He signed in at the office at 7:08 a.m. Tuesday, nearly an hour before his talk. Andrew Hall only slept three hours the night before. This was the first time he'd been back to Hudson High School since he graduated in 2008. Back then, he could walk.
Born at 2 pounds, 2 ounces and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Hall wasn't expected to live, much less walk. But he did. It took him 15 years — surgeries, leg braces, pain, refusing to listen to doctors telling him what he couldn't do, hating to be pitied.
But here, he not only walked but joined the weight-lifting team. He was adored by teachers, who thought of him as a son.
They crumbled when they heard of the April 20, 2009, accident in which Hall was hit by a drunken driver. The collision ripped off his left leg, crushed his pelvis, shattered his arm.
"Why him?" said Brian Bennett, a digital design teacher who still displays a Hudson High T-shirt Hall autographed as a student in his classroom. "He's the nicest person I've ever met."
Shannon Casel, who runs the school's learning lab, drove to Bayfront Medical Center with another teacher after they heard about Hall.
He was unconscious. He'd already been through so much — fighting to walk, absent parents, raised by his grandparents and his adopted family. He had every excuse to be bitter but he wasn't. He was sunny, clever, kind. He wanted to be a nurse.
Casel held his hand.
"You are going to live through this," she said. He spent seven months in the hospital before coming to live with his adoptive father in Clearwater.
Casel was the one Hall called Monday night and then again Tuesday morning at 6, as he was on his way to the school.
Prom is next week and, to dissuade the teens from drinking and driving, the staff asked Hall, 20, to come back and tell his story. He was glad to do it. Even as a child, Hall knew his purpose in life would be great — although he doesn't like to say it, because he thinks it sounds egotistical. But this is his mission now: To fight drunken driving.
"It's his calling," Casel said. "He believes everything happens for a reason and this is his reason right now — to help and inspire others."
He spent weeks mulling over what he was going to tell the kids. Pictures, he thought. I need pictures. He put together a slide show of photos of himself in the hospital. He practiced what he was going to say. When Mike Pounds — one of the paramedics who saved Hall's life — came to pick him up at 5:15 a.m., Hall was dressed and ready.
Hall has more surgeries to endure before doctors can try to fit him with a prosthetic leg. He will walk again. He will not accept anything less.
"I'm not most people," he said. He believes the adversity in his life prepared him to continue fighting. The act of overcoming is all he knows. Many people ask why he's not angry.
"I get no satisfaction from being bitter," he said. "It's not going to do me any good."
The talk began at 8 a.m. The bleachers were full. In his wheelchair, Hall rolled to the center of the gym floor.
"I love him. He's so cool," a senior girl whispered. She thinks of him when she doesn't want to get out of bed to go to school. After all he's been through, he still doesn't stop. So she gets up.
The room hushed when Hall picked up the microphone. He spoke of his birth, of fighting for years to walk and having it taken away in seconds.
"That is what drunk driving did to me," he said.
Hall struggled to not break in the hospital. He couldn't eat and was depressed. He had no privacy. He hurt.
"Everything in life is a choice," he said. "It destroys lives and it destroyed mine.
"Yes, I will overcome it — but what's done is done."
The teens gave him a standing ovation and crowded around him, hugging him, thanking him, asking to get their pictures taken with him. That was the best part, Hall said.
He plans to continue speaking, spreading his message. He's not just thinking local.
He's thinking global.
"Why not?" he said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.