A weekend interview with ...
... Riverview High School graduating senior Antonio Dowels. Dowels, 18, was a top-rated athlete who dreamed of attending the University of Florida to play football and study to become a pediatrician. A car crash dashed his football dreams, but not his spirit or dedication. Though paralyzed physically, Dowels retains his ambition to become a children's doctor. He will attend UF in the fall. Dowels spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek. (Times photo, 2007, click to enlarge)
I know you had this accident that really changed your life. I was just interested in you talking about how it affected the way you looked at what you were going to do when it came to your schooling and your future.
Well, it affected me. But I still knew that I was going to come back to school. Because I love school. I love education and I love to learn. The only thing that affected me was me running. I love sports. And I miss it every day, running. But I knew that when I was going to go to college to become a pediatrician, I know it's going to be really hard to do hands-on things, because my fingers don't really function. But I was thinking that I can be like an administrator, and you know, it hasn't affected me that much.
What is it that you love about learning so much that it kept you going and thinking about it rather than saying, I'm just going to give up?
I just love obtaining knowledge. And I know that I need to learn to be a pediatrician. And to do something that you love, it takes almost 12 years, you have to learn. You have to love to learn. You know, a lot of people want to be astronauts and physicists, but they don't know how hard it is. They're going to have to work to be good at what they do.
Did you ever think that you wouldn't be able to do what your passion is because you can't move your fingers, do the things you might normally associate with being a pediatrician?
No, sir. I never say 'can't.' I know you can always find a different way to do stuff. So when I got hurt, I told everyone: Three months, I'm going to be back in school, learning, playing with the kids, harassing Mr. (Robert) Heilman (the school principal). A lot of people didn't believe me. But I worked real hard. It was just hard work and determination. I came back.
What did you have to do to get to that point?
Basically everything. I had to learn everything over again. I had to learn to use my muscles in different ways, you know, since I can't really, I'm not strong enough. My fine motor skills, they're not working well enough. I had to learn how to eat. I had to learn how to brush my teeth. A lot of stuff that people take for granted.
Did you ever lose track of your academic abilities? Or was it all just physical things?
All physical. I came back still smart, but ... (laughs)
It doesn't seem like something a lot of people could do. Do you have any advice for somebody? They may not be facing the same kind of challenge you faced, but when they sort of feel like they can't make it any further and that something might be too hard for them. What kinds of things can you tell them about how and why they should continue on?
Well, I was blessed with a couple of great friends and family and teachers and a principal who, they just kept me going and they told me, Never say no. You know, there's always times when you're all down and you know depressed because you know you can't do things like you used to. But you have to be optimistic, you know, and they really helped me and encouraged me. Yeah. I just had the great opportunity to have people to support me.
What about people who have nobody like that? It sounds like you were lucky. Is there anything you can do from the inside to help yourself that would have made a difference? Or did you really need that support group?
I needed them. But inside, you really look to the future. You know, when someone closes one door, you always know there's another door that's open. Look to the future. One day could be bad, but the next day could be good. Just keep your head high.
Tell me a little bit about your future. Where are you headed?
I am going to the University of Florida. I know I have to do to the disability housing five miles away from the college. The thing about it is, they have transportation there and back. I don't think I need any scribes or anything because I'm good at the laptop and stuff. I know after that I'm going to have to go to med school, probably do an internship at Shands hospital. And, yeah, I'm looking forward to being a pediatrician. A lot of people are like, 'You know it's really long' and 'You know it's really hard.' I say, 'If you want to do something you love, it doesn't matter how long.' I'm still going to be around children a lot.
Did you always want to go to the University of Florida? Was this your goal school?
Yes, sir. Florida was first, but University of Miami was pretty close. It was down to those schools. And then when I learned that I was probably going to be doing something for the football team at the University of Florida, it was a done deal.
Let me ask you about that. How and what can you do for the football team? I imagine at one point you thought you'd be playing for them.
Oh, yes, sir. I don't know yet. I have to talk to Coach (Urban) Meyer. Me and him are going to talk when I go to orientation June 12-13.
So he called you, then?
No. The head coach at Plant High School, he has a lot of prospects going up there to visit the school. And he told him about my story and he knows that I'm going there, and he said that he probably can find a spot for me. ...
Does it make you a little nostalgic for wanting to play? Or are you beyond that at this point?
I'm very beyond that.
... Are you going to give a speech at graduation?
No sir. A lot of teachers asked me to give a speech, but I said, No, no, no.
Why not? It sounds like you've got a great story to tell and a great attitude with which to tell it.
Ask Mr. Heilman.
Robert Heilman: I'll tell you why. When he comes across that stage, the message is going to be right there.
RH: His presence is the message.