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Injured Jersey Shore football player returns home

JERSEY SHORE — It was a damp and dreary afternoon Thursday as a small crowd gathered in front of 607 S. Broad St. in Jersey Shore. They were waiting for something very special and didn’t mind the gloomy weather at all.

Soon they heard sirens and whistles and knew the special gift was on its way.

As the sirens and whistles grew louder, they looked up over the hill behind Jersey Shore High School and could see flashing lights, as a parade of fire trucks and police cruisers circled the school.

Traveling in between the lights and sirens, a black van was carrying this very precious package … a package that was on the entire community’s wish list for Christmas.

As the entourage neared, family, friends and neighbors were filled with excitement and joy.

Caleb and his best friend, Ezra Englert, greeted each other with a fist bump.

When the van pulled into the driveway, all eyes were on the sliding door on the right side of the vehicle.

As the door opened, the one they had been waiting for appeared.

Smiles erupted and eyes filled with tears.

It was a wonderful sight … one that everyone had been hoping and praying for since Caleb suffered serious head injuries at football practice more than four months ago.

Caleb looked about at those who came to welcome him home on this big day. Ironically, it was Dec. 20 … and 20 is Caleb’s football jersey number and was symbolic of the fundraisers — 20STRONG­ that have been non-stop since he was hurt.

Caleb’s sister, Aubrie, snuggled with her brother on his new recliner chair.

Each time Caleb recognized somebody, his beautiful blue eyes glistened and a slight smile erupted. Hugs followed often as guests left this 17-year-old know how much they care about him and have missed him.

For one standing in the distance, it was a very emotional moment when their eyes met. It was Caleb’s best friend, Ezra Englert, and he said he wanted to be there when Caleb came home.

Ezra didn’t have a hug or kiss for Caleb. Instead, a fist bump with his best buddy showed how glad they were to see each other.

“He’s come a long way. He’s taught me a lot,” Ezra said. “I’m just so happy to see him.”

The family lingered a little while outside as neighbors dropped by to join the celebration.

Caleb looked around at the friends and neighbors who gathered in front of his home.

Even the chill in the air couldn’t take away the extreme joy of this “Miracle on Broad Street.”

And then another big moment came when the Leone family went inside their home.

Taking the ramp that was built so Caleb could make it in and out in his wheelchair, the front door opened and, wow, what a surprise for Caleb … and his mother Danielle, too.

Mother and son had been gone for 126 days … spending 24 hours a day in the same hospital room together.

That’s a long time, but Danielle wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no way she was leaving Caleb until they went home together.

Caleb and Deuce were reunited with lots of petting.

All the while Caleb was recovering in the hospital and then the rehab center, family and friends back home were making plans for their homecoming.

Knowing Caleb would be in a wheelchair, drastic renovations needed to be done to the ranch-style home to enable him to get around.

Danielle couldn’t believe what her “new home” looked like. Walls were removed, doors were enlarged, a handicapped bathroom was installed, a brand new kitchen.

“It’s just beautiful,” she said, looking through tears.

Caleb, too, seemed a little lost at first.

But it took only one look at Deuce to bring him back home.

Deuce is Caleb’s dog and he was lying on the new couch … that he’s not supposed to be on. …when Caleb entered the living room. Caleb reached out to pet his big black puppy. Deuce just laid there, perhaps wondering where Caleb had been for so long, but quite content to just relax and be pampered and knowing his master was back.

As if coming home in time for Christmas wasn’t enough, there was another Christmas gift for Caleb.

A warm, comfortable, man-size, electric reclining chair located at just the right spot in the living room for Caleb to watch the big screen television.

As Caleb tried out the chair for the first time, his sister, Aubrie, also 17, climbed aboard, making herself comfortable and giving her brother a hug and a big smile.

It’s obvious they are very close and she has missed him dearly. I’m sure he won’t have to ask for anything twice when Aubrie’s around.

Ask her about Caleb’s personality, she’s quick to respond, “He’s a turd,” with a big grin.

And then there’s the other comments about Caleb from family members. “He’s a trivia nut. He’s fun to be with. He’s quiet. He can throw a joke and make you laugh. He likes to play video games.”

During a quiet time, Jake and Danielle talked about what it’s been like during the last four-plus months and where they expect to go from here.

“It’s been a long four months … very emotional, very challenging, lots of uncertainty,” Danielle said.

“But Caleb’s been strong. He never gave up. He’s doing great … but he still has a long way to go,” she continued.

Remembering what it was like when he got to rehab in Hershey, Danielle said he was still in a coma, he was not awake. He was actually in a coma for two months after getting hurt. “He’s come so far. Getting him home was the next step… and here we are.”

“It’s unbelievable how this community has helped pull us through this,” Caleb’s dad, Jake, commented.

“Not just this community,” Danielle added. “People from California, people with similar experiences. All this support has definitely got us through this.”

“This is a hero’s welcome and he’s my hero,” she said, looking over at Caleb, still enjoying some time with Deuce.

Jake added, “It’s emotional, but it’s so exciting to get home.”

“We want to thank the community and they will want to see Caleb, so we want to plan some sort of event where people can come and see how well he’s doing,” Jake said. That, of course will be down the road a bit.

For now, there’s lots of adjusting to home and more therapy on an outpatient basis. Caleb will have in-home and overnight nursing care for the immediate future.

“There are so many things we can do as a family that’s actually therapy for him,” Danielle said, anxious to begin those family outings.

But for now, it’s no more tubes… and he eats by himself, Danielle said, as Caleb finished off another Christmas cookie from a tray left at the Leone home for the homecoming.

How far will he go?

Nobody knows for sure, but Danielle said doctors are amazed at his recovery to this point and he’s a strong young man who has worked hard to get this far.

“There’s no denying it. Someone has been watching over us. There is a God and he has a plan for Caleb,” Danielle continued.

And what about bringing their boy home at this most special time of the year?

“It gives Christmas a whole new meaning. Caleb being here is a miracle. Getting home at Christmas time… it’s a Christmas miracle,” she said.

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