Lukas Verzbicas (left) runs the Orland Park Turkey Trot on Thursday, November 22, 2012. | Jeff Vorva~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 24, 2012 7:23AM
The trophy is about 4 inches high and 2 1/2 inches wide with a gold turkey on top of the base.
It might not be the biggest or flashiest award that 19-year-old Lukas Verzbicas has won, but it might be the most important.
The Orland Park native was one of the best runners in the nation and world before he suffered a near-death accident that left his body a wreck in July. On Thursday, he came home to run in the Orland Park Turkey Trot and finished third overall out of 750 entrants and second in his 15-to-19 age group with a time of 13 minutes, 32.6 seconds. It was his first competition since the accident.
Before July, not winning a race would be tough for Verzbicas to handle. He was full of joy on Thanksgiving just to be able to compete and win that turkey trophy.
“The fact that I’m able to even be here means so much more to me,” he said. “I’ve never appreciated something like life. I always thought about the small things — the racing and the training and all of that. That was all that mattered to me. Now I see the wide spectrum and the big picture.
“For me this is the most thankful Thanksgiving I’ve had.”
Orland Park’s Zach Dahleen, 21 and a senior cross country and track runner at Southern Illinois University, was the overall winner of the race in 13:08.8 but wasn’t gloating about beating an elite runner and friend.
“Yeah, well I can only beat him on his off days,” Dahleen said. “He’s a great runner and I really hope he comes back and makes those 2016 Olympics.”
On July 31, Verzbicas, a two-time state cross country champion and two-time Gatorade National Runner of the Year while at Sandburg High School, was involved in an accident that had some doctors thinking he wouldn’t even walk again.
He was pursuing an Olympic dream of competing in the 2016 games in the triathlon. He was training on his bike in Colorado Springs, Colo., and was heading downhill when he crashed head on into a guardrail.
“There was a 180-degree turn going downhill,” Verzbicas said. “I couldn’t make the turn and got into some wet sand. I braked and my brakes didn’t work so ... now that I think about it, if I knew that going into the guard rail was going to be that bad I might have done something differently. But I froze and didn’t know what to do. That one second could have been avoided. If I could have purposefully crashed and went down on my left side, I could have hit the ground and slid into the rail.”
He would have been hurt, but not as bad. His list of messed-up body parts was staggering.
He suffered two broken vertebrae, to go with a broken thorax and a broken clavicle. Add to that a partially collapsed right lung and the inability to feel movement in his right leg.
The list of surgeries he went through also is mind-numbing.
Among the major surgeries Verzbicas had performed was a procedure to drain blood from his lung. There was another in which doctors inserted screws in his clavicle after they had to break it into three pieces.
And there was the back operation. Several rods had to be inserted. It was a six-hour surgery that kept him in the intensive care unit for three days.
After all that, few could have guessed that less than four months later he would be spending Thanksgiving morning running in a race.
“My surgeons say I’m a medical miracle,” he said.
He stayed upbeat and told reporters from his hospital bed that he would be back. By Aug. 31 he was walking again. On Thanksgiving, he was running competitively, and he still is sticking to his goal of the 2016 Olympics.
Sandburg cross country coach John O’Malley, who coached Verzbicas in 2009 and 2010, also was a runner in the Turkey Trot and was glad to see his prized pupil running again.
“The doctors told his parents he would never walk again, and here he is running 10 weeks later,” O’Malley said. “Obviously this is something unique physically and mentally. It wasn’t that long ago that he was just learning how to sit again. But he was fired up and motivated to get back out there the whole time.”