THREE RIVERS -- The day before Thanksgiving, 17-year-old Chandler McBride had plenty to be thankful for as he and his family moved into their new home.
The community rallied around the former Three Rivers High football player who broke his neck in a swimming accident and was left a quadriplegic.
And Chandler is thankful for the hundreds of people who helped renovate the house, making it handicap-accessible and filling it with new furniture and appliances and supplies.
He's also thankful for Chad Cottingham, who saved him from drowning after he dived into the shallow end of a pool last summer.
And he's thankful for his doctors and nurses at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, where he spent 116 days.
And he's thankful for his mother, Monica McBride, 39, a single mom who has multiple sclerosis. Every night, she wakes up several times and flips her 17-year-old son so he doesn't get bed sores.
And he's thankful for his teammates from the Three Rivers High School football team, who stayed with him at the hospital, day after day, refusing to leave. They slept in sleeping bags in the waiting room. Late at night, they stayed in the bathroom, hiding from the nurses after visiting hours.
And he's thankful for University of Michigan football coach Brady Hoke, who visited him in the hospital. "Don't give up," Hoke told him. "Fight like a champion."
And he's thankful that he got out of the hospital on Nov. 1 and returned to school for his senior year. Next year, he wants to go to college to study neurology.
More than anything, Chandler just wants to thank God for giving him strength.
Keeping the faith
At 6 feet and 195 pounds, Chandler was a two-way starter on the football team, playing defensive end and tight end. He never missed a practice. Never got in trouble. And he ran track, just to stay in shape for football.
He was a gifted student who took honors and Advanced Placement classes and was on pace to graduate early, even though he was playing sports and had a part-time job, rounding up grocery carts at Meijer.
A religious and thoughtful young man, Chandler went to a Christian concert on June 15 at the Allegan County Fairgrounds. He was inspired while listening to Nick Vujicic, a motivational speaker who was born without legs or arms. Less than 24 hours later, Chandler would be a quadriplegic.
Chandler remembers Vujicic saying: "Instead of looking horizontally, you have to look vertically."
You have to look to God for help.
At the concert, Chandler bought a silver pendant inscribed with a Bible verse from Joshua 1:9: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."
Chandler wore that pendant for months, hanging it on his bed in the hospital, asking his mother to read the verse when he got down.
A tragic accident
The morning after the concert, Chandler went to a friend's birthday party, a pool party. Chandler ran and jumped in.
"And I kind of went down to a dive," Chandler said. "But it wasn't a real deep dive. I thought I was to the point where it slopped down."
He hit headfirst in the shallow end and didn't feel any pain.
"It was like a tingling throughout my entire body," Chandler said. "It's like when you hit your elbow on something. That's what it felt like. I was just kind of floating in the water. Just floating. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew something was wrong."
Cottingham, the father of a fellow football player, lifted Chandler's head out of the water when he noticed him floating.
"Help!" Chandler said, unsure why his body had gone limp.
Chandler was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Kalamazoo. About an hour after the accident, McBride remembers, a doctor told her that her son was a quadriplegic.
"This is what you are looking at," she remembers the doctor saying. "It's really bad. It's the worst. He is going to be eating through a tube in his stomach the rest of his life. He will be breathing through a machine with a hole in his neck forever."
Getting on with life
Chandler suffered no brain damage, but he was paralyzed from the chest down. He has some movement in his arms but not his fingers. He has a device that wraps around his hand and holds a pencil for him.
Chandler and his mother refuse to use the word "quadriplegic."
"We don't even say the word 'paralyzed,' " McBride said. "I don't know. We are never going to give up. One day, we'll do stem cell."
One day, Mike Utley called. The former Detroit Lion has been a quadriplegic for 21 years, since he was injured in a game in November 1991.
"Yes, he understands it's a devastating injury, but life is not over," Utley said. "You can still move forward, if you choose to."
Utley, 46, lives in Washington, about 2 1/2 hours from Seattle, and runs the Mike Utley Foundation, which is dedicated to research and education of spinal cord injuries. Utley encouraged Chandler to live life. To get out of the house. To go to college. To date. To fall in love. To strive for greatness.
Through it all, Chandler remained amazingly upbeat and positive.
Slowly, Chandler's condition improved. He got off the ventilator in late September. He learned how to sit up. And he was given a 12-hour pass to leave Mott and go home for his homecoming football game.
Jean Logan, the principal at Three Rivers High, stood in the gymnasium during a pep rally. She introduced each of the players and they walked across the gym under a white arch.
"We have a very special guest today," Logan told the crowd of about 1,000 students and staff. "I'd like to welcome back Chandler McBride."
The doors swung open and Chandler came across the gym floor in a motorized wheelchair.
"The whole gymnasium erupted," Logan said. "Everybody was cheering and clapping. As I was standing there, looking through the stands, I could see a lot of my teachers brushing away tears."
Weeks later, Chandler attended his team's district championship game on Nov. 2. After Three Rivers won the title, each player on the roster was given a district medal.
"No. 37," the announcer said. "Chandler McBride."
Chandler -- who returned to school Nov. 5 -- was pushed onto the field in his wheelchair and got his medal.
"The kids went nuts," Three Rivers coach J.J. Wagner said.
Building a new life
After the accident, Monica McBride began to panic. Where would she live with Chandler and her daughter, Sarah, 10?
The family was living in an upstairs apartment after she and her husband divorced. "I was thinking, 'What are we going to do?' "
More than 500 people attended a benefit that raised $44,000 for the McBrides. There was a golf outing, pig roast and silent auction.
"It was so well put together and so huge," McBride said. "There were so many amazing people who pulled it together."
Chandler has insurance through his father, who lives in Oregon. "But they don't cover squat," McBride said. "Not without a big, big fight."
Medical expenses were one thing. But there was a bigger issue: a new home.
She paid $28,000 for a house that had been foreclosed on.
"The people who had it before -- they took the furnace, the light fixtures, the door knobs," McBride said. "They took everything. This thing was a pit. When I first saw it, it was frightening."
So the community rallied behind the family again. Hundreds of people volunteered to renovate the house. The football team came over and tore down the old walls.
Bruce Muehlberger, a local builder, volunteered to be the general contractor. A volunteer with the local Little League, he had known of Chandler for years.
"Chandler is going to do something special in his life," Muehlberger said. "When I start talking about him, I get choked up."
The donations started rolling in. The lumber. The electrical wiring. The heating unit.
"My competitor builders are working side by side with me," Muehlberger said. "With Chandler, all the competition goes out the door."
Next-door neighbors donated electricity, letting the workers run extension cords from their houses.
As a small army rebuilt the house, another group was in charge of the interior, picking paint colors and curtains and carpet and couches and appliances. A local church stocked the pantry and refrigerator.
There were so many offerings that a storage company in town donated a unit to store it all.
While the house was being renovated, Chandler and his mother and sister moved into two rooms at Americas Best Value Inn and Suites, a stay that was also donated.
"I don't know how I will ever be able to thank everybody," McBride said. "What they have done is huge."
A moving experience
About 100 people stood outside the McBrides' new home on Wednesday to welcome Chandler home. Two fire trucks led the way down the road. It felt as if an entire town had wrapped its arms around this young man, who is so optimistic, so filled with joy and hope and inspiration.
McBride was crying before she even went inside.
"Oh, my gosh!" Chandler said, touring the house for the first time.
His giant bedroom is decorated with a Fathead poster of Calvin Johnson, which was donated by the Detroit Lions. He got a football signed by Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and a new TV.
"This is so sweet," Chandler said.
Chandler and his mother hung out in the kitchen, meeting the folks who built this home and donated most of the materials.
Thanksgiving? This went way beyond Thanksgiving.
"I will be thankful," McBride said. "Forever."
Contact Jeff Seidel: 313-223-4558 or email@example.com
More Details: How to help
Donations to the Chandler McBride Benefit Fund can be mailed to:
G.W. Jones Exchange Bank
800 South US Highway 131
Three Rivers, MI 49093