The rough days of fear and poor prognoses are a distant memory for Shawn Powell. Although still paralyzed, the former Lynwood High School football player, now 23, proceeds with customary determination toward goals he has confidently set.
Sitting in his wheelchair--he has progressed from an electric model to a manual Quickie--Powell pulled down the bar of a weight machine in a physical therapy room at Cal State Long Beach on Monday afternoon.
"And I'm supposed to be an invalid . . . hah," he said, breezing through 25 repetitions. A glowing smile, framed by a thin beard, confirmed that he was glad to be back in a weight room, hearing the clanking, smelling the sweat, feeling the soreness set in.
On an autumn night almost six years ago, Powell became a quadriplegic when he suffered a spinal injury while making a tackle in a game at Paramount High School. At first there was doubt the senior linebacker would live. He had no feeling below his neck. But only three months later he declared: "I know I will walk again."
He still thinks he will. "My therapists and I are projecting the early part of 1992," he said.
An intermediate milestone was achieved six months ago when, for the first time since Nov. 7, 1983, Powell stood.
"Standing was bizarre," he said. "The first time I fell flat on my face. The pain was familiar. It reminded me of the first time I had the hell kicked out of me on the football field. But I got right back up. Now I stand three times a week."
Powell, who had been a 6-foot-2, 195-pound athlete, weighs 139, about 20 pounds less than he did three years ago. "I'm solid muscle now, not fat," he said.
Feeling has returned to most of his body, and he moves his arms freely. "Everything is normal from my neck to the lower part of my kneecaps," he said. "My knees are extremely weak."
What is strong is his belief in God and himself.
"I always wondered after I was hurt how far I would come," Powell said. "I didn't know what it would take. It takes a lot of determination, motivation and dedication."
"I'm real close to God," he added. "My faith has increased tremendously."
Earned Degree at Compton College
With full-blown eagerness, Powell has immersed himself in a variety of pursuits in addition to his own rehabilitation.
He has completed two years at Compton College, earning an associate of arts degree, and plans eventually to enter USC as a sports law major. He wants to be a sports agent. "All you need is three athletes (clients) and you'll be a millionaire," he said.
In November he will return as host of "Sports Unlimited," a talk show on a Compton cable TV station. "I'm host, executive director and the man in charge--I like to be in charge," he said.
He also has his own drug awareness program--the Shawn Powell Drug Deputies--and is scheduled to audition for a part in the TV show "Another World." His 62-member anti-drug organization has produced a TV commercial, Powell said, and soon he will begin going to schools to talk about the dangers of drugs.
In light of what he has accomplished, Powell does not see himself as being at any particular disadvantage.
"I've been called an invalid and a burden," he said. "But those people said those things out of ignorance. I feel sorry for them. I'll own my own business one day. I'm a sportscaster, I'm intelligent, articulate and handsome. So who has the handicap?"
His Hero Is Al Davis
Powell is obsessed not only with walking again, but with women, with money, with owning a red Ferrari convertible and with Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis.
"My incentive and my hero is Al Davis," Powell said. "I'm committed to excellence like he and the Raiders are. My ultimate goal is to meet him, hang out with him, be on the sidelines with him. My whole house someday will be black and silver, and my pool will have Al Davis' picture on the bottom."
But even now, while living with his grandmother and great-grandparents in a small house in Lynwood, life is good for this flat-topped young man who sees himself as a very eligible bachelor.
"My social life is great," Powell said. "I have a girlfriend now, Pamela Raphael. She's bugging me about getting married, but I don't know. A lot of women call me; it's hard on me man, it's not my fault that I'm handsome, right?"
As is his habit, he laughed so hard he choked.
Powell gets around in a customized van, usually driven by his brother, Max, 19, sometimes by his other brothers--Vincent, 22, Tony, 21, or Darnell, 26.
"He keeps us happy most of the time," Max said. "Sometimes he gets a little depressed."
"Yeah," Powell said, "I have the blues sometimes. Some mornings you get up and you see that chair and realize, 'Damn, I have to use that apparatus, why me?' Then you think of the strides you've made, and thank God you're still here."
For the time being, the degree from USC, the Ferrari, the swimming pool and a wife and family will have to wait. Powell is channeling his energy mainly in one direction.