Former basketball star’s life is reshaped after major back injury

When you define yourself by your athleticism and popularity, what happens if you lose both? According to Redwood 2015 alumnus Elliot Dean, sometimes you find yourself in the process of reevaluating what truly matters.

Elliot, a junior at UCLA, fractured the lower portion of his vertebrae while playing football during his sophomore year of high school. A shoulder-to-shoulder hit during football practice compressed his spine and caused a crack in the vertebrae. Elliot was very active and outgoing, so this injury changed his friendships, confidence and outlook on life.

Although he didn’t need surgery, Elliot was required to wear a hard shell back brace 23 hours a day for six months.

Courtesy of Elliot Dean: Elliot on a typical day, wearing his back brace.

Courtesy of Elliot Dean: Elliot on a typical day, wearing his back brace.

As Elliot slowly recovered, he was unable to play basketball for his junior year. This forced him out of his comfort zone, requiring him to find new activities such as fishing, volunteering, playing the piano and guitar. According to Elliot, this was the hardest part of his recovery.

“My identity was built around sports, and it was what I loved to do,” Elliot said. “It was what I was best at. [The injury] just made life so much more boring. I felt like I was wasting the most valuable athletic years of my life.”

Prior to his injury, Elliot admitted to going through somewhat of a rebellious stage in which he placed more importance on sports and his social life than his academic performance.

“I didn’t apply myself in school, I didn’t try to get involved in anything new, like clubs and camps, and I barely spent time with my family,” Elliot said.

During his recovery, one of Elliot’s biggest supporters was his brother, junior Miles Dean.

“I always tried to be supportive when he needed it and provide him with positive feedback. I would constantly tell him that he would recover fully and quickly and once again be able to do the things he loved,” Miles said.

After his injury, Elliot re-examined his priorities and channeled his energy into other areas. He started working harder in school, spent more time with his family, fell in love with music and became involved with several organizations that changed his life.

The first organization Elliot participated in after his injury was the Rotary Youth Leadership Camp (RYLA), which is a leadership camp in San Francisco.

Courtesy of Elliot Dean: Elliot now at UCLA enjoying other activities, such as fishing.

Courtesy of Elliot Dean: Elliot now at UCLA enjoying other activities, such as fishing.

“I was skeptical going into it because it was my first time in an environment where I knew absolutely no one, and it was supposed to be an educational camp, which I figured would be fairly boring,” Elliot said.

Immediately after the camp ended, Elliot was inspired and created the Entrepreneurship Club at Redwood and then joined the Boys State, a policy simulation camp.  

Elliot’s injury also dramatically changed his social circle.

“My close friends from my youth and my family were the ones who stuck by me and to this day I am appreciative of that. They knew me as more than just an athlete,” Elliot said.

Once Elliot recovered enough to come out of his back brace, he endured three challenging months of physical therapy to be able to play for Redwood’s varsity basketball team during his senior year.

Elliot believes his life would be drastically different had he not broken his back during his sophomore year. According to Elliot, his shift in priorities is directly responsible for getting him into UCLA. Because of the way he handled this obstacle, Elliot turned a situation that could’ve been disastrous into something miraculous.

“I would not be at UCLA if I hadn’t broken my back, and coming here was the best decision I have ever made,” Elliot said.

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