Originally created 12/17/99

A college graduation nine years in the making



Freddie Hudson III sits strapped to his battery-powered wheelchair Thursday afternoon, as he has for the past 11 years, and he's staring at the Gateway 2000 computer screen in his workroom.

It's an hour after he's heard the best news of his 28-year-old life, and the task now is to send shout-outs to those closest to him.

He wants the world to know that nine years after taking his first college class, that yes, indeed, Freddie Hudson III will hear his name called Saturday morning with 300 others, will maneuver his way across the stage dressed in a black cap, black gown and gold tassel, and will graduate from Augusta State University.

The day is here. After paralysis, four bouts with pneumonia, respiratory infections, bladder infections, endless hospital stays, the passing of his grandfather this February, the sudden death of his nephew Deshawn Oliver to anemia, five caretakers, his mother's stroke, days of crying, nights of studying, three sets of calculus and a dizzying course in logic theory, Freddie's graduation day is here.

"He never quit," says Freddie Hudson II, his retired Army father. He's sitting in his family's Kingston neighborhood home in West Augusta, where Christmas decorations fill the living room and two Yorkshire terriers scurry around.

"He never quit."

Paralyzed 11 years ago while making a helmet-to-helmet tackle on the opening kickoff of the Richmond Academy-Westside football game, Freddie snuggles in tight toward his propped-up keyboard, the letters parallel to his eyes.

Using his mouth, Freddie bites on a foot-long clear tube, with a white mouthpiece at one end and a green tip at the other. He punches the enter key, which clicks and opens up his e-mail address book.

He begins a new message to 42 friends. Ever so slowly swiveling his neck, ever so carefully jutting his jaw, Freddie starts typing.

He taps H. Then E. A double-tap of L. Then O.

This continues for about 15 minutes.

The message Freddie's trying to get out: "Hello Everyone ... I am writing this to let you know that I am Graduating from Augusta State University. Major: Computer Science. Minor: Business Administration."

The range of motion in his neck is the best it's been in 11 years. He can actually feel and shrug his shoulders. Even a bicep muscle twinges every once in a while. At times there's a tingling sensation in his legs.

"I might not be able to do things physically that everyone else can, but I still have a good mind," Freddie says in his family's Kingston neighborhood home in West Augusta. "They can't take that away from me."

Says his mother, Lurlia: "He can do a lot of things with his mind."

Freddie, the only son of Lurlia and Freddie Hudson II, heard all the stories about his father's football days at Lucy Laney and wanted to suit up as well. He joined the Richmond Academy Musketeers as No. 65, a rather small defensive end, and joined in covering kicks.

That Friday night in 1988, ARC hosted Westside in a pivotal game for both team's playoff chances. In the twilight, Freddie ran down the field full speed, saw Westside's Scott Pittenger with the ball, and lunged to make the shoulder tackle just like his coaches had taught him.

It would be the last time Freddie would feel his legs.

"It was one of those things which rarely happen when all the wrong things come together and produce a tragic accident," Richmond coach David Miller said then. "His head was up. The impact was so tremendous."

Rushed to University Hospital, doctors confirmed that Freddie had broken his neck and suffered "complete paralysis." Surgery at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta the next day repaired the fractures in the third and fourth vertebrae, which protect the spinal cord.

"The night he got hurt I didn't think he would pull through," said Lurlia Hudson, who was not at the game. "We did a lot of praying. Then and now."

But Freddie made it, slowly. It would become the theme for his next decade: Slow to accomplish, but accomplish nonetheless.

Weaned from using a ventilator to breathe on his own proved slow, but he did it. Learning to operate a computer by using a mouthstick proved slow, but he did it.

He spent a month at Shepherd, with therapy lasting eight hours a day.

The Hudsons built Freddie a new room, one with wider doors and wider passageways for him to wheel himself around. They bought a van to help transport him. Both parents completed a course on how to care for their paralyzed son, where they were trained to give him a bed bath, to transport him from his chair to his bed, and to teach him to cough.

Lurlia took a year's leave with no pay from her nursing job at the VA hospital to care for her son. She resigned and was out of work for three-and-a-half years caring for Freddie.

"You try not to have him see you cry," Lurlia said.

A year after his injury, Freddie was admitted to Fort Gordon's intensive care unit, where he spent seven weeks suffering from membrane colitis, a disease that continues to plague him to this day.

"That's the second time I thought he might not make it," Lurlia said.

Coming to terms with his paralysis proved difficult for Freddie. He could no longer feel his fingers or his toes. He could not run around and play football anymore.

"They say God makes no mistakes," Freddie says, putting his mouthstick back in place. "He's given me the strength to carry on. Football taught me about just keep going. I don't think I can do what I'm doing without that."

Richmond Academy gave Freddie his high school diploma, and he motored himself across the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center stage to a standing ovation. Yet he wanted more, and he enrolled at Augusta State in the fall of 1990.

There, Freddie met Ed Pettit, a member of the math and sciences faculty. Pettit's daughter Victoria attended Westside and was at the game when Freddie got hurt. Victoria told her dad of this ARC boy who was taken by stretcher off the field on the game's first play, so Pettit had some familiarity with Freddie's story.

At ASU, professors balanced keeping Freddie's logistical problems as easy as possible without sacrificing his workload and expectations.

Since he couldn't take notes, Freddie would either tape lectures or have his caretakers assist him. For homework, he would type with his swivel-and-peck style, or he would tell his caretakers what to write.

That's a chore when the subject is calculus and Freddie is asked to diagram a formula.

"When I say sine, cosine, sigma, integrals, it's hard for them to understand me," Freddie said. "I had to teach someone what I mean and think about what I want to say at the same time."

Again, the process proved slow, but it proved complete.

"We should be graduating too," laughs Barbara Jackson, Freddie's current caretaker.

His schedule would vary each semester: one course here, two there. He even got ambitious and took a full load a few times.

"Not full-time, full-time, but as close to it as possible," Pettit said.

Pettit taught Freddie assembly language in 1993, then sponsored his independent study during the summer of '97.

"Basically, he wanted to learn how to put a computer together," Pettit said. "I gave him the pieces and the parts, and he could get inside a computer. He wasn't real successful, but you could tell he enjoyed using his mind like that.

To graduate, Freddie needed 180 quarter hours, or between 36 and 40 classes.

"There were times he thought he was progressing slowly, where he was not moving as fast as he wanted to," said Pettit, now associate dean for the college of arts and sciences.

"But Freddie doesn't give up easily. In the midst of being ill, of not feeling well, he would still keep his spirits up. You're never sure if they're going to complete this or get tired of it all. That's why I'm going to be happy for him Saturday."

So what started in fall of 1990 moved steadily, with plenty of hospital visits and anti-bacterial medicines. Slow, yes, but not stopped.

Freddie's sent his e-mail out now, and his proud mother is calling everyone she can think of to spread the news. Lurlia gets through to Miller, Freddie's old coach who now works at Lakeside.

"We just talked about old times, old buddies," Miller said. "He's a courageous fellow that you want to see succeed. I don't know of too many people who could do what he's done."

Freddie's back at the computer, his safe haven. He's typing some more, this time updating his Web site with his grand news.

"I'm kind of proud of myself," Freddie admits.

Every two hours, he reclines his wheelchair to lay flat on his back to help him relieve pressure. Jackson stretches his fingers daily.

"I definitely have hope that I'm going to get out of this chair," Freddie says, even though doctors have told him it's unlikely that he'll be able to regain use of his body below his shoulders, the point of injury.

"I've never given up the possibility. Actually I'm looking forward to it."

Walking. The sound, the syllables, the thought brings about a smile on Freddie's face.

"The first thing I'll do when I get out of this is hug my mom and dad," he says. Then he pauses, and smiles again.

"But I'll probably want to play some football, too."

Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.