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Hooper: Student in a wheelchair hopes to win accessible van

He could talk about how life stole his chances of playing collegiate football.

But he talks about the joy he experienced just being around college players.

He could lament about how a student with outstanding grades deserved a better fate.

But he laments not being able to do more for his family.

He could tell you all about the struggles he endured as a student using a wheelchair at the University of Florida.

But he tells you about how he survived early academic challenges before graduating with a 3.18 grade point average.

Antonio "Tony" Dowels talks about needing your help only because he wants to help others.

Dowels will enroll in law school at St. Thomas University in the fall, and he hopes to drive to Miami in a custom wheelchair-accessible van he would win in a contest sponsored by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association.

Here's how it works: More than 1,200 entrants are lobbying for online votes. You can vote once a day through May 9 for Dowels by going to

If Dowels lands in the top 10 percent — he's currently 14th — he will be among the finalists a panel will consider for one of four vehicles.

The story they will read will inspire. Guided by the love of his mother, Lisa Johnson, and her unyielding Christian faith, Dowels rose from a struggling life to blossom as a promising student athlete at Riverview High in 2007.

He participated in football and track, worked a part-time job and took all advanced placement classes. The workload may have contributed to him falling asleep while driving home from a track meet and crashing on U.S. 301. He ended up flipping his car and was pinned under a semitrailer truck for two hours. He broke his neck and lost all feeling in his legs.

From there, he relearned how to function, returned to Riverview High and eventually earned admission to Florida. Because his mother did such a great job caring for him, he wasn't quite ready to be on his own; more struggles ensued.

"I had appendicitis, bursitis, and I kept falling," Dowels said. "I struggled in class with a 2.6 GPA. For someone who had an unweighted GPA of 3.8, I knew I could do better if I just had some help.

"I just kept the faith and kept a positive attitude. I started working with the football team. The strength and conditioning coach started working me out on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. I got better and was able to do more stuff for myself."

Through his work with the football team and the women's basketball team, Dowels' interest in sports grew. He had majored in microbiology with plans to become a pediatrician, but changed to sports management.

Now he wants to help the athletes he eventually hopes to represent not just as an agent, but as a sports lawyer. But he aspires to do so much more.

"I'm trying to lead a selfless life," Dowels said.

So remember this: If you help Dowels with a vote, you help his younger siblings by giving him a chance to serve as a role model. You will help his mother, who lived through the challenge of caring for her oldest child.

And you will help the people who hear his motivational story, like the girl who wrote and told him she was considering suicide until she heard him speak.

That's all I'm saying.

Hooper: Student in a wheelchair hopes to win accessible van 04/30/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 1:15pm]
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