RUN AS ONE: Zac Bradley, Shepherd Center

As part of our journey in 2021 and in celebration and partnership with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race, we are sharing the stories of six local heroes who are impacting positive change in their communities. In addition to bringing awareness and education to each of their respective organizations, we will also be donating $10 of every top sold in the Run As One™ Collection at The Peachtree Health & Fitness Expo presented by Publix to support the Atlanta community.  

Following a successful freshman basketball season at Clayton State University, Zac Bradley’s future was brighter than ever. Then came a stormy night in May 2011, when a tree fell on his car as he was leaving campus. Tragically, he was paralyzed at the age of 19.


After spending a month at Grady Memorial Hospital and undergoing multiple surgeries, he transferred to Shepherd Center, a non-profit neurorehabilitation hospital for people with spinal cord and brain injuries, stroke, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. It was there that he began to realize the extent of his injuries.


“This is the time I learned that my arms and hands, primarily my hands, were also significantly impaired,” Zac said. “I knew life would be completely different from everything that I had ever known. I was quite frankly afraid of what life would be like after my injury.”


If his training as an athlete had taught him anything, it was that he had to work toward goals, no matter how small they were. “I feel like relearning every aspect of your life inevitably comes with highs and lows. There are moments in therapy where you master a skill, or at least you feel the gradual progress to mastering a skill. There were other times in therapy where I felt absolutely defeated in learning some skills. Unfortunately, no matter how easy or difficult, the skills are essential to becoming independent, so it took a lot of grit and grind in those difficult times to master the skills.


“My biggest goal of that summer was to transition from using a power chair to a manual chair. With that, in getting used to using a manual wheelchair, I was introduced to wheelchair rugby.


“As a former college basketball player, being unable to play sports after injury was devastating. I’ve been an athlete since I was 6 years old. Therefore, after injury up until I joined the rugby team, there was a significant piece of my identity missing. When I started playing rugby, I knew it was a quad-specific sport. With my basketball knowledge, I knew I would have a leg up on the mental aspect of the sport – I was just going to need the physical ability. Knowing that, my natural drive kicked in, and I was dedicated to gain the physical abilities needed to be fast and agile and the skills to be tactical on the court. Since joining the rugby team, my identity has been complete.”


Once he felt content with his progress, he knew he wanted to give back. “I wanted to work at Shepherd to support people whose struggles I can very closely relate to. I had a college mentor, who at the time I did not know was a vocational counselor, and she introduced me to the field and helped me sort out my career post-injury. I wanted to pay it forward in my career, and I thought the best place to do that was at the Shepherd center – a place that gave so much hope to me after my injury.


“When I worked in peer support, and to this day when I volunteer, I tell people all the time – ‘living with SCI is a marathon, not a sprint.’ When I relay that message, I always follow up with the explanation that this journey will certainly have its ups and downs, but that if you stay focused on your goals, you’ll eventually get there. And ‘getting there’ looks differently for everyone. I encourage people to take one day at a time and to have hope but be realistic about their current circumstances. That way, you hope for the best, but by staying realistic, it gives you an opportunity to assess your needs and abilities, that way, you can set reasonable goals that can be attained taking your specific abilities into account.”


For Zac and so many others, those ups and downs have made them stronger. And everyone who helped them along the way played a part in pushing them to help more people every day.

Unique Stories. Similar Goals. United In Our Desire To Turn Potential Into Positive Change. #RunAsOne #AJCPRR

Published: May 2021

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