Life was good for Greg DiGirolamo on May 22, 2007 – a sun-splashed day on the water off Pensacola, a boat full of friends and plenty of liquid refreshments. It was a day made for partying, but once it was over, he had plans to get serious. It was time to find out once and for all whether he could make a living playing golf. He had all the physical requirements: A natural athlete, he could drive the ball 300 yards and his short game was decent. Only a combustible, club-throwing temper stood in his way, but he was getting better at controlling that. And he had taken a lower-paying job that afforded him more time to work on his game.
But now nature was calling, and he dove into what he thought was 10 feet of water.
When Greg's parents, Michael and Marie DiGirolamo, showed up at the hospital, Greg's prognosis was not good. One doctor told them their son would never move again. They refused to believe it, refused to pass that medical opinion along to their son.
'We're a pretty faith-based family, and that's what we clung to, especially in the beginning,' said Michael DiGirolamo, a retired Navy veteran and as avid a golfer as you'll find. 'There really isn't much else you can do when the doctors tell you your son is done, he'll never move anything below his neck again.'
Greg was thinking the worst anyway, telling his father it looked like his luck had run out. 'I said, 'Nothing's been determined yet,'' Michael said. ''Nobody knows. What you need to do is start praying, and you need to get right with your heart.''
This wasn't the first time Greg had hit his head on the ocean bottom. It was a frequent hazard for anyone who surfed in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, as Greg loved to do. He was a thrill-seeker, willing to take the risks to get the adrenaline rush. This hit was definitely harder than most he had experienced, but he managed to climb back into the boat and sat down. Thinking he merely had a bad 'stinger,' he gingerly tested how far he could move his neck.
That's when he collapsed onto the deck.
'Once I moved my neck, that was it – instantaneous paralysis,' he said.
While someone called 911 and DiGirolamo's girlfriend held his head to keep it steady, the boat took him to a nearby resort, from where he was airlifted to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola.
To prevent him from moving and possibly causing further damage, he was placed in a medicated coma. He was unconscious for his 22nd birthday. 'When I woke up I had nothing,' he said. 'No sensation below my neck.'
He would eventually spend five weeks in the intensive-care unit, but he was slowly regaining feeling. He was transferred to West Florida Rehabilitation Center, where he spent two more months re-learning the simplest tasks, starting with sitting up.
As he improved, thoughts of golf began creeping back into his mind. Being able to stand up and take a few halting steps marked the turning point. He was ready to try to play again, whatever 'play' now meant.
A couple of months before the accident he had gotten a brand-new Titleist driver. 'I was so stoked about it.' The club had gone untouched for months, but now it was time to renew acquaintances. He asked his father to bring it to him. 'I put it in my hands,' he said, 'and the flashback of having a golf club in my hands ... it was just like second nature for me.'
Having moved back in with his parents, Greg began taking a club out to their acre-plus back yard and hitting balls, just as he had done as a child. With little sense of balance left, he would sometimes fall down, but he kept getting back up.
As he slowly got better, he contracted the universal golfing disease – raised expectations. His temper, long dormant, began to reawaken. 'It's not like I could break anything, though,' he joked. 'I'm not strong enough.'
He enrolled in the Golf Academy of America's facility in Apopka, Fla., something he had planned to do even before the accident. The next step was returning to the course. With his tee-shot distance reduced to about 170 yards, he shot 110 in his first round.
'I've tried to play 6,000 yards,' he said, 'but I'm taking driver/3-wood to every par 4. It's not fun.'
So he put ego aside and moved up to the forward tees, now playing courses in the 4,900- to 5,300-yard range. His best score is an 81, a number that gave him a bigger thrill than shooting in the low 70s used to.
His father had worked as a golf course superintendent after he retired from the Navy, giving Greg the opportunity to spend up to 10 hours a day in the summer practicing and playing. They had played many times before, but their first post-accident round together was unforgettable. 'I cried,' Michael said. 'It was something I didn't think I'd be able to do with him ever again.'
Stamina has been one of Greg's major challenges. Even the relatively small amount of walking he has to do from a handicap-flag-equipped cart to tees and greens quickly exhausts him.
'If you saw the exertion it takes for him to hit a single shot, you'd be like, 'How does he do it?'' said Ron Jones, an instructor at Golf Academy of America.
Greg sees the world differently now, realizing how many things he used to take for granted.
'I got a lot of help from a lot of people,' he said. 'I never realized what a nurse actually does' until he was hospitalized. 'All my therapists, I'm very close with still.''
He also takes full responsibility for the cause of his accident.
'I'd just been drinking way too much, and that was my downfall prior to hurting myself,' he said. 'Being 22, (you think) you're bulletproof.
'That's one thing I've learned over time is moderation. I don't drink like that anymore.'
He'd like to forge a career in the golf industry. 'It's time to get going with life again,' he said. 'You can't do therapy for the rest of your life.'
He thinks he'd be a good instructor, for the able-bodied as well as the disabled.
'You don't see a lot of disabled people in the golf industry. My goal is to show even people who aren't disabled, that are normal, who think the game is so difficult, that if I can hit a golf ball . . .
'My goal is just to give back. I've been given so much from so many people.'