A Plane Crash Survivor and a Decimated Team Push Forward
Follmann, who lost his leg in a crash that killed most of his Chapecoense teammates, is starting to walk again as his old team has resumed play
Jakson Follmann gripped the guide rails and took one painstaking step after another, testing the prosthetic leg that now fills the space once occupied by his lower right leg. The device was fitted to Follmann’s lanky frame only a week ago, and as he tried it out, his father, Paulo, and his physiotherapist, Eliene Lima, silently cheered him on.
When Follmann, a former soccer player with a buzz cut and a quick smile, made his way to the end of the bars, everyone who had squeezed into the white-walled exam room clapped in celebration. Lima wrapped Follmann in a hug. He responded with a wink and a grin.
It has been more than two months since Follmann, 24, lost his right leg — the most significant of his many serious injuries — when a charter flight carrying his Brazilian soccer team, Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, crashed into a muddy Colombian mountainside on the way to a match. The disaster killed 71 people — including nearly every player and coach from Chapecoense, the provincial team that was nearing the end of a fairy-tale season.
Follmann, a reserve goalkeeper, was one of only seven people found alive once rescuers climbed through the dark to the wreckage (one of the survivors later died in a hospital). Now, therapists at the Instituto de Prótese e Órtese prosthetics clinic here said they were amazed he was walking already. And Follmann is quietly proud of his progress.
“In one week of physiotherapy, of treatment, I managed to take my first steps,” he said. “For me, it was a really big victory.”
The Chapecoense tragedy reverberated around the world. Few fans outside South America had heard of the small team from the south of Brazil before the November NYT crash, which came as the team was flying to its first appearance in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s secondbiggest club tournament. But as news of the crash flashed around the world, some of soccer’s biggest teams held minutes of silence before matches, top players like Lionel Messi paid homage, and the #ForçaChape hashtag became a symbol of global support. Now both the team and survivors like Follmann are beginning the long road back. The club has already assembled a team of borrowed, out-of-contract and youth-team players, and last month it started playing competitive soccer again under a new coach, Vagner Mancini. “We won’t stop fighting — this is the message we all have,” said José Constante, a goalkeeper known by his middle name Nivaldo. Constante, 42, was not on the f light, and after the crash he followed through on plans to retire. He now works as the team’s director of soccer. Chapecoense was founded in 1973 in Chapecó, a quiet, industrial city of 210,000 surrounded by agricultural land. The team landed in Brazil’s fourth division in 2009, but by 2014 it had climbed into the top flight, Série A. Follmann joined as a reserve goalkeeper in May, near the beginning of an extraordinary run that was supposed to be crowned by the Copa Sudamericana final against Colombia’s Atlético Nacional.
Chapeceonse had no big-name players, Follmann said, but it was well organized and had developed an unusually strong sense of
teamwork. “We were a Outside South family,” he said. “There America, few was no vanity, no stars. As had heard of we say in soccer, there was Chapecoense no Pelé.” from the Follmann fit right in. He
had grown up in Alecrim, south of Brazil
a small town in the nearby before the No
state of Rio Grande do Sul. vember crash
As a child he played soccer behind the family home with his father, a police sergeant who is now retired. Follmann joked that he became a goalkeeper because he was no good at any other position.
Tal l, fast and acrobatic, t he 6 -foot-1 Follmann left home at 13 to sign with Grêmio, the state’s biggest team, and later played for smaller teams in Brazil’s vast interior before eventually signing with Chapecoense.
Playing time was hard to come by, however. Chapecoense’s starting goalkeeper, Marcos Padilha, known as Danilo, was enjoying a dream season when Follmann arrived, and he appeared in only one competitive game, a Copa Sudamericana match that Chapecoense lost, 1-0.
Luiz Chignall, Follmann’s agent, said that might have been about to change; Padilha, 31, was expected to be transferred at the end of the season, opening the way for Follmann. But that hardly matters now. Padilha survived the crash but died in a hospital, and Follmann’s injuries have cost him his soccer career. The team was flying from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellín, Colombia, with a tiny Bolivian charter company, LaMia, that it had used before. Investigations by the Bolivian and Colombian authorities found that the plane ran out of fuel minutes from landing in Medellín. The Bolivians have blamed LaMia and the pilot, one of the company’s co-owners, who was among those killed in the crash.
JacksonFollmanduringphysiotherapyinSao Paulo, Brazil —