By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Bad things happen to good people each and every day.
Andrew Winfrey’s day was February 21, 2012. On that Tuesday morning, the Cullman High multi-sport standout was involved in a horrific single-vehicle accident, immediately airlifted to Huntsville Hospital and placed in serious — but stable — condition.
Family members and those close to Winfrey, a genuinely kind-hearted kid with a smile that lights up a room, initially feared for his life, and that if he did pull through, he might never be the same again.
The entire Cullman community was quick to offer prayers for Winfrey and support for his parents, Bo and Holly, as well as his siblings. In no time, a 21st century prayer chain took shape on various social media websites, with the hashtag #PrayForAndrew dominating tweets and Facebook posts.
In the coming months, the phrase turned into more of a rally cry, briefly replacing “Roll Tide” as the most frequently used saying in Cullman. It spread throughout the county, reached all across the state and even made its way cross country, with members of the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system and many others spreading the message.
Everywhere you went, people were praying, playing, eating, sleeping and doing anything imaginable for Andrew. The Bearcats’ biggest rival, Hartselle High, joined in the cause, as did the Soddy Daisy High (Tenn.) baseball team, who had a star player of its own suffer an eerily similar tragedy only two weeks after Winfrey’s crash.
Being able to meet and talk to other players and coaches who could relate to such heartbreaking circumstances was comforting to Soddy Daisy coach Jared Hensley, a Jefferson State graduate.
“A lot of times, people try to comfort others in times of need and adversity,” the coach told The Times in late March. “They try to say these things and really mean well, but they haven’t experienced that. To meet up with a group of people who have been through a situation you’re going through together can be a therapeutic experience.”
Winfrey’s accident affected nearly every athletic program at Cullman High in 2012.
His crash occurred on the opening day of the Northwest Regional basketball tournament at Wallace State. Playing with Winfrey heavy on their hearts, the Bearcat boys nearly upset No. 2 Lee-Huntsville, while the girls just missed out on a berth to the state tournament with an overtime loss to eventual-Class 5A champion Brewer after walloping Athens in the semifinal.
Cullman’s baseball team chose to tweak Winfrey’s widespread hashtag, instead using #PlayForAndrew, a phrase they lived by, not just typed blindly for all to see on the Internet.
The entire roster was crushed by a second-round Game 3 defeat to Hartselle, more so by the fact they came up short for Winfrey than the realization their season had come to an end.
The day before, coach Brent Patterson and his players had watched video from the Bearcats’ season-opening games on Feb. 20. Winfrey played that day and was injured while driving to school the next morning.
“It was the first time we’ve all watched it,” Patterson told The Times, pausing to collect his composure. “I told them this is a game. It’s for fun. We enjoy it, we put our life into it, but at the same time, it’s a game and there’s a lot more important things. The one thing that would honor our Father and honor (Andrew) in the way that we play is to compete, and I think they competed today.”
Winfrey’s impact on the football field was felt before the season even started and lasted until Cullman’s very last snap in a third-round matchup on the road against eventual-state runner-up McAdory.
On a day in early June when coach Mark Britton brought the Marines to Oliver Woodard Stadium for a summer workout unlike any other, the coach ended the session with a surprise visit from Winfrey.
As Britton pushed the All-State safety’s wheelchair across the Cullman High gymnasium, whispers of, “There’s Andrew,” could easily be heard in the large room that had suddenly fallen silent. With Winfrey by his side in the middle of the gym, the coach told Andrew how the football squad had decided to dedicate their upcoming season in his honor. He then asked the players to show their injured teammate the gesture they’d adopted to keep Winfrey’s spirit close at all times.
In unison, each and every kid raised four fingers in Winfrey’s direction, representing the No. 4 jersey he had donned on Friday nights before his accident.
“Most people see four fingers up and think of the fourth quarter,” Britton told The Times before Winfrey’s surprise appearance. “For us, that four is going to represent Andrew. It’s a motivating factor for our guys to remember a teammate that’s not going to be able to play with us this year. But he’s still going to be with us, no doubt about that.”
After returning from a second stint at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Winfrey was able to attend many of the Bearcats’ football games. When the final second ticked off the clock in the third quarter of Cullman’s region battle on the road against Hartselle, the players turned toward Winfrey in the stands and raised four fingers. In a touching moment that left dry eyes few and far between, Winfrey stood up with his mother’s assistance and returned the gesture to his teammates.
Later in the season, Winfrey joined in Cullman’s halftime homecoming festivities, escorting student Amanda Bell across the field during the introduction of the school’s homecoming court.
Almost 10 months since that tragic day, Winfrey is continuing to recover, both physically and mentally, at a miraculous pace. He still has his trademark smile, he hasn’t lost one ounce of his goofy sense of humor and he was recently cleared to return to school for shortened days.
Despite the difficult journey Winfrey has been forced to endure, he undoubtedly still has plenty to be thankful for — his family, friends who love him unconditionally, and, more important than anything else, his life.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.