By Timothy Bella
Washington - Corey Borner was having such a good spring football practice that he asked his coach to keep it going: "One more play."
Borner, who was looking to make his mark in May 2009 at his Dallas-area high school, prepared as "Deuce 84 P-Bubble and Up" was called as the final play of practice - a call that turned his life upside down.
After the freshman cornerback made the tackle on the bubble screen, the 16-year-old urged teammates who came over to congratulate him on the hit not to touch him.
Borner could not feel anything from his head to his feet.
As he lay motionless on the field at DeSoto High School, he kept repeating the same phrase: "God, be with me."
Doctors later told him that he had suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralysed, with many sceptical that he would walk again. Borner was devastated, unable to envision what his future would look like. But he soon mustered his will, taking the life-changing news as a challenge.
"They said there was barely a chance for me to walk because my spinal cord was damaged so badly," Borner, now 28, told The Washington Post. "But I was ready to walk. I told myself that I would be out of this chair in no time."
Borner made good on that vow 12 years later, standing from his wheelchair and taking his first steps in June with the help of an exoskeleton suit. He then surprised family members and friends over the weekend when he walked across the graduation stage to receive his college degree at the University of North Texas at Dallas.
"This is the biggest moment in my life!" he wrote in a tweet of the video of him walking at commencement. "I walked again!"
He is among the success stories in recent months of paralysed people who have been able to walk again with the help of advances in technology. In New York state, Douglas Avreu was able to walk again a year after an accident at a construction site, thanks to an exoskeleton suit that helps control knee and hip movements.
RETWEET THIS FOREVER! SO I SHOCKED THE WHOLE WORLD! WHEN YOU SURPRISE THE WORLD WALKING ACROSS TO RECEIVE YOUR COMMUNICATION DEGREE! THIS IS THE BIGGEST MOMENT IN MY LIFE!!!! ! I WILL CONTINUE TO NEVER GIVE UP & INSPIRE THE WORLD WITH MY TESTIMONY. I WALKED AGAIN! #FINDAWAY ! pic.twitter.com/Puw9B09xcL— COREY BORNER (@LILCOREY_TRILL) August 15, 2021
Borner recalled what his mother told him the morning of May 6, 2009, as he was running to catch the bus: "You miss that bus, I'm not taking you to school."
"She saw me running that day," he said.
Trying to earn a spot on the varsity team for the following season, Borner had gone all out during spring practices in DeSoto, Texas, south of Dallas. So as the last play of the Eagles's practice was unfolding, Borner lowered his head and dived at the wide receiver's stomach to make that fateful tackle.
Although he was surprised that he couldn't feel anything from his neck down, Borner said, he was reassured by his coaches and trainers, and even the paramedics, that he was going be okay after a play that he said turned into "a freak accident."
"I thought I'd be at practice the next day; I wasn't really worried about it," he told The Post. "But then I saw my picture on the news. You see yourself on the news and wonder, 'Why am I on TV?' "
The surgery the next day, which lasted nine hours, had doctors fusing his C5 and C6 vertebrae to help relieve pressure on his spinal cord. When the doctor told him he was paralysed and would need to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Borner said he vented his anger and sadness to God: Why me? Why me?
"Sometimes, God just wants to get your attention," he said. "He chose me."
As he arrived home unable to move his lower body, Borner was left with a question that had no immediate answer: What now? He found a path as a motivational speaker after former NFL players Tim Brown and Ellis Hobbs encouraged him to share his story. He went back to DeSoto High School and graduated in 2013, and the football team retired his No. 24, according to AMPS magazine.
But Borner acknowledged that not knowing how his classmates would take to him after his paralysis was one of the more pressing uncertainties early in his rehabilitation.
"The most challenging part was just being accepted and figuring out what people were going to say about me," he said. "If someone said I wasn't going to walk, I was going to have words with them."
While he was touring schools as a motivational speaker and taking college classes as a communication major, Borner said, he kept in mind what he had told doctors after his spinal cord injury. His doctor at the Baylor Scott & White Health Institute for Rehabilitation had asked Borner whether he had seen an exoskeleton suit before and whether he'd be interested in trying it out. He had only seen such a device on YouTube but agreed that it was worth a try if it meant possibly walking again.
"My mom was like, 'Stay strong and keep the faith. Just believe you'll be able to get in it,' " he recalled.
More than a decade later, on June 8, Borner slipped his legs into the suit from Ekso Bionics. He stood up and asked the doctors to give him a minute. He wanted to look down at his feet, a task he had been unable to perform for more than a decade.
"If you hadn't stood up in 12 years, who wouldn't do that?" Borner said.
With the help of the suit, Borner walked 526 steps that day, much to the delight of his mother, Charlotte, who was proudly filming her youngest son walking again. He said he got stronger each time he wore the suit, a wearable robotic device used to improve the mobility, strength and endurance of someone who has suffered a spinal-cord injury, brain injury or stroke. After he ended up doing 826 steps, he wondered what else he could do to celebrate his achievement.
When his first steps were documented in local media, UNT Dallas asked whether he was interested in walking across the stage at its Saturday commencement for spring 2020 graduates. His doctors at Baylor said he could wear the suit at graduation, and Borner invited family members and friends for what he described only as "a surprise."
The surprise he spoke of was Borner walking across the graduation stage, and flexing along the way, to receive his diploma in front of those gathered inside Loos Field House in Addison, Tex.
"It's just a dream come true," his mother said to KXAS. "I haven't seen him take a step in 12 years."
His father, Michael Borner Sr., held back tears in reflecting on what he had just seen: "It was a good moment."
No matter what her son does next, Charlotte Borner said, he's "going to motivate people."
"He's here for a reason," she told KXAS. "God kept him here for a reason."
Corey Borner has been overwhelmed by the response to his graduation walk, which included a feature on ABC's "Good Morning America." But he said he wants to maintain two important parts of his everyday life - "keep walking and keep speaking."
"Hopefully my story means something to someone," he said.
And if not? "I'm going to make a believer out of you."