SHADY HILLS — No one noticed the very slight limp in 18-year-old Dustin Mooney's gait as he crossed the stage of the Eleanor Dempsey Performing Arts Center, a freshly minted graduate of Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School's Class of 2008.
The cheers went up, just as they did for the other 44 seniors.
No one noticed last year either, when he went golfing by himself on a summer's day, the first time in more than six months, the first time he knew for sure he could still play.
"It felt good," he would later recall. "It felt really good, the first time I felt a good solid hit. It wasn't anything that anyone knew about. It was just me."
Few knew about the two 24-inch titanium rods surgically inserted in Mooney's back in December 2006 to prop up his badly curved spine.
As he stood Thursday among a class of achievers and athletes, Mooney's feat was simply in making it.
He's had 300 surgeries since he was 6 months old.
Born without an esophagus, which connects the mouth to the stomach, doctors had to carve a food passage inside him by creating one out of stomach tissue. Today, Mooney still has to go to the hospital every six months to have his esophagus stretched, since stomach tissue behaves differently than normal esophageal tissue.
While he was at McLaughlin, doctors discovered his scoliosis, a childhood condition that dangerously curved his spine and worsened so badly in his junior year he couldn't pick things up.
At Thursday's ceremony, Sarah Regan, who's been McLaughlin's principal for just a year, thanked her first graduating class.
"I remember the warm and hospitable ways you welcomed me in my first year," she said. "And I remembered my challenge to you to let your spirit shine."
Mooney never wanted to stop playing golf. He got permission to cart his clubs around when he couldn't pick things up anymore.
When he went back to the green more than six months after his spinal fusion surgery, he missed the ball so many times, he lost count.
He was 8 when he picked up his first golf club, part of a secondhand set his mom bought from a neighbor. He putted around the yard for years, until his stepfather took him to play golf for real in 2000.
He went on to play for McLaughlin and he'll keep playing while he attends the University of Central Florida.
He's learned to bend with his back straight. He's learned to keep his sense of humor. He tells new doctors who take over his treatment: "I take my anesthesia like I take all my stiff drinks — sitting up."
On Thursday, he looked a little jittery.
How does he feel?
"Nervous," he said. "As long as I don't trip, I'll be all right."
Salutatorian Edwin Kyle addressed the crowd.
"We have overcome many obstacles to get to where we are," Kyle said. "We have grown together and now we must branch apart."
Mooney rose twice: once, when he was named a Medallion Scholar, and again, when he crossed the stage to receive his diploma.
He walked tall. He did not trip.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4613.