Walking across stage to receive a diploma is an emotional moment for any high school senior.
But to Green Valley football and track athlete LaQuan Phillips, doing so June 9 at the Thomas & Mack Center would be a symbolic triumph to cap a nine-month journey recovering from partial paralysis.
Phillips, 17, returned home to Henderson on Nov. 21 and has been back at school since Monday. He had been rehabilitating at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California in Sacramento since Sept. 16.
Phillips, who was a starting weak-side linebacker for the Gators, was injured in a collision during a game on Sept. 5. He suffered a bruised spine that led to the paralysis, from which he has been recovering faster than doctors anticipated.
“Walking across that stage has been on my mind every day,” Phillips said. “Graduation is one thing so far down the line that walking by graduation is not that big of an obstacle, especially considering how far I’ve come.”
Phillips, who remains in a wheelchair, successfully underwent surgery on Sept. 7 to alleviate swelling on his vertebrae.
Through vigorous rehabilitation, Phillips has gone from being immobilized in bed at Sunrise Hospital to standing with assistance at Shriners to the brink of walking on his own.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll be walking by my birthday,” said Phillips, who turns 18 on Jan. 15.
Phillips spends three days per week after school continuing recovery at Healthsouth Rehabilitation Center in Henderson.
On Tuesday, he grabbed parallel bars, lifted himself upright and took steps.
“I’ve got pretty much everything,” Phillips said when asked where he has feeling. “My right hand is slowly waking up. I can close and grip stuff, but opening it is a little bit harder.
“That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to, is getting my hands completely back.”
In some respects, Phillips’ life at school is back to normal.
He sang along with choir classmates before having lunch and socializing with friends at afternoon recess.
Classmates have rallied around Phillips, calling his name and high-fiving him as he maneuvers around campus.
One of Phillips’ closest friends, Green Valley senior defensive end Derrick Garrett, helps push Phillips’ wheelchair around campus.
“I’m his bodyguard,” Garrett said with a smile.
A marquee in front of the school reads, “No. 3 LaQuan Phillips We Missed You.”
“I’ve always been a kind of popular kid, but now it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ ” he said. “There are people coming up to me I don’t even know.”
Phillips has an appointment on Dec. 11 with Sunrise neurosurgeon Michael Seiff to remove his neck brace, said his aunt and legal guardian, Delphine Lakes.
Though Phillips has remained upbeat throughout the recovery, Lakes noticed his spirits brighten with the return to school.
“That in itself gives him inspiration to get across that chair to get the upper-body strength,” she said.
Inspiration is something Phillips’ peers have credited him with.
“They mention it,” he said. “For me, it’s ridiculous at times. When this happened to me, I always felt like this was my struggle. ‘I’ve got to get back on my feet.’ The fact that people say you’re an inspiration is shocking.
“My goal wasn’t to inspire, but since I have inspired, I’m not going to stop.”