Step after deliberate step, Aaron Willis walked across the graduation stage.
He walked toward his high school diploma, toward college and toward a future in which he no longer relies on a wheelchair to get around.
The crowd in the Adrienne Arsht Center jumped to their feet. They chanted his name while a bass drum thumped to the rhythm. His father gasped: “It’s a miracle.”
“I’m really happy and really blessed to be here,” Willis said. “Because I could have died back in 2012.”
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Willis was paralyzed by a bullet that went through his spine when he was just a freshman at Booker T. Washington in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. He went from being a football player to paraplegic at 15 years old.
On Wednesday, he strapped on bionic legs under his white gown. Willis left his wheelchair backstage and, with the help of crutches, he swung his feet one in front of the other in front of an amazed crowd.
Willis is heading to Florida International University with a $26,000 scholarship from the Maya Macey Foundation.
“It would have been easy for me to give up,” he said. “I stayed in there.”
Even before he was shot, Willis’ life was not easy. His family struggled with drug addiction and moved from California to escape the violence that plagued their neighborhood.
In Miami, the family became homeless when Willis was 6. In an scholarship essay, he remembers sleeping in the rain one night at the foot of a building on Biscayne Boulevard. A businessman approached his family, got them into a motel and eventually helped them settle into an apartment.
A few weeks before Christmas in 2012, Willis was pedaling his bike home. He was racing to meet the curfew set by his strict mother when gunfire erupted from a car driving by.
Willis flew off his bike. A bullet pierced his back, punctured a lung, shattered his T-10 vertebra and lodged in his left shoulder, where it remains. No one has ever been charged in his shooting, which was either a case of mistaken identity or random violence.
His father, Sammie Willis, still cries when he remembers receiving the phone call with the news that his son had been shot. He spent five weeks in intensive care and rehab at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“Nobody ever expected Aaron to make it this far,” Sammie Willis said.
Aaron’s recovery has been equal parts determination and despair. Though he remained popular and surrounded by friends, Willis freely talks about his struggle with thoughts of suicide. An honors student from his elementary school days, Willis’ grades began to slip.
“I was pretty broken-hearted,” he said. “The most difficult thing I accomplished in school was just keeping myself together.”
Soon into his recovery, Willis was introduced to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami. They enrolled him in a study to practice using a bionic exoskeleton. Slowly, he began to do the impossible: walk.
“He makes it look a lot easier than it is,” said Jennifer Maher, an exercise physiologist who works with Willis.
Walking again means “everything” to Willis, his father said. His background as an athlete has given him not only the strength, but the attitude to take on the task again. So has his family — mom, dad and brother, who flew in from California to cheer Willis on.
“I’m not walking for myself. I’m walking for my family,” he said before his stroll across the stage.
On Wednesday, Willis stood – actually stood – with his classmates. He turned the black-and-orange tassel of his graduation cap. He swayed on his feet to the class song, “I gotta believe” by Yolanda Adams.
“I believe that I can make it,” he sang. “I believe that I can walk on, with my head held high.”