TAMPA — Back when Tim Kimball was a teen (read: invincible) he sailed the seas, cruised streets on his skateboard and climbed fire escapes to rooftops. Perched on Tampa's skyline, he drank cheap beer with friends.
Those days ended abruptly one night at a downtown club when he was 20.
Some guys pushed through a crowd, and Kimball refused to get out of their way. One of them slugged him in the face. He spun and fell, hitting his head on a box.
"I remember trying to get up and I couldn't move," said Kimball, now 38. "I couldn't get up. That's pretty much it."
His neck was dislocated. His friends surrounded him and someone called 911. But by the time he got to the hospital, the damage was done. He could no longer move his body below his collarbones. Kimball had become a quadriplegic.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Kimball credits the ordeal and the trials that followed with teaching him what perseverance is all about.
"If you want to do something and you don't give up, you'll get it done."
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Before the attack, Kimball wanted to be a photographer. He spent his free time working on his '58 Chevy, earned a 4.0 GPA at Plant High School and a scholarship to Florida State University. After a year, he came back and enrolled at the University of South Florida, where he was a student that unfortunate night.
After the attack, he took a year off. He was living with his mother in Brandon when she pushed him: Go back to school.
He said he wasn't ready, but enrolled in a lecture course anyway.
"In a way, it's weird. I didn't have the same distractions that I had before. It was easier to focus. I didn't have much else to do, so I did my schoolwork."
He earned his bachelor's degree in 1996, graduating with a 3.5 GPA in art history, he said. But he found that his degree wasn't practical in the job-hunting world.
He considered a business degree but opted for architecture, where he also saw a creative outlet.
Today, he has nearly completed an architectural program at the University of South Florida as one of few people to get money from the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to pay for his master's degree. He plans to work in a small design firm or start his own business.
He spends hours a day on his computer, which he operates with his mouth stick and voice recognition software.
Some things take him longer, but a computer allows him to erase physical limitations and compete intellectually.
At his home, he showed a draft of his thesis, a condo building downtown with a rooftop garden and aquarium for raising fish for dinner. The building would recycle its own water and capture solar energy.
Graduating, he said, is a matter of proving himself.
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In 1995, Kimball bought a house in Seminole Heights with settlement money that he won in a civil suit against the man who hit him. (The man also was convicted of misdemeanor battery.)
Photos Kimball took before the attack line his fireplace mantel. Initially, his younger brother moved in to help.
About five years ago, Kimball got into a Florida Medicaid program that allows him to hire his own caregivers. He hired his mother and another woman.
Kimball works hard to be as independent as possible.
He navigates bus routes to get to school, which can take an hour and a half. He manages his own limited funds and uses his mouth to put CDs into his computer. He can't scratch, so he wriggles his nose to relieve an itch.
Once home alone and hungry, Kimball tested his patience while tediously using a mouth stick to open a pack of crackers.
Relying on others can be difficult, he has found.
Neighbors once reported him when his yard became overgrown, but he couldn't do anything about it.
He says he longs to feel a shower on his face but can't afford the necessary $2,500 shower chair or the remodeling required to wheel his chair into his bathroom. He settles for sponge baths.
About 10 years ago, he spent a year in bed being treated for pressure wounds, like the one that caused Christopher Reeve's death.
He hopes stem cell research will find a solution to allow him to use his arms again.
Two things he dreams of: to drive and to live alone.
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On a recent Friday, Jim Whittlesey fed Kimball bites of pizza at Chez Bryce on Davis Islands.
As a teen at Plant High School, Kimball was best friends with Whittlesey's son and moved in with the family. Whittlesey once sailed with the boys to the Dry Tortugas. Kimball remembers taking pictures along the trip. After the attack, Whittlesey says he helped police find the guy who paralyzed Kimball.
Whittlesey says Kimball "never felt sorry for himself," but Kimball knows better.
He works hard to keep an upbeat attitude but at times has withdrawn into depression.
"You can only make your life worse by getting into a negative mind-set," he said. "The main thing is, if you keep going in the same direction, you'll eventually get there."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.