published Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

LaFayette teen's courage inspires everyone around him

Austin Whitten stretches before starting physical therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a hospital specializing in rehabilitation for people with spinal and brain injuries. The former football, basketball and baseball player from LaFayette broke his neck after jumping into a pool, an injury that left him paralyzed.
Austin Whitten stretches before starting physical therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a hospital specializing in rehabilitation for people with spinal and brain injuries. The former football, basketball and baseball player from LaFayette broke his neck after jumping into a pool, an injury that left him paralyzed.
Photo by Allison Love.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — After Austin Whitten stopped feeling his legs, this town saw what courage looks like.

Shock and sympathy came first.

His picture was blown up on billboards and printed onto signs staked in yards. Locals sold T-shirts that said "Pray for Austin" in school colors. They sold bows and made bracelets. At restaurants, they talked about him recovering. The cheeleaders made a banner: "All together for Austin." Fellow residents dedicated a motorcycle ride to him, prayed over him at a local service.

His football team, the LaFayette Ramblers, made special arrangements so he could be there on the sidelines when they won or lost. He was a good-luck charm, an inspiration, this 15-year-old boy who was once a rising star of the sleepy southern town.

People talk about his progress. How must his mother feel? How does it change a person to live in what feels like a strange new body?

With time, people might forget.

But for now at least, six months later, he seems to say to this place, we are all fragile, but don't give up.

No matter what.

•••

Forty-five minutes from Chattanooga, LaFayette is a town of a little more than 7,000. Its claim to fame is that it's where Johnny Cash was arrested and which later led to his spiritual awakening. Churches dot nearly every street corner.

People will insist. It's not how the French say it. It's lah-FAY-et.

The town struggles with unemployment. City officials argue over what to do with the dilapidated, abandoned buildings, how to fix them. They're competing for business with denser cities near busy interstates.

A third of its workers drive to Chattanooga for their jobs. A quarter of students don't graduate high school. This year four of their local teens faced something tragic: cancer, disease, paralysis.

The football team more accustomed to winning as many games as it lost faltered this year, winning just one game and losing nine. But the high school idolizes its athletes. Trophies displayed on high shelves surround the school cafeteria. The athletes who excel, who go on to play for a college or professional team, their images hang in giant trophy cases on display in one of the school's main hallways.

Everyone in LaFayette believed that was where Austin's picture would one day go.

Now his teammates, coaches, town members who watched his heroics on the football field now watch him for another reason. His pastor hopes people will see Austin's struggle and turn to God. Local store owners and his school hope he will become a lesson in perseverance.

"I'm praying that a community-wide revival comes out of it," said Austin's pastor, Clay Powell, of Ridgeway Baptist Church.

•••

On his 15th birthday, Austin was 6 feet, 4 inches, 230 pounds. All muscle and handsome. He played three sports, baseball, football and basketball. He made the varsity team on all three and had pretty girlfriends. He cracked his first baseball bat on a ball when he was 5 years old.

A foot taller than all his classmates, he was well known around school. His coaches called him a natural-born leader. His pastor said he was a good Christian boy. Austin talked openly about his faith and at the ends of games he would take a knee like Tim Tebow and pray. People never saw him cursing or drinking around town. He told his friends not to step out of line, either.

His father called his youngest son his "retirement plan," envisioning sports scholarships and pro contracts.

The family is of humble means. Brian Whitten works for the Walker County public schools as a maintenance man. His mother, Angie, works at a local hardware store.

In the week before Austin stopped feeling his legs he wrote on Facebook: "No matter what you face always give God the glory."

•••

It happened at a party to celebrate summer, three months of freedom. Austin met friends at a buddy's house on June 9.

They bought pounds of shrimp, corn, onions and sausage for a low country boil. After several rounds of volleyball late in the afternoon, Austin's friends started jumping in the pool to cool down. He watched them and moved toward the water.

He wanted to be funny. So he lurched into the air and spread his arms to belly flop into the above-ground pool.

When his body met the water, the stomach felt the impact first. Then he felt a jerk. His head ripped to the side.

When he opened his eyes he was floating, motionless.

"I can't feel anything," he managed to shout.

His friends laughed until someone grabbed his right side and they realized they were going to have to heave him out of the shallow water. A friend's mother held Austin's head in her hands while they waited on the ambulances to arrive.

"Am I paralyzed?" Austin asked over and over. She didn't answer.

Someone called Austin's parents. When they pulled into the driveway, Austin was still lying wet on the pool deck, surrounded by a crowd. Everyone watched first responders clamp a padded brace to his neck and load him on a board to carry him to a nearby ambulance that would then take him to a waiting helicopter.

As the helicopter flew away to Erlanger, his mother told herself it wasn't as bad as it seemed. Austin was fine. Austin had to be fine. Austin would walk. Nothing would change.

Hours later, the emergency room doctor jolted them to reality.

He showed them an X-ray of Austin's spine -- C6, the sixth cervical vertebrae, located in the neck -- was shattered.

He would be a quadriplegic, with just a 1 percent chance of walking again. The words stung.

They walked to Austin's intensive-care room and found him with tubes going in and out of his body, a brace around his neck and machines buzzing in the background. He looked at them.

"Dad, I'm sorry," he said.

"For what?" Brian asked.

"I messed up," he said.

•••

When Debbie Hix heard about Austin's accident she started making orange and black bows -- the school's colors -- to sell at her flower shop near the LaFayette downtown square. Locals and business owners bought nearly 1,000 of them to hang outside their store fronts or to tack to their mailboxes at home in honor of Austin.

Austin's friend Clayton Underwood designed bracelets that read: "Austin Whitten Phil. 4:13," which referenced the Bible verse "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength."

His church made T-shirts in orange, white and tie dye. Students organized and held a prayer rally, hundreds of people gathered on the football field and asked for a miracle. They prayed for healing, that something good would come from it.

A 7-year-old girl had a yard sale and gave Austin's parents the $50 she earned. Others handed out his picture and across Facebook teens shared his photo. "Pray for Austin," many wrote.

They visited him in the hospital, stared at him with the tubes in his body and a large brace clamped to his neck.

It was horrible, said his friend Logan Edgean. He didn't know what to say.

But Austin told them he was strong. He acted like nothing had happened. He still watched college football games and yelled at people visiting him to stop blocking his view of the TV. They all watched him closely, shocked when they didn't hear him complain or see him fall into depression. Everyone noticed.

"For me it really changed me," Logan said. "I thought I had it bad."

Then three other students in town got bad news. Brandon Lowe had cancer in his arm. Paige, who spearheaded the prayer rally, was diagnosed with an uncommon disease. And Hannah Jackson, too, had cancer. The town raised money like they had for Austin. They prayed like they had for Austin.

At a fundraiser for Austin's family, the proceeds were divided to help the other teens suffering.

•••

Two months after the accident, Austin lay on a padded mat in a hospital while a therapist held his leg and pressed. Austin's brow furrowed.

"One, two, three, hit me," shouts Cathi Dugger, a seasoned therapist at Shepherd's Center in Atlanta. "Come on."

He was trying to remember how to move his leg again. Something once so automatic had become a faint memory. He struggled and concentrated to connect with some feeling in his leg.

Cathi broke into a smile as she felt a tiny quiver in his quad.

"Yes! Thank you. Thank goodness," she says. "I could feel it in your knee cap. It is slight, but I don't care."

Austin is a determined patient, Cathi says on the last day of his full-in-house therapy. He likes a challenge and while he procrastinates, he's not afraid of it.

When he was first admitted to Shepherd's, he was classified on an impairment scale -- it measures the level of injury -- as an A, meaning no motor or sensory functions. When he was discharged, the therapists told him he was at a C, meaning he had some feeling and function below the neurological level. He could slightly move his right quad and some of his toes.

But the professionals at the hospital that specializes in spinal cord injuries never say the patients won't or will walk again.

"There's no test," Cathi says. "Time is the only thing that will heal us."

Everyone talks about whether Austin will walk again. His friends and his coaches say they believe it.

And during football practice, they would compare how much they were pushing themselves to Austin ... They seemed to work harder as they thought about him in Atlanta, struggling to relearn the basics of how to grasp a fork again, how to tie his shoes.

"He's been incredible, a daily reminder that things can be lost every day. [The team] feeds off of it," said defensive line coach Jason Potect. "We got kids that played harder, performed really well on the field and the classroom."

But without Austin, the football team didn't win.

Losing him along with the graduating seniors had created a huge experience gap on the team, said head coach Tab Gable.

•••

The night of the football team's first home game in September, Austin lined up behind a giant black banner with the rest of his team. He sat tall in his wheelchair on loan from the hospital, his helmet on his head, covering the scar on the back of his neck where doctors inserted a titanium brace to replace where his spine had shattered. His No. 8 jersey covered the tubes his body now relied on.

The noise from the stands got louder as Austin tried to break through the thick paper. His hands shook. His teammates all around him moved in to help tear the banner in half and burst onto the field.

The cheers exploded. The percussions banged louder. The horns blared.

But instead of a sprint to the sidelines, the Ramblers marched in a slow rhythm, letting Austin, who was being pushed by their principal, take the lead.

Teammates and coaches cried as Austin rolled across the field, a reminder of how quickly everything can be taken away. How nothing is guaranteed, and how messy life can become in an instant.

"A lot of people look up to him because of the way he acts now," said his friend Austin Gable. "It shows you no matter what happens, you can be happy and joyful with what you have."

•••

Life is quiet for Austin Whitten now.

He went home from the hospital in November, five months after the accident, with a list of projects.

Get a standing frame that lets him lock his legs upright. Use an electronic stimulator on his body to try to trigger movement. Get a special remote control that will let him start driving. Go back to school. Make the bedroom and bathroom handicap accessible. Go back to treatment after he starts to have new movement or feeling.

Since he's been away from the expensive robotic walker and the spinal cord- trained therapists, he hasn't had the same progress.

But Austin still says he isn't worried. Everything is more difficult for him now, but he can get out of bed on his own, eat, shower.

He talks about being strong regardless, about not giving up.

"If it doesn't come, it doesn't come," he said. "I'll just become independent in a wheelchair. I'm fine here. I guess."

His friends take his lead and talk the same way.

Many expect to see him walk across the stage on graduation day to get his diploma. They imagine what a miracle would mean for this small place, what it would do for people's faith.

Nobody likes to think of the alternative. But when pressed, they say good could come from that, too.

"I think we can learn no matter if he walks or not," said coach Gable. "We are all going to go through tough times and he gives us a good example of how to handle it."

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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