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After a freak injury, Myron Wright is determined to walk again

THIBODAUX, La. -- Myron Wright bears little resemblance to Lance Armstrong as he pedals away on his RT-300 FES bike. The setting -- his family's laundry room -- is thousands of miles from the undulating terrain of the French Alps and the Tour de France. But the 22-year-old quadriplegic has become a cycling stalwart since purchasing the specialized rehabilitation apparatus. The bike operates on its own engine and partially forces Wright's arms and legs forward, increasing blood circulation and reducing muscle atrophy.

In many ways it's an instrument of hope, a source of inspiration that Wright has clung to since sustaining a freak spinal chord injury in a high school football game for Thibodaux High more than six years ago.

"I love riding this thing," says Wright, slowly rotating his calves. "It returns my movement. I average 14 miles a day on the legs and two-and-half miles a day on the arms."

Rather than languish in a wheelchair, Wright chooses to spend long and grueling hours in his makeshift workout facility, which sits near an old washing machine, dryer and water heater. His equipment includes a Total Gym for squat exercises and a padded table to stretch and rotate his limbs. He grits his teeth and visualizes a brighter future, one that involves putting on his own clothes, taking a shower by himself and returning hugs to members of his family -- one of the things he misses most. "To be honest, I've never really had a breakdown or questioned why my accident happened to me," Wright says. "I have gotten frustrated plenty of times, but never overly depressed about my situation. Things happen for a reason, and I have never even once thought about giving up."

Nor has his community. While searching Google in May 2007 from his voice-activated laptop, Wright came across the Web site of Project Walk, a renowned treatment program in Carlsbad (Calif.) that specializes in rehabilitating people with spinal chord injuries. With the support of his family, which extends well over 50 people, and the philanthropic contributions of friends and strangers, Wright raised the funds needed to spend six months at the clinic at the end of 2008.

He returned to Thibodaux last November feeling renewed and reinvigorated. "I actually did a squat at a 45-degree angle out there," Wright says. "I was shocked and emotional, but I didn't show it. I couldn't move for more than five years, but then I finally did again. I knew then that it was attainable. Now I can finally see it."

He is determined to walk again, but that vision wasn't always as clear.

*****

Wright entered his sophomore season at Thibodaux High with a steadiness beyond his 16 years. At 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, he was heralded as the future of the Tigers football program. Despite being an underclassman, Wright was talented enough to see varsity action at wide receiver.

"We had some good players, but Myron was going to be one of those great athletes that came through our program," says former Thibodaux football coach Shawn Preston. "He could jump, catch and run really fast, and he had the attitude to go with it. You have to have all of those skills and a little swagger to go over the top, and Myron had all of those things."

On the night of Nov. 8, 2002, Wright expected to watch an entire game from the sideline. Even though his team faced H.L. Bourgeois in an important matchup that had playoff implications, Wright had amassed three tardy slips earlier in the week and Preston planned to punish him by sitting him out.

The plan changed when the Tigers lined up for a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown early in the third quarter. Trailing 7-6, Preston wanted a player to come out for the next play and scrambled to find a replacement. Amidst the confusion, Preston spotted Wright and sent him onto the field.

The next sequence has been replayed in Wright's mind as if it was shown on a continuous loop. The ball is snapped, handed off and fumbled. Wright puts himself into position to block an opposing defender attempting to pounce on the football. He is then pushed from behind with his head down into an oncoming player, creating a collision that appears awkward but relatively innocuous.

Wright lies on the field. He's confused. Afraid. Motionless.

"In reality, it wasn't too hard of a hit," he says. "It's not like I blacked out or anything. I just fell down and couldn't move. It felt like my legs were pointed up in the air and I was floating a little bit."

Wright was taken to Thibodaux Regional Medical Center, where he underwent surgery to replace fractured vertebrae. He was transferred to Touro Infirmary in New Orleans and underwent three months of intensive rehabilitation. He eventually regained movement in his shoulders, but his arms and legs remained immobile. Through it all he maintained full sensation, something that doctors consider a medical anomaly. "It's a strange feeling, being able to feel your arms and legs but not being able to move them," he says.

Wright returned home in a wheelchair operated and steered by a leather headrest. He went back to high school and embarked on a new life beset with challenges and hardships. Football had been Wright's salvation, a potential ticket to college and an affordable education. He hoped it might one day lead him to the NFL. Now Wright was forced to focus solely on school and the prospect of spending the rest of his life with limited movement.

He was besieged with questions from his classmates. They wanted to know when he was going to stand up again, but Wright didn't know how to respond. "A lot of us thought he would be okay when it first happened," says 25-year-old Traig Wagner, a close friend and ex-teammate of Wright. "We cried thinking about what took place that night."Preston has reminisced about it often. "You always second-guess yourself and question what would have happened if you had not sent him into the game," he says. "But if you have any faith in God, you realize that things happen for a reason sometimes and you can't avoid them."

It wasn't long before Wright began to experience reoccurring dreams about walking. In each one, he visualizes moving around without the aid of a nurse or a wheelchair. He awakens and tries to get out of bed.

Then reality sets in.

"The dreams actually make me feel good sometimes," Wright says. "They make me feel like I'm capable of actually doing it one day."

*****Wright originally believed he could do the rehabilitation on his own. It was the athlete in him talking. He returned from the hospital with the goal of walking across the auditorium stage to receive his high school diploma. But two years passed and he remained completely immobile.

Wright recalibrated. He enrolled at Nicholls State University in 2005 and reset his goals. Now he wanted to graduate from college and walk away with a business management degree. The attitude was there, but he needed an extra boost. Life in a wheelchair had taken its toll.

"Nobody was telling me anything and the doctors didn't really know about my chances of walking again, so I started looking on the Internet for an answer," he says.

Wright found it at the Web site for Project Walk.

"A lot of therapists want paralyzed people to accept their condition," Wright says. "They're trying to accomplish the goal of getting you to adapt to your condition, but a person like me is trying to accomplish the goal of walking. Being a hard-working kind of person who believes that anything is possible, I knew it's better to work with someone that is trying to accomplish the same goal as you are, and that's the way it is at Project Walk. I read testimonials from clients, and every one of them said it was the place to be."

Wright contacted his cousin, Glenda Johnson, a production clerk at the Thibodaux Daily Comet, to see if she could help him publicize his plan to attend the clinic (which costs $1,800 per week). She immediately passed the idea to a staff reporter. "Myron has always been striving to walk again since his accident and never let it get him down," Johnson says. "By working at the newspaper, I thought I could help him get his story out."

The article ran on a Friday. Less than 24 hours later, Brian Williams, a local bar owner, called Wright and set up a charity dinner-dance to help him raise funds. The dinner netted $2,600. In an effort to raise more awareness, Wright teamed up with his friend Wagner to create a short documentary chronicling his life in a wheelchair and plans to one day walk again. The DVDs were sent to local businesses to raise more money.

When word spread about Wright's fight, he became the beneficiary of 10 charity fundraisers over the next eight months. They included a Halloween party and walk-a-thon, banquets and a 3-on-3 basketball tournament hosted by the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Nicholls State. His parents, Deon and Beverly, created The Myron Wright Foundation. By April 2008 Wright had amassed $56,000, a sum good enough to cover half a year at Project Walk.

"I always knew I needed God, my family and my community," he says. "God gives you the faith and your family gives you the motivation. The community gives you the financial support that makes it all possible."

*****

Last May Wright boarded an Amtrak train bound for the West Coast. Since work constraints prevented his parents from making the trip, he was joined by his aunt, Erma Wright, a cousin, Lakeitha Waller, and a swarm of butterflies in his stomach. "Here, I had raised all of this money and had an entire community behind me, but I'm thinking of what will happen if I come back not being able to walk," says Wright. "By the time I got to Arizona I'm thinking I can't tell the train to stop and take me back home."

His nerves didn't subside until he reached California, when he became overwhelmed with another emotion. It was a fresh, rejuvenating feeling, the one he used to experience under bright stadium lights on autumn Friday nights. "In Louisiana football every team's goal is to win a state championship," he says. "If it isn't, then why even play. That's why I looked at my situation (at Project Walk) as a sports situation. If I want to win a championship, I'm going to have to work hard. If I'm going to walk again, I'm going to have to work hard."

Yet it wouldn't be easy. Years of sitting in his wheelchair had stiffened Wright's dormant muscles, making his body resemble his wheelchair. He spent the first month at Project Walk straightening his limbs. That period was the toughest because of the searing pain that went through every inch in his frame. It was almost as if Wright's frozen appendages were thawed. "I did all kinds of stretches and each one felt like I was being stuck with a needle or cut with a knife," he says. "At the same time I knew I had to go through this. I was told that it's good to feel that pain, because some people don't feel that pain at all. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but with my family and community behind me, I was willing to go through that pain."

Physical therapists marveled at Wright's legs. Despite years of inactivity, they maintained the density of telephone poles. It was these legs, the same ones that were once strengthened and toned on the football field, that were responsible for Wright's first breakthrough at Project Walk.

Wright was eventually moved onto the Total Gym and asked to attempt a squat. Much to his astonishment, his legs crunched slightly down and then straightened back up. "It was a pretty powerful (squat), and then Myron did another, and then another," says MargaritaGaralyte, the primary therapist who worked with Wright. "I think we got five out of him that day. To get that movement was really exciting and it gave everyone goosebumps."

Wright made the most of his remaining six months at Project Walk, exercising with therapists two hours each morning four days a week. He'd spend two additional hours each day on the clinic's own RT-300 FES bikes. Thanks to a relentless work ethic, Wright eventually regained partial movement in his arms.

While at Project Walk Wright befriended Hal HargraveJr., who co-operates The Be Perfect Foundation with the help of his father, Hal Sr. The Be Perfect Foundation is a non-profit company that awards scholarships to patients recovering from spinal chord injuries. The Hargraves granted Wright two additional months at Project Walk.

"My son recommends scholarships based on an individual's approach to recovery, and what my son saw in Myron was someone that was determined," says Hargrave Sr. "He knew Myron wouldn't give up despite the severity of his injury. He thinks that one of these days Myron will be out of his chair, and so do I."

The town of Thibodaux also believes. When Wright came home last November, a multitude of fundraisers had been lined up to pay for a return trip to California (set for Aug.18). Less than two weeks after his arrival, he received a $40,000 donation from Elton Darsey, a former attorney from neighboring Houma (La.) who died at the age of 100 on Nov. 26, 2008. Wright used the money to pay for his rehabilitation bike (which costs $20,000) and earmarked the remainder for Project Walk. "It feels good to see that some people seem want it even more than you," Wright says.

*****

The Wright's Thibodaux home is small but clean and well-manicured. It's located in a lower-income community that's a short walk from government housing. Police regularly battle crime and the occasional gunshot can be heard thundering across the muggy skyline. It's here where Wright pedals. The blank walls and concrete floor in the laundry room provide little source for inspiration, but Wright doesn't need sumptuous surroundings to stimulate his motivation.

"I was on my bike the other day asking myself, 'When are you going to give up, Myron? When are you going to quit?'" he says. "Stressing about something like my situation is the one thing that can kill your chances. You have to tell yourself that you can beat this, and that's how you overcome it."

Wright says he is thinking about parlaying his life experiences and football acumen into a coaching career. He envisions one day returning to the gridiron that temporarily took his arms and legs, but will only consider it as long as he's able to run with his players during practice. "If I ever give up, my family is going to get depressed and give up, and so will the community," Wright says. "I hope to inspire a lot of people, other people like me who have been through the same thing, people who are waiting to see someone walk again. I want to beat this."

Should he succeed, Wright will draw satisfaction in being able to finally reach out and physically touch some of the people he loves. In the meantime, he continues to touch the lives of everyone he meets.

"If you want something in life, you have to go get it," Wright says. "People won't try to help you if they don't see you working hard. Everything takes time, but in the end hard work pays off. In the end, I will walk."

Donations can be made to the Myron Wright Foundation, P.O. Box 5150, Thibodaux, La. 70302

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