He sat in his wheelchair in the student lounge at Compton College, a big man on campus, and that night when his life was changed with a terrible suddenness seemed very long ago.
"I'm enjoying life," Shawn Powell said.
He raised an arm to his face.
"I'm able to scratch my nose," he said. "I have feeling all over my body."
His white teeth exhibited themselves in a smile as huge as the comeback he has made since the night, only three years ago, that he was paralyzed while playing football for Lynwood High School.
He's almost a celebrity now. Girls kiss him. He goes into the Rams' and Raiders' locker rooms. He's a friend of famous players and broadcasters. He speaks to high schools. He cruises the malls.
No Time for Depression
"I do so much running I don't have time to think about the injury," Powell said. "I don't have time to get depressed. I asked God when I came home (from the hospital) to never let me have a day when I couldn't get out and do something constructive."
A sophomore with a 3.5 grade-point average and the student government's parliamentarian, Powell is aiming for a career in sports journalism and plans to attend USC next fall.
"I want to be a driving force in the broadcasting arena," said Powell, who in his baritone voice broadcast Compton College's football game last Saturday for a cable station after having to be carried up 30 rows to his booth.
In early 1984, in the aftermath of the operation to fuse his spine, his weight dropped from 185 pounds to 115.
Ashamed of his appearance then, now he is proud of it.
"I'm 6-4, 160 pounds with size 13 feet," he said. "I look like an athlete now."
And that has raised his confidence.
"I'm a jock and jocks like a lot of women," he said with his hearty laugh. "I go skirt chasing every Saturday at the malls. People stare at you and say, 'Aren't you that kid from Lynwood?' You get tired of it, but when it's a fine girl, you tell 'em, 'That's me!' "
Titanic Daily Struggle
Powell sat erect in his chair. He wore a white shirt and yellow tie. His hair, done in tight curls, shined. His smiles and laughs dominated his day but intermittently his face took on a dignified soberness as if he was thinking how Titanic his daily struggle really is.
"I thank God for the strength," he said.
Powell, who believes he will walk again, describes himself as "a person in a chair ready to get up anytime."
"I forget all the time that I'm paralyzed," he said. "I just look at myself as a newborn baby coming out of his mother's womb trying to get back up."
Edison O. Jackson passes through the lounge.
"There's the president of the school," Powell said. "It's always good to know the president."
"Looking good," Jackson said to Powell.
Later, Jackson said of Powell: "He has so much life and enthusiasm. He's a catalyst at the college, an inspiration. He sees things much more clearly than most of us."
Powell believes that his maturity level is beyond that of the average 20-year-old.
"After the accident, I had to grow up extremely fast, because my values went from (getting) a Michael Jackson ticket to getting a bachelor of arts degree," he said. "I had to grow up because a lot of responsibilities were thrown on me, ranging from taking care of myself to treating people with respect. I felt the only way I could survive was to grow up real quick and no longer be a little boy in a big man's world."
Night of Nov. 10, 1983
After a long day at school, Powell prepared to go home. His nursing attendant, Carol Perry, turned on the mechanism to lift him into his van. His brother, Vincent, 19, drove.
On the road, the conversation turned to the night of Nov. 10, 1983.
"The most petrifying moment in my life was when they wheeled me from the ambulance into the hospital," Powell said. "All these lights were on me. The pain was like nails driving into my neck."
Powell's only question that night had gone unanswered until 2 in the morning when a doctor said, "Yes, you are paralyzed."'
That crushed Powell's family more than it did him.
"I was crying and he was smiling," Vincent said. "He had broke his neck and was trying to keep us cheerful."
Powell, in a formal black suit with a black and gray striped tie, is emceeing the Compton College homecoming dance at Lakewood Center.
In a microphone that gives his unflappable voice an even richer timbre, he announces: "You're a good-looking audience and I think you should give yourself a hand. And I think you should give me a hand for looking so handsome."
The audience laughs.
"And now," says Powell, his face broadening into a devilish grin, "the moment you've been waiting for . . . the homecoming queen is . . . me! . . . just kidding."
After the ceremonies, there is music which Powell sways to in his chair, moving his arms.
"I still dance," he says.
Powell, whose parents died when he was a young child, lives with his grandmother, Amanda Powell, and his great grandparents in a pink house in Lynwood. A ramp that wasn't there three years ago leads up to his front door.