July 26, 2021 is a date that Keion McNair will never forget.
McNair, track and field coach at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School, had taken eight athletes to North Florida University in Jacksonville for the week-long USA Track and Field Junior Olympics.
“It was the first day of competition,” recalled McNair, and due to COVID testing protocol, “no one could run so we left the track.”
As McNair and 17-year-old senior hurdler Darian Mills got ready to leave in McNair’s car, “my 10-year-old niece wanted to go with us, but thank God I didn’t let her (go).”
After about 10 minutes on I-295, the unexpected, and nearly tragic, happened.
“Traffic was backed up, so we came to a stop. We were (just) sitting there and I was checking the rear-view mirror (when) I saw this big van coming,” McNair said.
He only had enough time to say “oh, my God, hold on!”
Never slowing down, the van slammed into the rear of McNair’s car at a speed of about 80 miles per hour, according to the police report.
Knocked unconscious by the impact, McNair never saw the unidentified woman who helped pull Darian from the remains of the car. In fact, as Darian was calling for his coach, “the lady told him I didn’t make it,” as McNair was later told.
“When I came to at the hospital, all I remembered was seeing the van hitting us,” said McNair, who tried to get up and find out about Darian’s condition.
McNair calmed down only when told that Darian was going to be all right, and to lie still while they finished doing their necessary testing. He would be released from the hospital after about 12 hours.
Mills, the young hurdler, suffered a concussion and has ligament damage in his neck but has been able to return to classes, although his competing days are on hold while he attends physical therapy.
It would not be until a few days later that McNair saw pictures of what remained of his car, and “I didn’t know how bad it was” until then. His first thought was “Oh, my God. How did we make it out of that car?”
The other driver, not injured at all, admitted at the scene that it was entirely his fault and was arrested. “I don’t know the reason why he said he didn’t see us or slow down,” said McNair.
Although the casual observer cannot see any obvious physical effects from the horrific crash, the decorated runner and coach “can’t run, I can’t work out, I can’t lift (weights). I can’t do the things I want to do.”
Due to the condition of his upper back and neck, McNair must sleep on his back because “sleeping on my side is too painful.”
“Hopefully, I can get (back to normal) without surgery, but there is that possibility," he said.
In his quest to get better while avoiding surgery, McNair goes for physical therapy three times a week at Florida Neuro Pain and Spine Center in Panama City and the Nova Orthopedic Spine Care in Tallahassee once a week.
Because he was initially diagnosed with bleeding on the brain, McNair also saw a neurologist for several weeks just after the accident.
Even after his physical improvement, the mental effects will likely take much longer.
“Driving or even as a passenger, I’m constantly checking behind to see if the cars are going to slow down or stop,” said McNair. “Just knowing what happened is draining.” Attending counseling sessions gives him hope.
He has not yet been able to return to work at the high school.
"I’m not sure when. I’m hoping (it’s) soon, because that (being around young people) keeps me going, keeps me young,” McNair said. “I’ve just got to wait it out, and hope that I get to return soon.”
McNair did travel to Panama City for the cross country team’s first meet this past Saturday, and was able to watch them run.
Only watching his runners compete may be disappointing to McNair right now, but he recognizes how lucky he and Mills are for being able to survive the crash.
McNair summed it up this way: “I definitely believe God had us covered.”