A little more than two months ago, Shawn Anderton couldn’t use his hands, much less anything from the chest down.
On Saturday, the 15 year old played Xbox for an hour ... and then headed over to C.W. Day Park for a carnival held in his honor. It was the first time Anderton had been home since suffering severe injuries while on spring break with his family in Panama City.
His video game of choice? Call of Duty. His number of kills? 140. Anderton proudly shared the statistic with anyone who would listen.
“It was a great feeling,” the teen said with his familiar, infectious smile. “It made me feel normal again.”
Life has been anything but normal for Anderton since March 29.
The day began like any other but took a dreadful turn when he innocently dove into a wave not far from shore. As Anderton recalls, he accidentally over-rotated when a wave caught his foot, faceplanted in the sand and instantly went numb.
With two fractured vertebrae in his neck, Anderton’s limbs were useless. All he could do was look down at the water, where he remained for almost half a minute.
As fate would have it, a nurse was standing nearby when Anderton took his tumble. After awhile, there were three. They mobilized the injured boy, kept him from slipping into shock and advised Anderton’s parents, Diane and Scottie, where best to hospitalize their son.
Following surgery in Panama City, Anderton was transferred first to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham and subsequently to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. During his stay at the latter, which is renowned for its spinal cord injury rehabilitation program, Anderton regained movement in his arms and legs.
By Saturday, his right hand was at about 90 percent. The left was a much lower 5-10.
And Anderton’s legs? He used his right to playfully kick friends and family who approached his wheelchair at the carnival. The left is coming along slowly but surely as well.
“It’s a blessing from God. It really is,” Anderton said of his recovery thus far. “It’s amazing to see what he’s doing to me.”
Though strides have clearly been made, the youngster still has bigger goals in sight. At the top of the list is walking, which Anderton is adamant he’ll accomplish. He hopes to stand in the next few weeks or months and start walking in a year.
Anderton’s mom has every reason to believe her son will walk again. While at Children’s, Diane stood to the side and tried not to cry in front of Shawn. But he could tell and swiftly offered his mother words of comfort.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to walk. It’s going to be OK,’” Diane recalled. “Just hearing those words out of his mouth was a total blessing. I knew God was all over it.”
Despite a strenuous journey that is surely far from over, Anderton’s usual sunny disposition was on full display Saturday. He hugged everyone who came by, read a hand-drawn card from a little girl and cracked jokes with his pals.
All the while, a smile was practically permanently plastered on his face.
“It feels amazing to get back and see my family and friends, just see normal faces again,” Anderton said. “It’s great to see all the support the community is giving me. It helps a lot. It’s keeping my spirits up for sure.”
Those high spirits have come in handy for not just Anderton, but his mother.
“Since Day 1, he’s been my rock,” Diane said. “When he had his accident, I was broken. And he has uplifted me. He has kept me going. He has made me laugh. And we have cried. He’s an amazing kid.”
The community’s outpouring of prayers, support and compassion has lifted the Andertons at a time they’ve needed it most. Churches, complete strangers and acquaintances alike, as well as Hanceville High principal Jimmy Collins and football coach Danny Miller, have all gone “above and beyond,” according to Diane.
“We live in an awesome town,” she said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Miller has visited and made sure to keep in frequent contact with the Andertons since Shawn’s injury. The coach was obviously on hand to welcome Anderton, a freshman center last season, back to Hanceville on Saturday.
He’s learned a great deal about courage by watching how Anderton has handled the last few months.
“Whether he ever plays again or not, he’s on the team,” Miller said. “We said from Day 1 after it happened, this is going to affect our team, our school and our community forever. It’s going to affect the way you do things and think about things.
“It’s something we’ve tried to rally our kids around. You get in tough situations and you think, I’ll just give up. That guy’s in a situation where that’s not an option. A lot of us need to take a lesson from that.”
Jose Orozco never thought twice about attending Saturday’s festivities. The rising senior, who shared the same field as Anderton last fall, said everything he does this upcoming season will be for his fellow Bulldog.
Anderton’s injury has led Orozco, a three-sport athlete, to not take basic functions like walking and running for granted.
“I want to be here to support him,” Orozco said. “I know it’s tough for his family. He’s my teammate, so I can’t just forget about him.”
Anderton considers himself blessed to have had the backing of Miller, Orozco and other members of the Hanceville football family throughout such a trying experience. He’s hoping to return as an assistant coach as early as this fall.
“I’ll have them running for me,” Anderton said with a laugh.
With spring training on the horizon as the Andertons prepared to head to Panama City, Diane figured the night before they left was as good as any to order Shawn’s cleats. He wanted them personalized but didn’t initially know what to put on the back. After thinking on it, he told his mother “never quit.”
She said OK, and the cleats were ordered.
The Andertons took off the next day. Twenty-four hours later, Shawn’s life was changed forever.
Diane’s immediate reaction was to cancel the cleats, but Scottie convinced her otherwise.
She was glad she didn’t.
When Anderton arrived at the Shepherd Clinic, he was placed on the fourth floor. The unit's motto just so happened to be “hustle, hit, never quit.”
Coincidence? Diane thinks not. She said Anderton’s doctor, who’s in his 70s, cried when she showed him the specialized shoes.
“He was like, ‘God was getting him ready for the journey with a pair of cleats. I believe that,’” Diane recalled. “Is that not amazing? That’s just one of those things that doesn’t just happen.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.