WALL, N.J. -- It's only been four months, but there are still times when Gary Grimes' memory fails him, when the words quite aren't there. It's not only his mind, but his gait is slower now, too, since he's still relearning how to walk. That's what happens when you've been in a coma, when a car accident on a football Sunday back in October nearly kills you.
"He's lucky to be alive," says his sister, Helen Heal.
Since that day when he blacked out, his car crossed two lanes of traffic and then careened directly into a tree, life has been a struggle for Grimes; joy has been rare. But this Sunday, when the New York Giants play the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, Grimes and his wife, Loriann, and two of their children will be sitting on their couch rooting for the Giants and their coach, Tom Coughlin.
The game this year, though, will have deeper meaning for the Grimes family, after Gary received a personally signed letter of encouragement from the head coach this past weekend.
"I can never, ever, ever have any doubts -- whether he wins the Super Bowl on Sunday [or not] -- I could never have any bad thoughts about Tom Coughlin. Ever," Grimes says. "I'll be rooting for the Giants anyway, but I'll certainly be rooting for the coach even a little bit more.
"The guy took the time to send me a letter."
It wasn't just that Coughlin wrote a letter and sent it to Grimes that was impressive, it was that he did it less than two weeks before his team would play in the biggest game of the season, his family said. When Grimes watches the game from his New Jersey home Sunday, sitting atop a Giants blanket next to his side will be Coughlin's letter:
How did a super bowl-bound coach receive word about an injured fan, and then turn around and send a package of photos, decals and a personalized letter, a week before the NFL's marquee event?
It all started with a letter Heal, Grimes' sister, wrote to Coughlin less than two weeks ago.
I'm usually skeptical of stories that are heavy on the heartstrings and public relations spin. But when I got an unexpected voicemail earlier this week from Grimes' sister, telling me she wanted to get a story out about Coughlin and the Giants, and that this story should be told, I decided to take a chance. I called Heal back the following day.
"He wrote my brother such an inspirational letter I just felt [Coughlin] should get some accolades for that," Heal told me. Gary "read the letter to me and it just brought tears to my eyes. To think that he would send my brother a letter ..."
Heal and Grimes and their two siblings were raised in Kearny, N.J., just down the street from the Meadowlands. Everyone in Kearny was a Giants fan; you really had no other choice. Heal knew how much football had been sustaining her brother since his accident, and the night before she flew down to Florida for the winter from her New Jersey home, she took out a sheet of paper and hand wrote a letter to Coughlin.
"I said to myself, 'What could I do to put a smile on my brother's face?'" Heal told me, "because it's been hard."
Heal wrote that her brother was in a serious car accident, that the family thought he was going to die, and that they were grateful he survived, though he was still recovering. She wrote that Grimes was a huge Giants fan, that he played college football at Glassboro State, "and then I wrote I would deeply appreciate it from the bottom of my heart if you could send something to him -- a picture, an autograph -- to put a smile on his face," Heal said.
"And then I said, 'Go Giants.'"
After speaking with Heal and Grimes on Tuesday night, I took that chance and drove down to New Jersey on Wednesday. I still have no way of knowing whether Coughlin actually read Heal's letter but through a spokesperson Coughlin told SB Nation, "our fans care about us, and we care about them."
When I arrived at his home, I discovered that not only were Gary Grimes' injuries very real, so was his story.
It was on October 2 when he was on his way back from his cousin's son's football game -- just before the 4 p.m. local start time of the Giants' game that day -- when he blacked out. Doctors still aren't sure what happened, but they think it likely had to do with his heart.
"I thought I was dead," Grimes said.
He crossed two lanes of traffic and smashed into a tree. He had crushed vertebrae, a dislocated his right ankle and fell into a coma. When he arrived at the hospital, his heart stopped four times on the table. For two weeks, doctors couldn't tell the family what happened, and exactly what was wrong.
"Not knowing, not knowing anything -- his condition, how serious it was -- it was terrible," Kaitlyn Grimes, Gary's daughter, said. "From the moment we saw him in the hospital bed that day to now is an incredible change."
Grimes is back on the mend. But it was not without complications. Doctors told him it will take six to eight months for his ankle to heal, and he has four fused vertebrae that are permanent. Since the accident, Grimes, 49, has relied on others to help dress him, shower him and shuttle him to and from his physical therapy appointments.
He came home in November, but had a seizure and was back in the hospital, resetting all of the progress he had made. This past week he finally ditched his walker and cane, but the long hours at home, with little to do, have been tedious.
"He's been depressed," his son, Gary Jr., said. "He goes from working five days a week coming and going to being stuck in the house."
Grimes owns his own business in northern New Jersey. It's a warehouse company that requires manual labor; he uses his hands every day. He's started going back to work once a week. It's a 50-mile drive and his daughter and son and other relatives help bring him back and forth. What was once manual labor is now an office job, but it's a break from being at home.
"When everybody goes back to their normal lives," said Gary Jr., "he's still here, mostly by himself. We try and stay with him as much as possible."
So this past Saturday, when Loriann handed the manilla envelope -- with no return address, six paper stamps and Gary's address handwritten -- neither she nor her husband could have anticipated how the contents inside would be so much of a boon.
"He was ecstatic," Loriann said. Coughlin "probably has no idea what he's done emotionally for my husband."
What the Grimes' didn't know is that Gary's sister, Helen, had sent a handwritten letter just a week before, simply addressed to Coughlin at the Giants' stadium. The odds of that letter reaching Coughlin, especially given the timing, seemed infinite.
"My sister is a good person, Tom Coughlin is a good person," Grimes said. "And I guess it was just meant to happen."
Gary (left) with his sister Helen (center), courtesy of the Grimes family.
Grimes' physical therapist, Matt Miller, said the letter from Coughlin can help immeasurably in his recovery. Miller said a positive mental attitude is just as important part of the process, if not more so, than the physical. Loriann Grimes already has seen the dividends from her sister-in-law's original act of kindness.
"I was so touched that she would even think to do something like that," Loriann said. "But we all know how emotionally -- how hard it's been for him. I know she was looking at it [like] this would be something that would perk him up, never anticipating that it would come before the Super Bowl."