Lying at the bottom of the ditch, Casey Streeter thought he might die. Blood gushed from his leg, mangled by a log truck’s grappling claw. While he tried to stanch the flood with his hand, Streeter’s mind flew to his wife and two small children. He hoped he hadn’t seen them for the last time.
Then, he thought of his boxing career. If he lived, could he ever fight again?
Last week, Streeter, 27, got closer to an answer as he sparred in the ring for the first time since his accident six months ago. It’s an incremental, but important, step on the journey back to professional fighting for the four-time New England Golden Gloves winner.
“It felt fine. I just had to shake off some rust,” said Streeter during a breather while training at the Portland Boxing Club at Morrill’s Corner in Portland on Wednesday.
Bob Russo, owner of the club and his trainer since the age of 12, was beaming from behind the counter.
“He’d box even if he was one-legged,” said Russo.
Later, Streeter admitted that his reconstructed knee did ache a little — but insisted that wasn’t going to stop him. His goal is to be ready for another pro fight at the boxing club’s big annual event in November.
“I want to be a champion, win a title, no matter how long it takes me,” said Streeter. “This hasn’t changed my mind at all.”
‘I’m going to die’
Streeter, who lives in Raymond, was working his next-to-last day as an arborist when the accident happened on Aug. 1 of last year. He was due to start a new job as a corrections officer in just a few days.
He and a foreman were dragging logs out of a ditch in North Yarmouth. Streeter was in the ditch with a log chain. He wrapped one end of the chain around the felled tree trunk and was walking the other end up to the log truck’s grapple — a claw on the end of an arm. The foreman operating the grapple couldn’t see him.
That’s when the grapple’s metal fingers squeezed together.
“I felt the claw close and it sucked my leg in,” said Streeter. “I heard my femur and my knee blow into a million pieces, and I watched my femur pop out of my leg. I grabbed my broken femur and shoved it back into where I thought it was supposed to be.”
After the grapple removed a chunk of his right leg, Streeter collapsed and tumbled down into the ditch, getting wrapped up in the log chain as he went. Blood poured from the wound. The claw had missed his femoral artery by a quarter-inch.
When the foreman realized something was wrong, he found Streeter at the bottom of the ditch.
“I told him to ‘Call 911 or I’m going to die. I’m going to die,’” said Streeter.
The foreman tried but he had no cell signal. So he ran to a nearby house, found someone and used their phone.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to live. I had all these thoughts of my kids, my wife, running through my head,” said Streeter. “I hadn’t seen them that morning [before I went to work] and I thought, this is how I’m going to end my life.”
Streeter kept his hands over the wound until the ambulance arrived. When he got to Maine Medical Center, doctors were at first unsure he’d be able to keep his lower leg, it was so mangled.
Lucky for Streeter, Dr. Matthew Camuso was working at the hospital that morning. Camuso is an orthopedic trauma surgeon with battlefield experience in Iraq. He was a Navy officer with Bravo Surgical Company in Fallujah in 2004 and 2005. Bravo Company also has a nickname: “Cheaters of Death.”
“He told me I was going to be all right,” said Streeter, “that I wasn’t going to lose my leg.”
Camuso was true to his word. With the help of more than 20 metal pins and rods, Streeter said the doctor put Streeter’s leg back together.
A hospital spokeswoman confirmed Camuso’s military service, but could not confirm that Streeter was a patient, citing patient confidentiality rules.
“Now I have titanium all through my leg, holding it together,” said Streeter. “It’ll be there the rest of my life.”
As soon as he was out of surgery, his leg intact, Streeter knew what his goal was: “I said [to myself], no question, I am going to box again.”
He was totally off his leg for 12 long weeks. It was a difficult time for someone used to working out almost every day at the same boxing gym for the last 15 years.
He had to have a bone graft taken from his hip, replacing the chunk the grapple took out of his femur. During that surgery, doctors discovered a serious infection that threatened Streeter’s recovery. It had to be lanced, drained and treated with antibiotics.
Then came crutches and months of sometimes painful physical therapy. Streeter was also diagnosed with serious post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s still getting help for that.
“I spend a lot of days crying at home, having flashbacks,” said Streeter.
Russo wasn’t always so sure Streeter would ever make it back to the gym, let alone the ring.
“It just seemed like such a devastating injury, especially with him,” said Russo. “A major component in his boxing style is his lateral movement.”
In the ring, Streeter keeps moving. He uses his fast feet to tire his opponents. It’s also his injured right leg that he pushes off on when throwing punches.
Russo, who lives and breathes boxing, has owned the Portland Boxing Club for 27 years. As a kid, he was a glove boy for the long-running Thursday night fights at the historic Portland Exposition Building. His uncle was the Maine Boxing comissioner who oversaw the famous Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight in Lewiston back in 1965.
Russo’s facility is not a boxing-themed health club. It’s an old-school boxing gym. The floor is concrete, the walls are brick. There’s no air conditioning and not much heat. While talking, Russo is interrupted every three minutes by a loud bell going off, simulating boxing rounds for workouts.
Below the speed bags, in red and black hand-painted letters, reads: “Boxing is not just a sport, it’s my life.” Every boxer in the gym must face those words while punching the bags.
“I wrote those,” said gym assistant Skip Neales, a slightly humped older man with a white walrus mustache. “It’s true, too.”
Streeter first showed back up at the gym — his second home — on Jan. 7. That was only four months after his accident and a few weeks off his crutches. He started working out, getting back into shape, sometimes alone. Russo gave him his own key to the gym.
“It just seemed like a big long shot that he’d ever be back,” said Russo, still looking at Streeter with some wonder. “But here he is, amazingly.”
On Friday, Streeter sparred with Brandon Berry, a fighter out of West Forks with 15 professional wins. Streeter beat Berry three times when they were still amateurs.
“I didn’t notice any difference today — and there should be,” said Berry. “He’s right where he left off. His speed is perfect. He’s a class act. What a story.”
Streeter — who used to fight under the surname Kramlich — had 50 amateur fights before Russo allowed him to turn pro in 2014. Since then, the super welterweight has been successful, winning nine, losing one and fighting another to a draw.
“He beat Ray Olivera Jr. in Rhode Island — a real upset,” said Russo. “He was on a roll.”
It was the high-ranked Olivera’s first loss. That’s part of what made Streeter’s accident so heartbreaking: He was on his way up in the boxing world and it’s a long way back.
For Streeter, it’s his family that keeps him going. He said his wife, Abby, is his biggest fan.
“My wife, my kids, they’re what motivate me. I think about them,” said Streeter. “I want to give my kids things that I didn’t have. I want big fights, to make good money, to provide a good life for them.”
He’s not ready to fight just yet but has his eyes set on November.
“In my mind, it’s doable way before then,” said Streeter, “but I’ll be ready.”
When the newspaper interview came to an end, Streeter got up to go finish his workout. Just then, the gym assistant Neales shuffled by with cleaning spray bottle in his hand.
“The big guy just wasn’t ready for you, that’s all,” he said, both offhanded and sagelike.
“Yeah, absolutely not,” said Streeter, not missing a beat. “I have more work to do.”
With that, he walked over to the heavy bag and started throwing punches.