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Nine years after near-fatal rodeo accident, Dino Loukas steering fine

Dino Loukas smiles easily. And he smiles a lot.

And why not? Life is good.

There was that June day back in 2006 when life wasn’t good at all, when, in fact, it should have ended for him.

So this — with his dad, Tony, and brother Stithi at the Loukas Development real estate office not far from Wrigley Field — this is gravy. So is his lovely wife, Effie, whom he married in 2013, after years of physical and vocal rehab, and, of course, there’s the baby girl they have coming this fall.

Oh, it was close to never happening. So close.

An accomplished rodeo steer wrestler, or ‘‘bulldogger,’’ Loukas, then 27, was in the box at the North Central Rodeo in Medford, Wisconsin, a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association roundup with $83,000 in prize money.

He had on jeans, his favorite black shirt, his black cowboy hat and sturdy cowboy boots. They were not his fancy, go-dancin’ cowboy boots, the ones made of bull leather with blue and white Greek flags stitched on the sides. But they were solid. They had to be. To stop the 500-pound steer running beside his horse, Dino would have to grab its horns, twist its neck violently and dig those boots into the dirt and sawdust of the arena floor like skids on a runaway meat truck.

He’d done this many times before, winning belt buckles and more than $24,000 in prize money in the last two years. But something didn’t feel right this time.

It wasn’t much. It was just that his own horse, Hoss, wasn’t up to the level of pro competition needed, so Dino was using his buddy Noel Strahan’s horse, Charlie.

Charlie was fast as a bullet, and speed was of the essence in this event. But Charlie had an attitude. He would sometimes flip over in the box if he was mad, or deliberately break out too soon, ruining a run. ‘‘He had a screw loose,’’ says Dino. And he was antsy this day, as if he wanted to be somewhere else.

Like a rocket, the pair shot out of the box as the rope dropped, with Strahan’s brother Adam — the ‘‘hazer,’’ in rodeo lingo — riding another horse on the steer’s right, forcing the steer to run straight.

Dino, 6-0 and a muscular 195, dove at the animal’s neck, and as he did, Charlie’s hoof, clad in its iron shoe, kicked him in the head.

Loukas tumbled into the dirt, a broken doll. The kick had happened so fast, no one had seen it. But it was devastating, shattering Dino’s skull, sending bone shards into his brain.

Noel Strahan, also competing that night, ran out of the stands to his buddy’s side.

‘‘A snap of your fingers,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s how fast it happened. Blood was shooting out of his head.’’

Strahan stopped the flow with his dirty hands, and then was so angered with what he felt was the casual pace of the paramedics that he ran out of the arena and drove the ambulance into the ring himself.

After that, there was the airlift to a trauma center in Marshfield, Wisconsin, and the frenzied calls to the Loukas family back in Chicago. It was likely Dino would not survive, but drive here fast anyway, went the calls.

Yet somehow Dino did survive, escaping infection, swelling, seizures and the coma he slipped into for 2½ weeks.

‘‘They did a great job,’’ says Loukas’ uncle Nicholas Papronas, an esteemed neuroradiologist at the National Institute of Health in Washington. Papronas helped read CT scans and offered advice during the long, long recovery.

There was the brain damage. With about a quarter of his skull removed to allow for the swelling, Dino had to learn to become a human again. Various doctors implied — hell, said, out loud — that he’d likely be a ‘‘vegetable.’’

Some ‘‘gave him a dismal outcome,’’ Papronas says, ‘‘saying he’d be like that woman [Terri Schiavo] in Florida who was fed by a tube for 20 years before she died.’’

But Dino, who could not speak a word nor understand much about the world around him, used his bulldog tenacity to push ahead. His beloved mother, Georgia, who would die of breast cancer in August 2009, as Dino was still rehabbing, almost never left his side.

‘‘There are neurons that can take over for neurons that have died,’’ Papronas explains. ‘‘Some people had started giving up. But Dino, never.’’

His family is full of athletes  — dad Tony and uncles Angelo and George all played D-I college football. Angelo blocked for O.J Simpson with the Buffalo Bills. George’s daughter, Christina, a four-time NCAA All-American, finished eighth in diving at the London Olympics. Angelo’s son, Alexander, was an all-state quarterback at Deerfield High and, with a partner, won the 2005 Illinois state doubles tennis championship. He played college football at Stanford.

And the Loukas family — still tight-knit — owns or has owned many of the rooftops and bars around Wrigley Field. First-generation immigrants from Greece, they are bound by hard work and pushing through pain.

Dino is fine now, intelligence and memory and physical skill unimpaired, though he speaks a little slowly, and there is that huge, hidden titanium plate where his skull once was. He is battered, wiser, mellower than before.

‘‘I had a dream yesterday that I was little and my brother, sister and I were on a horse with my mom,’’ says Dino. ‘‘It was sad, but it was wonderful.’’