After near-death experience, Bishop Canevin senior writing comeback story on football field

Wednesday, September 22, 2021 | 1:37 AM

In a helmet and shoulder pads, Eli Wilson looks just like thousands of other high school football players across Western Pennsylvania. But the Bishop Canevin senior has a remarkable life story that started tragically before turning triumphant.

He’s mostly kept the story to himself.

“I thought people were going to make fun of me,” Eli Wilson admits.

His life almost ended at 2½ years old when he nearly drowned along with his aunt in a lake north of New York City. He was underwater for minutes as his terrified family searched for him, a moment in time that led to his miraculous comeback story.

“He’s my inspiration more than he knows it,” said his father, John Wilson, who remembers that day clearly. “I’ve tried to tell him to embrace this story for a long time. He gets embarrassed of it a little bit. But as he gets older, he’ll realize he’s motivation. He’s inspiration.”

The date was Aug. 20, 2006, and the Wilsons were in New York for a family gathering. Eli and his sister went with their aunt, Gladys Mendoza, and two young cousins to swim in nearby Putnam Lake on the New York-Connecticut border.

“We were resting our feet and the current pulled us in,” Eli Wilson said. “All of us were drowning, and my sister got out and went to get help.”

Newspaper reports credited Mendoza with trying heroically to rescue Eli and swim to shore with him on her back. But both disappeared below the surface before help arrived.

“We were getting ready to come back home in 10 minutes,” his father said. “Their aunt wanted to show them the lake. They went down. When they came back, it was my daughter and her two female cousins screaming that they were drowning.”

The family hurried to the beach.

“It was still water,” John Wilson said. “I couldn’t believe it. We got in the water and searched for them.”

They first found Eli’s aunt.

“We pulled her out of the water and tried to revive her, but she was gone,” John Wilson said, “and Eli’s still under the water. He’s under the water for 10 minutes.”

Mendoza was taken by ambulance to Danbury (Conn.) Hospital but didn’t survive. Eli was taken in critical condition to Westchester Medical Center where he stayed for two and a half weeks before returning to Pittsburgh, his father said.

At first, he was kept sedated.

“Eli was a vegetable,” John Wilson said. “He was curled like a banana and the bottom of his feet were touching the back of his head. That’s how he laid in the bed in a crescent. For a year, he was kept at a vegetative state.”

He and Eli’s mother, Raquel Milanes, took a hands-on approach to his recovery. They wanted the sedation reduced, John Wilson said, and ultimately moved Eli to a children’s institute where specialists were more adept at helping kids with brain injuries.

“When we first got there, we said we’re not going to be here forever,” John Wilson said. “Everybody looked at me crazy the whole time. The days went by. The months went by. It was a two-year process. He had to learn how to eat again. He had to learn how to talk again. He had to learn how to walk again.”

At age 5, Eli came home two days before Christmas.

“It was like a Christmas gift,” his dad said.

Eli grew up in a football family. Before his near-drowning, he’d go to practice with his father, a youth coach in Swissvale. When Eli was very little, his father would carry him on his chest in a BabyBjorn. He’d hang there right next to the whistle, his father said. As he got a little older, he’d run two laps around the field with the players.

Eli Wilson says he was destined to play football.

At age 7, he joined his dad’s youth team in Swissvale after two more years of rehab.

“He was always the littlest guy on the field,” John Wilson said, “but had so much heart. He played football from the time he was little and kept playing.”

Fast forward to this fall: On the first kickoff of the first game, Eli ran downfield with the coverage team and laid a hit, saying afterward he wanted to set a tone. Listed at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, Eli plays sparingly as a backup linebacker for the Crusaders. Yet, the fact that he’s playing high school football at all is incredible, said Bishop Canevin coach Rich Johnson.

This is Eli’s second season on the Bishop Canevin football team after previously attending Woodland Hills.

“He’s a kid that has a lot of things that he has to fight through,” Johnson said. “Every day he shows up and is one of the hardest workers on the field. Eli wants to defy the odds. He’s not going to let anything get in his way.”

Eli says he was drawn to football for the same reasons as others.

“I just like running around the field. I like hitting people,” he said. “If I have anger, it takes the anger out.”

He also likes the camaraderie of teammates.

His father said Eli has lingering effects from the brain injury including trouble at times with short-term memory. He has good days and bad days, his father said, so seeing him on a football field is understandably emotional for everyone involved.

“It’s emotional for me every day,” John Wilson said. “Not in a bad way, but when I see him I know what he’s been through. … I could have had him not here or could have had him as a vegetable. I have my moments when I look at him and I’m so proud, so happy, because I don’t know what I would have done.”

That’s why he encourages his son to share his story.

“I believed he was going to be fine from the day it happened,” John Wilson said. “From the moment when we pulled him out of the water, I just laid next to him, man, and put my mouth in his ear and said, ‘I can feel you. Just fight. We’re a fighting family. Just fight.’

“By the grace of God, this is where we are today.”

Bishop Canevin is 4-0 and ranked third overall in WPIAL Class A. Eli says his Swissvale football days made him used to winning, so he’s pleased the Crusaders are off to their best start since 2012.

There are four games on the schedule before Oct. 23, but that will be a big night for him and his family. That’s senior night. Eli said he doesn’t dwell on what he’s overcome, but there are times he reflects.

Friday nights make him thankful.

“I’m really still here,” Eli Wilson said. “When I’m on the football field and it’s my senior year, I just say to myself, ‘I made it.’”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .


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