especially if Sims can take a step forward from his sophomore campaign. If one thing has become clear over the past 10 months, it’s that Sims will figure out how to take that step, someway somehow.
The biggest step he needs to take might just come today, June 25, as he has a checkup and may be fully cleared to play again. If a February practice is any indication, Sims will be soaring again when basketball season begins in November.
Brown had left the gym and Sims, who wasn’t participating, decided he wanted to just go up for a layup. When he did, he realized how high he jumped — well above the rim. So he went up again, this time trying to dunk, and threw down a powerful left-handed dunk with the rim halfway up his forearm, shocking himself and making him think “there’s no way I just did this.” Then he did it again. In that moment he felt like himself again and envisioned his entire journey being punctuated with one play.
“I started visualizing a packed gym, in a game getting a steal and having my first dunk back,” Sims said. “That feeling is going to be so crazy.”