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Real People: Wheelchair athlete turns injury into inspiration

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A storm, a tree and a life-changing injury turned college basketball player Zac Bradley into a rugby fan. It happened swiftly back in May 2011, when the 20 year-old from Riverdale was in his car.

“I was driving in a storm when a tree fell on top of the car, but I don’t even remember it,” said Bradley. “I know I suffered a spinal cord injury and was at Grady Hospital for a month, but I barely remember that. I was in a very bad condition and on a lot of drugs.”

The 6-foot-tall Bradley went directly from Grady to the Shepherd Center in Buckhead, where he realized the full extent of his injuries.

“I knew I was paralyzed, but at Shepherd, I found out how bad my condition was,” recalled Bradley. “I realized I had lost my finger movement, and reality set in that I’d have to find a new way to live.”

For three months, Bradley worked to relearn basic skills, such as how to dress and use his phone. The trauma had left him weak, and learning even fundamental tasks was difficult. But by the time he got home in the late fall, he was restless and ready to get back to Clayton State University, where he’d finished his freshman year as a health and fitness management major on a basketball scholarship.

“I worked on getting stronger; I picked up more weight; and I learned to do things on my own,” said Bradley. “I was lucky; I got a lot of love from my family and friends when I got back. But I knew if I stayed out of school much longer, I’d get depressed.”

Bradley went back to Clayton last January and finished the spring semester with a 4.0 grade point average. His determination to get on with life continued through the summer, when he made daily treks back to Shepherd to increase his strength and learn to handle a manual wheelchair.

“I started kickin’ butt,” said Bradley. “I got into a manual chair, got really strong and kept improving. It was awesome. I’m now able to get in and out of bed, and I can almost dress myself completely.”

During the summer, Bradley was introduced to wheelchair rugby. A few weeks ago, he became the second youngest member of the Shepherd Smash team. The group practices six hours a week and competes in home and away games against other wheelchair teams.

“I’m a rookie right now, but I’m eager to learn,” said Bradley, who is strong enough to zip across a basketball court in a manual wheelchair. “It’s a mix of soccer, hockey and football all jumbled into one, and I love it.”

Tom Horan of Shepherd’s therapeutic recreation department has worked with Bradley for a year. He knew his patient would be a natural from the first time they talked about it.

“When I showed Zac a rugby chair for the first time, his passion for sports and competitive spirit was obvious,” said Horan. “Rugby is as much a mental game as it is a physical game. Zac’s vision of the game and overall court sense just seems to come naturally. There’s no quit in this kid. He has a lot to offer both on and off the court, and I think rugby will be a driving force and the next step in his rehab journey.”

While Bradley still misses the basketball court, he’s happy to turn his energy into a new sport.

“I have a strong belief in God, and believe that everything happens for a reason, so there’s no point being down about it,” he said. “I have to live with this injury, so why not make the best of it? Basketball was my passion, but now I’m taking that passion into rugby.”

By H.M. Cauley
For the AJC

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