WILLIAMSBURG — As Josh Tutwiler plummeted through the fall Missouri air, the sheer rock face racing past and the ledge from which he fell rapidly receding, he felt his conscious mind split in two.
On one side, memories and experiences zipped past at warp speed: family, friends, baseball games, his girlfriend still atop the ridge, his boyhood friend who fell to his death just 22 months earlier.
The other side produced a series of questions that came slowly and deliberately, that seemed to defy gravity: What's it like to die? Do you go straight to heaven? Do you lay there a while? What does it feel like?
Tutwiler doesn't know the answers to those questions, as best he can surmise, because he's not supposed to know them — not yet, anyway.
What he knows, what he learned in the hours and days after that fall last September, is that he survived injuries that would have killed most and paralyzed the rest.
"I'm blessed beyond belief," he said.
Tutwiler, quite literally, broke his neck in a 40-foot fall. Bruised and bloodied, unaware of the extent of his injuries, he somehow climbed back up the cliffside in an effort to save himself. He then hiked a mile-and-a-half to a parking lot where he met emergency medical workers and firefighters who had convened for a rescue mission.
At any point during the ordeal, loose bone fragments might have severed an artery or sliced his spinal cord. He might have bled out or lost the use of his limbs. Had that occurred on the cliffside, he certainly would have died.
Tutwiler underwent two lengthy operations within a 30-hour period to repair broken and shattered vertebrae. Both surgeries were painstaking, fraught with risk and offered no guarantees.
He came through both procedures wonderfully. Eight months later, he sat in a classroom at William and Mary Hall and told the story that changed his life.
Tutwiler, 24, is a volunteer assistant coach with the Tribe after graduating from Old Dominion University last spring. He is slowly regaining strength and mobility, courtesy of two or three sessions of physical therapy per week, whatever the baseball schedule permits.
He is grateful for every ache and every inconvenience. He is grateful for any audience willing to listen.
"I definitely think there's something bigger going on than a random guy falling off a random cliff," Tutwiler said. "I'm a firm believer that nothing happens by accident. I think there's a grand scheme that we all play a part in, and I'm part of that grand scheme."
What part might he play?
"That's a little bit above my pay grade," he joked.
Tutwiler's is a story that's better heard than read. It contains elements of myth and legend and faith and pain and triumph, components that make up the best part of stories passed down orally through families and tribes and cultures.
It's a story best absorbed with pace and timbre and inflection, with pauses that allow details to sink in, with amusing observations — and yes, there can be humor in life-threatening injuries — that lighten a tale so weighty and intense that at times is almost unbearable.
It's a story that makes medical professionals, men and women whose lives are devoted to science and precision and probability, use the "M" word. Nothing in their study or training or experience explains what they see in front of them.
Tutwiler is the perfect narrator, and not just because he's the subject and his story is practiced through hundreds of tellings. He is naturally engaging, with an open and inviting face. Though he possesses the stocky build of a college catcher, which he was, he isn't the least bit imposing. He has close-cropped hair and soft brown eyes that almost pinch closed when he smiles, which he does often.
Tutwiler's parents describe their son as rarely at a loss for words. Girlfriend Laura Crittendon, who was with him on the ridge that day, joked that in their lengthy phone conversations, sometimes her roommates think she's on "hold" because she'll go minutes without uttering a word.