Matt Courson is applauded as he walks across the stage at the… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
As he lay in the gully, unable to get up or scream loud enough to attract help, Matt Courson asked God for a deal.
"My whole life, I haven't lived up to my fullest potential," he remembers praying as he watched the moon slowly traverse the Arkansas sky. "From now on, if I get out of here, I'll be the best person I can be."
Just after the sun crept above the horizon on that April morning, a fireman came across Courson and his wrecked all-terrain vehicle. The next day in Little Rock, after eight hours of surgery to treat the compression fracture in Courson's spine, doctors told the 20-year-old college student that he better get used to the idea of life in a wheelchair. The chances of him recovering feeling in his waist and legs were minuscule.
Five years later, on Monday afternoon, Courson walked across the stage at 1st Mariner Arena to receive his political science degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He did so with the unshakable conviction that he's a better student and more giving person than he would have been without the injury.
Courson never accepted the original medical prognosis. From the first day he wiggled his toe at his parents' home, he regarded the graduation walk as an inevitability. That's what he told UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III when they met in 2008, after Courson had transferred so he could be closer to his rehabilitation therapists at Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Tears welled in Hrabowski's eyes that day and again Monday as he watched Courson shuffle his feet slowly but steadily, his powerful arms holding him up on a metal walker.
"It is with goose bumps that I ask Matt Courson to stand and let us recognize his accomplishments and his faith," Hrabowski said. Many in the crowded arena stood and cheered as Hrabowski and Courson embraced.
"We were all floored by what he has done," says Cristina Sadowsky, Courson's doctor at Kennedy Krieger. "Matt is not the only good story we have, but he is a darned good story."
Growing up in the Arkansas delta, Courson always had some kind of ball in his hand. He earned a roster spot as a pitcher at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Like many young athletes, he thought his body was unbreakable. He certainly didn't think twice about getting on an ATV that April night to drive a quarter-mile to his friend's house. He had been on the vehicles since he was 4 years old and had probably ridden the same stretch of road hundreds of times.
He still does not know what caused him to swerve off the road and roll down a 20-foot embankment.
He did not grasp the enormity of his injuries until he awoke from surgery in Little Rock and the doctor said he had a 1 percent chance to walk again. He had no feeling below a point just underneath his nipples.
"My strongest memory is his determination from the front," says Courson's father, John, waiting to watch him walk across the stage at 1st Mariner. "When the doctor said 1 percent, Matt said 'Great, I have a chance.'"
But Courson did not progress much in the critical first year after his injury. His quest really began when his mother got a call from a recovered quadriplegic, recommending the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger. He traveled to Baltimore for his first treatment in July 2007.
"The first day up there, I knew there was hope," he says.
Once the Kennedy Krieger therapists began stimulating his muscles with electricity, putting him on a computer-powered bicycle and pushing him to walk in a harness, Courson progressed.
"He just exceeded every expectation we had for him," Sadowsky says.
He moved to Baltimore in 2008, renting an apartment in Harbor East and starting as a political science major at UMBC. Last summer, he suddenly regained feeling down to his belly button during a set of abdominal crunches. In the fall, he felt bold enough to stand in his apartment and take his first few steps.
"They don't think highly of me doing things by myself," he says of his therapists. "But I'm kind of hard-headed."
He has big plans — to go back to Arkansas and run for Congress from his home district, to have a son and play catch with him, to have a daughter and walk her down the wedding aisle.
"We still believe he will be 100 percent normal at some point," his father says. "I don't see any indication that he won't continue."