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Kent Waldrep, Athlete Whose Injury Led to Advocacy, Dies at 67

Partly paralyzed as a college football player, he had a role in the inception of the Americans With Disability Act and raised money for spinal cord research.

Kent Waldrep, a former college running back whose paralyzing injury in a 1974 game led to a life of activism in which he served with a federal agency that recommended enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act and raised millions of dollars for spinal cord research, died on Feb. 27 in Natchitoches, La. He was 67.

His mother, Denise Waldrep, said the cause was pneumonia. He was in hospice care in a hospital at his death.

Mr. Waldrep was carrying the ball for Texas Christian University on a sweep play around the right end in a game against the University of Alabama in Birmingham on Oct. 26, 1974, when three defenders hit him high but could not bring him down. A fourth defender then threw a roll block into the back of his legs, causing him to flip over and land on his head. His fifth cervical vertebra was crushed and his spinal cord injured, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

“I’ll always remember seeing the ground coming up, and I guess my head got pushed underneath me,” he told The Atlanta Constitution in 1984. “The other guys were on top of me and when I hit, it just snapped my neck.”

Bear Bryant, though he was the rival team’s coach, was a regular visitor during Mr. Waldrep’s hospitalization and encouraged him in his rehabilitation. And at the next year’s T.C.U.-Alabama game, Mr. Waldrep, attending it in a wheelchair, was made an honorary Alabama letterman and given the game ball in Alabama’s 45-0 win.

“Coach Bryant was a dear man who really took Kent’s injury badly,” Denise Waldrep said in an interview.

Mr. Bryant was so dismayed that he saw to it that if Mr. Waldrep ever had children, they’d be allowed to attend Alabama if they chose. Mr. Waldrep’s sons, Trey and Charley, both went to Alabama under Bryant Scholarships.

Although physical therapy helped him regain some use of his arms, but no individual finger movement, Mr. Waldrep sought further help in 1978 at the Polenov Neurosurgical Institute in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia. After six weeks of physiotherapy, sessions in a hyperbaric chamber and enzyme injections, he left with better use of his arms and hands. He credited the Soviet doctors and therapists with greater compassion than their American counterparts.

“You couldn’t get a tear out of a doctor here even if you stuck an onion in his face,” he told Time magazine in 1978.

In 1982, with his renown growing in disability circles for having traveled to the Soviet Union and returning home to Texas to start the short-lived International Spinal Cord Research Foundation, he was appointed to the National Council on the Handicapped by President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Waldrep eventually became vice chairman of the council, a federal agency that assesses laws and programs affecting the disabled. (It was renamed the National Council on Disability in 1988.)

Robert L. Burgdorf Jr., a disability rights scholar who was the council’s lawyer, recalled Mr. Waldrep’s help in reviewing and suggesting changes in the draft of what became the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. He said in an email that it was Mr. Waldrep who named the legislation in a 1985 memo in which he suggested that “all new legislation be packaged under one title such as ‘The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1986.'”

“In this way,” Mr. Waldrep wrote, “I feel that the recommended legislative changes can be marketed much more effectively.”

Alvis Kent Waldrep Jr. was born on March 2, 1954, in Austin, Texas. His father was a banker. His mother was a homemaker who later worked at an airplane repair station owned by her husband.

Kent was an all-district and all-county running back in high school in Alvin, Texas, and received a scholarship from T.C.U. He was a reserve in 1973, and while he had started the first game of the 1974 season, he had just recovered from a bruised sternum before the Horned Frogs traveled to Birmingham to play Alabama.

For years after the game, he thought of what he might have done to avoid being injured.

“I used to think, Why didn’t I cut inside sooner?” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1989. “Why didn’t I reverse field?” He added, “There’s no way you can rationalize it. You can drive yourself completely nuts if you dwell on it.”

He started the Kent Waldrep National Paralysis Foundation in 1985, and in 1994, he and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas created the Kent Waldrep Foundation Center for Basic Research on Nerve Growth and Regeneration. It was endowed with more than $10 million raised by Mr. Waldrep’s foundation, mainly from an annual black tie dinner.

“We used his funding to seed a tremendous amount of research,” Dr. Luis Parada, a developmental biologist and neuroscientist who directed the center for 21 years, said in a phone interview. “What I admired in addition to Kent’s large personality and motivation was that he understood that I was going to ask fundamental questions of neuroscience that were essential to understand and tackle the problem, like how nerve cells die and how do we keep them alive. He wasn’t seeking claims that we would solve the problem in the short term.”

Mr. Waldrep’s health started to falter around 2005, and in 2012 he had a stroke that left him unable to work.

In addition to his mother, he is survived by his sons; his wife, Lynn (Burgland) Waldrep; his sisters, Carole Stanley and Terry Keller; and two grandsons. He lived in Natchitoches.

During the 1990s, Mr. Waldrep fought to be regarded as an employee of T.C.U. at the time of his catastrophic injury, which would have qualified him for workers’ compensation payments.

In 1993, the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission agreed with him, that as a scholarship athlete he had been an employee of the university and awarded him $70 a week for life and tens of thousands of dollars to cover his medical costs. (In 1998, the N.C.A.A. initiated a catastrophic injury insurance program for athletes disabled in a covered sports activity.)

But the university’s insurance carrier appealed, and a jury in Texas District Court returned a 10-2 verdict against Mr. Waldrep in 1997, saying that he had not been an employee of T.C.U. A state appeals court upheld the verdict in 2000.

The court wrote that it based its decision on conditions in college football at the time of Mr. Waldrep’s injury, not as they had changed in the quarter-century since.

“We express no opinion as to whether our decision would be the same in an analogous situation arising today,” the court said.

Last year, Mr. Waldrep’s belief that college players like himself were de facto university employees found some agreement when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the N.C.A.A. could not prevent relatively modest payments to student-athletes. They can now cash in on their names, images and likenesses in corporate deals.

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