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By Brian Hendrickson
Zac Bradley would love to play his X-Box on Christmas Day.
The Clayton State basketball player longs to feel the controller in his nimble hands. The next time he gets to play, Bradley intends to spend a 24-hour stretch with his NBA 2K basketball, Madden NFL and NCAA Football video games. Sometimes, the sophomore asks friends to come over to play in front of him just so he can feel the excitement.
Clayton State basketball player Zac Bradley has a positive attitude this holiday season despite his accident.
But Bradley won’t be disappointed if his body isn’t ready. He doesn’t subscribe to that emotion these days. Instead, Bradley and his family will celebrate this holiday as a miracle – one he knows he came close to attending only in memory after a tree fell on his car during a thunderstorm last spring. The accident left him paralyzed and near death.
There have since been early gifts delivered for this Christmas: A healed mind, recovered use of his arms, a Clayton State community that has celebrated him repeatedly, and a family to visit with, laugh with and hold this holiday – something none of the Bradleys are taking for granted this year.
“Just to be here,” Zac said, “and able to celebrate with my family is an awesome feeling.”
Family has always been a priority to the Bradleys. But the perspective is sharper this season.
A year ago, opportunity was flowing in abundance. His jovial, outgoing personality quickly made Zac recognizable and popular from the moment he stepped on Clayton State’s campus on the southern edge of Atlanta. He was enjoying a successful freshman year, posting a 4.0 GPA in his first semester – something head coach Gordon Gibbons can’t recall seeing from another rookie. He played 15.9 minutes per game in his first season, scored 15 points off the bench in the Lakers’ final regular-season game and was given captain consideration for his sophomore year.
He worked out on campus the afternoon of May 26, part of his offseason plan to build strength and improve his shooting, then headed to pick up his friend Asia Green from work at a nearby Old Navy store. Severe weather wasn’t forecasted, but when the thunderstorm flared up that afternoon it fit the trend of weird spring weather in the South. Devastating storms had already made headlines in Missouri and Alabama, and the rest of the South felt the effects of the unusually severe weather. This storm fit that trend and caught the community off guard.
School employees watched nervously from their office windows as the dark clouds gathered. Gibbons, who left school early for a round of golf, got caught in the sudden downpour and watched as the storm’s fierce winds bent pine trees toward the ground.
A tree struck by lightning fell on Zac's car as he was driving home from a basketball workout.
The storm was raging when Zac picked up Green and turned down North Lee Street – a divided boulevard near campus lined on all sides by pines, oaks and maple trees. As Zac steered his Kia Soul down the forested drive, lightning struck one of the trees and caused the top to tip over the road. The timing was tragically precise: The tree landed on the roof over the driver’s seat of Zac’s car, compressing the roof down to the base of the window and pinning Zac inside.
The tree was so large that the first witnesses at the scene didn’t realize a car was underneath. Green broke her arm and suffered a serious spinal injury that required surgery. But Zac was trapped inside for more than an hour as rescue workers removed the tree and cut him free with the Jaws of Life. His prognosis was bleak.
There was a hematoma in Zac’s brain, along with skull and neck fractures. Three different vertebrae had been broken, and his spine was twisted. Seven hours of surgery were required the night of the accident just to relieve the life-threatening pressure on Zac’s brain. A second procedure was needed days later to repair his spine. His 13-year-old sister, Ashley, screamed when doctors told the family Zac may never walk again. She became so emotional that she had to be removed from the room. His mother, Senovia, went numb.
“Am I dreaming?” she wanted to believe. “Am I going to wake up?”
Zac pulled through the touch-and-go moments, but his recovery was rife with challenges. An artery was cut during the spinal surgery, delaying the repair. He developed pneumonia and lived with a breathing tube for several weeks. Zac had to learn how to chew food and swallow again. He had to redevelop his strength and coordination to hold a fork and brush his teeth. After three months of therapy and practice, he was able to put on a shirt.
There were many emotional breakdowns, but spurred by his family’s unwavering Christian faith, a single thought kept pushing him forward.
“Make these days the best days you can make it,” Zac said. “I took that on. And I’m doing better now, and I’m thankful for it.”
The support of the Clayton State community has had a significant impact on Bradley as he continues recovery.
But Zac had help making those days great. His hospital room became crammed with visitors immediately after the accident: The Clayton State men’s and women’s basketball teams crowded in, along with the cheerleading squad and university officials. Constant deliveries of food rolled in – some purchased, much of it home made. And when Zac woke in the hospital after several sedated weeks, he was greeted by hundreds of get-well cards.
What started as a tragedy created deeply personal impacts. Zac’s girlfriend, Sara Diggins, said she and Zac were on the brink of a breakup at the time of the accident. But the events made them reconsider the importance of their relationship, and they’ve been together since. They’ve seen other members of the community make similar personal evaluations after hearing Zac’s story. Now, strangers routinely approach, eager to testify to the impact his example made in their lives.
“He’s always said that he’s been strong on his faith and knowing that God has a plan for him,” Diggins said. “We talk about it all the time. We talk about all the things that God has accomplished with the accident.”
But those conversations always have a forward-facing view. It’s the only direction Zac wants to look.
So rather than stay home after a four-month hospital stay, Zac insisted on attending Laker Madness – the school’s official kickoff to basketball season – where his introduction with the team drew roars from the crowd.
He’s been coming back since: Zac is listed as a medical redshirt on the roster. His locker bears his name and number, waiting for his return. He parks his electric wheelchair at the end of the Lakers’ bench during each home game, where Zac’s teammates receive him as if expecting to see him rip off his warm-ups and assume his usual spot in the backcourt.
Zac attended Laker Madness and has remained a part of the school's basketball program.
“If you guys don’t play hard, I’m coming out there!” Gibbons heard Zac yell during one game. “I’m gonna jump up there and dunk it.”
The Clayton State community hasn’t left his side, either. The school held a series of fundraising events in early December as part of Zac Bradley Benefit Week. It sold T-shirts bearing his name, organized a blood drive and a gospel concert, and donated the gate receipts from a basketball double-header toward a fund intended to help the Bradleys purchase a handicapped-accessible van.
Several hundred people attended each event, kicking off a fund-raising effort that so far has raised several thousand dollars toward the Help Hope Live fund in honor of Zac. And before tipoff of the men’s basketball game, Gibbons stood next to Zac at halfcourt and handed him a frame containing his retired jersey.
“We’re breaking it out of that case when he’s ready to go,” Gibbons told the crowd. One of the team captains then grabbed the frame and raised it up, whipping fans into a frenzy.
As Gibbons recalled those moments, the memory of Zac’s signing day came back to mind. It seemed ordinary then – the typical handshake, and the typical family predictions: “Zac is going to bring special things to Clayton State,” said Zac’s father, Nathan.
Gibbons has heard those comments before. But after seeing the charity and the cheers that have enveloped the school since Zac’s accident, he agrees with the projection.
Because Zac Bradley’s injury wasn’t related to competition, medical expenses were not covered by the NCAA Catastrophic-Injury Insurance Program. A Help Hope Life Fund has been established to honor Zac and help with medical costs. To contribute, contact Kristen Davis, Assistant Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator for Clayton State University, or visit HelpHopeLive.org.
“I’ve never seen anything like the feeling that hit our campus, and has remained on our campus, through this whole ordeal,” Gibbons said. “And to think that the guy had just been a freshman and hadn’t really been a star yet. He was just a freshman that already had a reputation for being an outstanding young man and an outstanding student, and it spread throughout the campus. You could feel it.”
And Clayton State will continue feeling it. In January, Zac will return to campus for a full slate of classes, determined to get his life moving back in a normal direction. He isn’t easing back into school, either: Zac enrolled for 13 credits of biology, American literature, American government and CPR. He refused the option of taking online classes, too, determined to taste the life of a normal college student.
But before that day, Zac and his family will first savor a holiday they know they have been blessed to share.
“I can’t just look at it as a holiday,” Nathan said. “I have a lot to be thankful for because he’s still here. He can eat. He’s joking. We’re laughing. That’s really what it’s all about.”