- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) - Joe Chris Rodriguez remembers the first time he talked with Ever Briseno of Spearman after the accident. It was last year and Briseno, then an eighth-grader in Spearman, was at Northwest Texas Hospital following an ATV accident.

“I walked into his room - OK, I rolled into his room,” Rodriguez said.

The Amarillo Globe-News (https://bit.ly/2owoCW5 ) reports it was the meeting of one paralyzed man, one without the use of his legs for 15 years, and a young boy paralyzed for only a few days from his waist down.

“He asked me if he would ever play football again?” Rodriguez said. “I said, ‘Ever, you’re not going to play football. You’ll never play football, but that’s OK because you’re still going to be an athlete, and here’s how we’re going to do it.’”

Rodriguez then showed the boy some pictures on his phone, photographs of high schoolers competing in basketball, tennis, and track, all of them paralyzed from the waist down, and all competing with the same heart as once before.

“When I got shot,” Rodriguez said, “my grandmother told me God kept me around for a reason, and I think it’s working with these kids.”

These kids are from Amarillo, Pampa, Perryton, Dumas, Spearman, Fort Elliott, Borger, Texhoma and other local towns. They are statewide and national qualifiers in disabled athletics, primarily in track, but also in basketball, tennis and archery.

Most are doing so, through Rodriguez’s encouragement, but also benefiting from a 501(c)(3) organization he started to fund the $3,000 wheelchairs it takes for a disabled athlete to compete. Fittingly, it’s called One Chair At A Time, now in its fourth year.

“My goal back in 2013 was to raise money for one chair. That if we could do that, that would be great,” Rodriguez said. “I was laying in bed one night and thought, ‘One chair at a time. What a cool name for a non-profit.’”

The group was able to buy four wheelchairs that year. To date, through fundraisers, like the one Sunday, and other means, they’ve purchased 35.

To provide others confidence through doing, to shed depression through competing, to spark some happiness when not much existed, that’s been Rodriguez’s calling.

“He has this enthusiasm in spirit that he’s not going to be defeated,” said Melissa Kalka, a former board member who helped Rodriguez get the non-profit going. “He’s so humble about helping other people.”

At one time, Rodriguez had it all figured out. Not long after graduating from Sunray in 1996, he joined the Air Force. He was focused on country and duty, and was a day away from deployment to Afghanistan in 2001.

“Then my world turned upside down,” he said.

Rodriguez, stationed at Tinker Air Force Base, was at an Oklahoma City restaurant when he was leaving and walked into an argument others were having in the parking lot. A man pulled a gun, and the next thing Rodriguez knew, he was on the parking lot. He had been shot in the back.

“I just remember being on the cement and my buddies came up to me, that it was time to get up and I couldn’t get up,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out why my legs couldn’t move. It’s not like you see on TV. I didn’t hear any gunshots.”

Rodriguez was paralyzed at the T7/T8 portion of the spine. He spent four months in rehab and eventually moved back to Sunray.

“I was told I’d never walk again, never use my legs, never control my bladder,” he said. “But us military guys, we think we’re going to walk again, that we’re going to figure it, give me a year and I’ll be back in uniform.

“But after two years, time sets in and my feet still aren’t moving, my legs aren’t moving, and I can’t feel my stomach. You finally realize this is permanent.”

He laughs about it now, but 15 years ago, Rodriguez was labeled as a “non-compliant” patient at the Dumas Physical Therapy Clinic. But Nancy Lewis there proved to be a godsend over four years, opening his life to new possibilities.

Rodriguez was able to continue to fuel his competitiveness through power lifting, hand cycling, Tough Mudders, sprint triathlons and a half iron-man triathlon. At some athletic events - some he participated, some he watched - he would see some disabled kids and know something was missing, a desire just to be normal again.

He knew of the nighttime depression and the emotional medicine of being with friends in a fun setting. He also knew specialized chairs were not cheap. Maybe he could raise some money.

Rodriguez knew he wanted to start such an organization, but didn’t have the first clue how. What he did was enlist some friends to help him get there.

“He was kind of lost on where to start and what to do,” Kalka said. “He did not know how to get from Point A to Point B, but he was persistent, willing and eager.”

What has transpired in the last four years is providing disabled athletes around the Panhandle an outlet, a vehicle, to be normal again, those like Emilee Hilbush of River Road, University Interscholastic League state champion in the 100 and 400 wheelchair division in 2015, and Chris Alvidrez of Dumas, UIL state champion in the shot put in the same year.

“It kind of means everything,” said Chance Field, a disabled wheelchair tennis coach who works with Rodriguez. “It gives you a sense of normalcy, of independence.”

Field was paralyzed in 2006 in a car accident in San Diego while in the Navy.

“It gives you something to do where you are not thinking thinking about your injury,” he said. “If you don’t have anything to do, you’re going to sit around and dwell on it.”

Ever Briseno is not dwelling on his accident. Less than a year from his paralysis, the Spearman freshman will likely be competing at the UIL state track meet in the wheelchair division in the 100 and shot put.

“It has been very difficult for him,” said his mother, Maura Briseno, “but he wants to keep trying, to keep pushing and to think that just because I’m in a wheelchair, I can still do these things. To see how far along he is, I’m just very happy.”

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Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, https://www.amarillo.com

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