Nate Thiel remembers nothing of the green sky, the vaporized tree or the lightning bolt that entered the back of his head, exited his left ankle and threw him 30 feet into a pile of downed trees in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.
Nor does the Breck senior recall that his heart apparently stopped and that he initially lost his hearing and sight. He remembers only the pain that tore through his body when he woke up a day later in a hospital 500 miles away.
Doctors told Thiel's parents that they didn't know how their son was alive and that he might never walk again.
Yet 15 months later, Thiel not only has regained full use of his arms and legs, he's also the starting quarterback for the Mustangs,who are 4-3. The only residual effects of the strike are three scars, a numb little toe and bouts of back pain.
"Am I amazed he's playing football?" said his father, John, also Breck's head football coach. "I think it's amazing he's walking around at all."
After leading wilderness canoe trips for 25 years, Pete Gwyn had seen his share of thunderstorms. But the clouds rolling in on the morning of July 17, 2005, were different. They came in greenish black from the southwest, and they made him nervous enough to mutter prayers under his breath.
Gwyn's group was 18 days into a six-week canoe trip to Hudson Bay, 400 miles from the nearest town, surrounded by lakes, caribou and black spruce trees. A few minutes earlier, Gwyn had led his group to the nearest island and told his 12 teenage campers to spread out, stay away from trees and crouch into catcher's positions. Suddenly, a deafening crack rocked the island.
"It was like a missile," Gwyn recalled. "The tree near us evaporated. Part of the island turned into a clearing. There was dirt and stones thrown up. It traveled through us all. I responded to the boys yelling for help first. I circled around, running, and that's when I saw Nate."
Nate Thiel, then 16, had looked forward to the trip all year, asking his parents for paddling gloves and a special knife for Christmas. He lay in shrubbery about 30 feet away. His eyes had rolled back in his head and he wasn't breathing.
Within 30 seconds of the strike, Gwyn was pounding on Nate's chest, performing CPR. His only thought: "I'm not going to lose a camper."
Two minutes later, Nate began to cough, and then threw up. He was writhing, apparently going into shock, and Gwyn knew he needed help fast.
Thanks to a chain of fortunate events, what might have been an 18-hour evacuation took closer to four:
By the time Nate arrived at Pickle Lake, he had lost his sight and hearing and was combative, according to Gwyn.
"He was in pretty rough shape," the trip leader said.
John and Terry Thiel were enjoying a rare day alone together, watching a matinee in Hopkins. But something nagged at them.
"Nate was on our minds the whole time," Terry remembered. "It was just a gut feeling that something was wrong."
As they walked into the lobby, Terry turned on her cell phone and found a message from Dick Lewis, a family friend who was Camp Wabun's managing director.
"Nate is alive," Lewis said when they called him back. "He's been resuscitated, and I'm on my way to Thunder Bay because he's being flown there."
John and Terry raced out of the movie theater and drove straight to Thunder Bay.
As soon as they arrived at the ICU, a doctor pulled them aside and explained that while their son was alive, "They didn't know why," John said. "The prognosis for these types of cases was not great, and the best they could do was treat his burns and get his body to flush the proteins out."
Nate's burn pattern showed that the lightning bolt - likely a sidesplash from a nearby tree - had entered the back of his head,
melting his hair. From there, it traveled down his neck and split in three directions. One branch went down his back, another went down both sides of his chest and another zig-zagged from his right shoulder to each hip, and down his left leg. Along the way, it fried the protective fat layer between his muscles and organs. Much of that is gone now, replaced by scar tissue.
Nate had survived so much trauma that nurses in the Thunder Bay ICU had written "Miracle" on Nate's chart. Doctors told John and Terry that their son could suffer memory loss and brain damage. There also was a chance that he would not regain full use of his legs.
Nate didn't fully wake up until the next afternoon. His sight and hearing had partially returned, but his muscles had atrophied. He also had a broken vertebrae and a ruptured disc.
Nate's parents drove him back to the Twin Cities the following Wednesday.
"I was suffering through a tremendous amount of muscle spasms," he recalled. "Even a couple weeks after, I'd be walking around the house and just fall."
Nate had hoped to be the Mustangs' starting quarterback in the fall. Now he could barely shuffle to the end of his driveway.
Every other day, he visited his family physician, Dr. Sheldon Burns, who treated his burns and checked on his excruciatingly slow progress.
Doctors agreed that attending Breck that fall would give Nate a psychological boost. Some days, fatigue forced him to leave school early. If he fell asleep in the middle of class, a classmate later shared notes.
Nate made it to football practice when he had the energy. Early on, he could do little more than watch, but he still hoped to play that season, and John and the doctors never said no. But some of his teammates told him no way, "and that made me want to do it even more," Nate said. "My goal was to be there for the first game."
The season opener came, and Nate still could barely run, so he looked ahead to the homecoming game. Then he decided he would take part in the playoffs.
"But I couldn't," he said. "I still couldn't move."
For John, the days Nate could attend practice were nearly as hard as the days he could not. He saw his son trying to run and falling on his face. And he remembers being in tears one day as Nate tried to perform a foot-crossing drill in slow motion, thinking through every move. "At that point," John said, "I knew he had made the decision that this wasn't going to stop him."
Nate just wanted to be normal again - to walk without thinking, run, throw.
Meanwhile, Nate's doctors were still concerned about delayed complications. He could still lose his hearing, sight or memory, or suffer other neurological damage. Every day that went by brought more relief.
Nate, who also played basketball and lacrosse, decided to focus on the spring. By lacrosse season, he still wasn't close to 100 percent, but went to every practice and played every game.
Last summer, Nate still had his eye on the starting quarterback job, putting John in a difficult spot. He told his coaching staff that he might need their help if his son couldn't make a full recovery.
"If that had happened," Nate said, "I think I would have gone into severe depression."
The first scrimmage of the season was Nate's big test. He got flattened by a teammate, then jumped back up and ran back to the huddle.
"The father in me asks, `Is he going to get up?' And he did!" John said. "Then I could get on him about getting run over."
Said Nate: "That was the defining moment of my high school career."
For a while, Nate's progress could be charted nearly daily. Even now, John will notice things. During Breck's 20-12 victory over Blake on Sept. 21, Nate sidestepped a tackle for the first time since his sophomore year.
Nate has recovered his arm strength, but his passing is still inconsistent. In seven games, he has completed 64 of 136 passes for 818 yards and eight touchdowns.
John calls his son's composure his greatest attribute. "We haven't seen anything that really gets to him right now," he said.
"Other kids I know who had similar injuries ... had to give up some of their dreams," said Mary Ann Cooper, a professor of
emergency medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert on lightning's effects. "This is nearly miraculous."
Gwyn simply calls it "nuts."
"For a guy who had to learn to walk again, who had nothing in his body - no air, no life," Gwyn said. "And he's starting at quarterback now. That speaks to what's inside his body. If he wasn't as tough a kid, he wouldn't have come around."