This year’s Virginia Tech Homecoming football game featured the typical orange-and-maroon pageantry, with splashes of other fall colors in the background and rays of sunshine, at least for part of the day, bursting through partly cloudy skies.

The football team’s performance against such a backdrop added to the weekend-long celebration. Kyron Drones threw for 300 yards, the defense registered seven sacks, and the Hokies won convincingly 30-13 over Wake Forest, leaving fans and alumni feeling fulfilled.

Include Donald Bridges Jr. ’84 among them.

“That was a fun day,” Bridges said. “It was a little more exciting than a regular day. Finally, a football win. That gives us a little hope that things are headed in the right direction.”

Bridges maybe appreciates witnessing football games more than most. He tries to make a trip to Blacksburg for a game each fall, but doing so requires more effort and logistical planning for him than the typical Virginia Tech enthusiast. His decision also hinges largely on how he feels that particular gameday.

Bridges is a quadriplegic and has been for 37 years. The 61-year-old needs assistance, a ventilator, and other special equipment just to survive every day. But not even that, nor a three-hour ride across crowded interstates from suburban Richmond, deters him and close friend Chet Willis ’80, who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, from doing something that they’ve been doing off and on since 1989, when they first went to the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium to watch the commonwealth’s flagship programs clash.

“We plan every year,” Willis said. “We sit down, and when the schedule comes out, we kind of look and say, ‘OK, that's our target game. Let's make it happen.’ It's an up-and-back trip from Richmond because it's just impossible to put him in a hotel room and spend the night, so we just plan accordingly. Even if it’s a 3:30 game, we get home at midnight, but we've done them all, even if it's a 7 o'clock game. We just suck it up, and it takes a little extra time with him, but we’ve figured out a routine. It's good. He really enjoys it.”

Bridges’ life changed May 2, 1987, when he suffered a dislocated neck and severed his spinal cord after a collision in an amateur sports league rugby match in Richmond. At the time, he was a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in health administration at the Medical College of Virginia (MVC), now the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, and he spent a lot of his Saturdays in the fall and spring playing for a local rugby club.

Bridges, who played on the extramural rugby club at Virginia Tech while pursuing a degree in biology from the College of Science, spent five months in the intensive care unit at MCV following the accident. He later was transferred to the Shepherd Center, a hospital in Atlanta that focuses on rehabilitation from spinal cord and brain injuries. He spent four months learning basic functions such as how to speak and how to move his wheelchair by sipping and puffing through a plastic straw attached to the chair.

In January 1988, Bridges returned to Richmond and lived with his father and stepmother. They converted their basement into an apartment that specifically met Bridges’ needs. They and a team of friends, classmates, neighbors, and relatives pitched in to care for Bridges, and many have been doing so in various capacities ever since.

Donald Bridges Jr. with Chet Willis (far right) and Willis' brother-in-law, Pat Moriarty
Chet Willis ’80 (at right) and his brother-in-law, Pat Moriarty ’81, watched the mid-October Homecoming game with Donald Bridges Jr. (at left). Willis has been taking Bridges to at least one game a year off and on since 1989. Photo by Luke Hayes for Virginia Tech

Resolving to finish his coursework for his degree, Bridges resumed his studies 13 months after his accident, dialing into his classes through a computer conferencing system. In 1990, he maneuvered his wheelchair across the stage to accept his diploma.

Unfortunately, attempts to work have been met with obstacles. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, but initially, companies shied from hiring or making accommodations for disabled people, and working actually puts Bridges in a complicated position anyway. Both Medicare and disability insurance guidelines limit income amounts, and he needs to maintain eligibility for those programs to pay for nursing costs, medication, and general living expenses such as electricity and phone service.

“I was able to work for a period of time, but I wasn’t able to continue the work program that I was in through Medicare because they had declared me unemployable,” Bridges said. “That was deflating. The goal was to allow me to eventually work.

“Given my level of injury and given my disability, it just wasn’t feasible to be able to do that, at least at that time. Right now, I spend a lot of time trying to keep my household running as smoothly as possible, keeping up and applying for the benefits, finding and maintaining staff to take care of me and take me to doctor’s appointments, and ordering my supplies and medications. That’s a full-time job.”

Bridges’ trials and tribulations did not end with his accident. He once suffered a broken leg after a caregiver unintentionally dropped him, and on another occasion, another caregiver accidentally hit him with a vehicle. He has suffered through several urinary tract infections that required hospitalization, a medical danger for quadriplegics, and two years ago, he spent six weeks in the hospital, nearly dying from septic shock and pneumonia.

Yet the lesson arguably to be learned from his life is that he somehow manages to persevere, often leaning into his faith in Christ and the support of his family and friends – a lesson captured last year by award-winning journalist Paula Squires, who wrote and published a book about Bridges’ life entitled “A Different Kind of Courage.”

“A lot of times, I don’t feel like I have a positive attitude,” Bridges said. “It’s maybe more of a ‘don’t quit’ attitude. I know there are a lot of people who are in a worse situation than I am. I just keep trying, and I’ve come to realize that everybody has challenges.

“You think people have these fairy tale lives and then you find out everybody has challenges. People may think that my challenges are more than theirs, but I’ve always said it’s all relative. I can’t say I felt like this 36 years ago, but now I’m more inclined to put myself in other people’s decision processes, and I think that cultivates an empathy.”

“He's got some type of mental toughness that's beyond anything I can explain,” Willis said. “Imagine getting up every day being in that condition and circumstance and just plugging away every day. … I think he inspires a lot of people, too, because consider his circumstances and what it takes for him to just physically be able to continue, and yet you never hear him speak of anything that would mean he doesn't want to be around. He's always positive about that.”

When not managing the paperwork associated with insurance and health bills or scheduling caregivers, Bridges spends a lot of time watching sports. The ACC Network offers him the opportunity to watch his beloved Hokies often and even learn about the university’s Olympics sports, such as lacrosse and softball.

And interestingly, perhaps surprisingly, he watches rugby whenever he finds a match on television. It’s a sport that has brought him a mix of immense joy and indisputable heartache, overwhelming comfort and undeniable pain. It undoubtedly altered his life, giving him every reason to be bitter and yet he allows it such grace.

“I don’t blame what happened on rugby,” Bridges said. “Life is life. Things happen. Why me? Well, a lot of times we don’t know why things happen.”

Bridges said he takes life one day at a time. He said the Hokies’ football win on Homecoming brought him joy and hope. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that his life and his approach to it does the same for so many others as well.

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