Chapecoense survivor: ‘My team-mates’ smiles will always stay with me’

Jakson Follmann had leg amputated but goalkeeper feels born again after plane crash

 

Jakson Follmann gripped the guide rails and took one painstaking step after another, testing the prosthesis that now fills the space once occupied by his lower right leg. The device was fitted to Follmann’s lanky frame only a week ago, and as he tried it out, his father, Paulo, and his physiotherapist, Eliene Lima, silently cheered him on.

When Follmann, a former soccer player with a crew cut and a quick smile, made his way to the end of the bars, everyone who had squeezed into the white-walled exam room clapped in celebration. Lima wrapped Follmann in a hug. He responded with a wink and a grin.

It has been more than two months since Follmann (24) lost his leg – the most significant of his many serious injuries – when a charter flight carrying his Brazilian soccer team, Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, crashed into a muddy Colombian mountainside on the way to a match. The crash killed 71 people – including nearly every player and coach from Chapecoense, the provincial team that was nearing the end of a fairy-tale season.

Follmann, a reserve goalkeeper, was one of only seven people found alive once rescuers climbed through the dark to the wreckage (one of the survivors later died at a hospital). Now, therapists at the Instituto de Prótese e Órtese prosthetics clinic said they were amazed he was walking already. And Follmann is quietly proud of his progress.

“In one week of physiotherapy, of treatment, I managed to take my first steps,” he said. “For me, it was a really big victory.”

The Chapecoense tragedy reverberated around the world. Few fans outside South America had heard of the team from the south of Brazil before the November crash, which came as it was flying to its first appearance in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second-biggest club tournament.

But as news of the crash flashed around the world, some of soccer’s biggest teams held minutes of silence before matches, top players like Lionel Messi paid homage, and the #ForçaChape hashtag became a symbol of global support.

Long road back

Now both the team and survivors like Follmann are beginning the long road back. The club has already assembled a team of borrowed, out-of-contract and youth-team players, and last month, it started playing competitive soccer again under a new coach, Vagner Mancini.

“We won’t stop fighting – this is the message we all have,” said José Constante, a goalkeeper known by his middle name Nivaldo. Constante (42) was not on the flight, and after the crash, he followed through on plans to retire. He now works as the team’s director of football.

Chapecoense was founded in 1973 in Chapecó, a quiet, industrial city of 210,000 surrounded by agricultural land. The team landed in Brazil’s fourth division in 2009, but by 2014, it had climbed into the top flight, Série A. Follmann joined as a reserve goalkeeper last May, near the beginning of an extraordinary run that was supposed to be crowned by the Copa Sudamericana final against Colombia’s Atlético Nacional.

Chapeceonse had no big-name players, Follmann said, but was well organised and had developed an unusually strong sense of teamwork. “We were a family,” he said. “There was no vanity, no stars. As we say in soccer, there was no Pelé.”

Follmann fit right in. He had grown up in Alecrim, a small town in the nearby state of Rio Grande do Sul. As a child, he played soccer behind the family home with his father, a police sergeant who is now retired. Follmann joked that he became a goalkeeper because he was no good at any other position.

Tall, fast and acrobatic, the 6’1” Follmann left home at 13 to sign with Grêmio, the state’s most well-known team, and later played for lesser teams in Brazil’s vast interior before eventually signing with Chapecoense.

Playing time was hard to come by, however. Chapecoense’s starting goalkeeper, Marcos Padilha, known as Danilo, was enjoying a dream season when Follmann arrived, and the reserve goalkeeper appeared in only one competitive game, a Copa Sudamericana match that Chapecoense lost, 1-0.

Transferred

Luiz Chignall, Follmann’s agent, said that might have been about to change: Padilha (31) was expected to be transferred at the end of the season, opening the way for Follmann. But that hardly matters now. Padilha survived the crash but died at a hospital, and Follmann’s injuries have cost him his career.

Today, he and his family regard his survival as miraculous.

When Follmann’s fiancée, Andressa Perkovski (24) called his family in the early hours of November 29th with news of the crash, Paulo Follmann went into shock and had to be taken to a hospital. But Jakson’s mother, Marisa, trusted in the family’s Catholic faith and held to her belief that he had survived.

“I felt that God told me he was alive,” she said, “and that’s what happened.”

The team was flying from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellín, Colombia, with a tiny Bolivian charter company, LaMia, that it had used before. Investigations by the Bolivian and Colombian authorities found that the plane ran out of fuel minutes before it was to land in Medellín. The Bolivians have blamed LaMia and the pilot, one of the company’s co-owners, who was among those killed in the crash.

Follmann said he and two other surviving players, defenders Hélio Zampier Neto and Alan Ruschel, were sitting near the wings when the plane’s engines gave out. Sensing a crisis, he said, he squeezed his hands together in fear. He said that he blacked out when the plane hit the mountainside and that he woke up in the dark, on the ground, where a rescuer found him shouting. After passing out again, he woke up three days later in a hospital, with his family by his side.

He found out about the deaths of his team-mates and coaches there.

“I cried a lot,” he said. “But the few times I think about the accident, I try to turn my mind around. I try to think about everybody’s happiness, and this is good for me because I only think good things about those who are gone. And this strengthens me.”

No anger

He added: “I’m very grateful I didn’t see anybody dead, dying beside me. So the image that stays with me is of everybody’s smiles.”

He said he feels no anger toward those responsible for the crash – “It’s not for me to judge; I just want to focus on my recuperation and commemorate my life” – and prefers instead to lean on his faith, and look toward his future.

“It’s not for me to stay stuck in a corner, sad and begging for my leg, or asking God why I lost my leg,” he said. “God gave me life again. I was born again.”

He had sustained multiple fractures, however, including a cervical vertebrae injury that was repaired in an operation in São Paulo. A deep head wound needed 39 stitches. His left foot was sliced open, and the talus bone that pivots the ankle was later removed. A six-inch rod was inserted as a stabiliser.

That wound is still painful, and it is covered with a protective boot. In his visit to the clinic, Follmann winced when Priscilla Galvão, a physiotherapist, slowly bent it backward and forward. His background as an athlete, she said, has been helpful in his recovery. “It is easier to rehabilitate a person used to hard exercise,” she said.

Follmann said he would stay in Chapecó as he continues his recovery and plots a future very different from the one he once expected for himself. He has become friends with Renato Leite (34), a member of Brazil’s Paralympic sitting volleyball team who also has a prosthetic leg. Leite has encouraged Follmann to consider a second athletic career, saying, “He has everything to become a Paralympic athlete.”

Follmann said he would not rule it out. He cannot, he said.

“I’m a sportsman,” he said, “and will always be a sportsman.”

New York Times Service

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