Deontae Shuler was the one strapped to a hospital gurney and occasionally winced in pain, but it was the bright-eyed, 10-year-old boy who had all of the questions for NBA superstar Dwight Howard earlier this week.
“How did you get so tall?’’ Deontae asked Dwight.
“How did you get those muscles?’’ Deontae again queried.
Dwight told Deontae a story of how he was once the smallest kid in his neighborhood when he was growing up and how he would pray on a nightly basis that he would someday grow tall enough to be a great basketball player. Several years later, and now fully grown at a strapping 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, Dwight knows about the power of prayer.
Dwight is sending out plenty of prayers these days for Deontae, who was paralyzed from the neck down after he was stuck by a vehicle while riding his bike in Orlando on Feb. 8. Deontae suffered severe brain damage and an irreversible spinal cord injury. He can’t breathe on his own and has a tracheotomy requiring 24-hour support from a breathing machine.
Deontae got a surprise a couple of weeks ago when an autographed picture of Dwight arrived at his hospital room. And his wish to meet Dwight came true on Monday night when Deontae got to visit the Magic locker room and he watched the Orlando Magic defeat the Detroit Pistons.
“He is a huge Dwight Howard fan and he loves the Orlando Magic. He loved basketball and always played it lots before the accident,’’ said Marcus Shuler, Deontae’s uncle. “He was so happy when I told him we were coming to the game. The whole week he’s been smiling and happy. The two nurses came in and asked him if he knew what he was doing and he said, `Yeah, I’m going to the Magic game to see Dwight.’’
Dwight took time out of his pregame ritual to spend some quality time with Deontae, holding his hand, telling him stories and making him laugh with his good-natured personality. And Deontae’s eyes light up when Dwight pulled one of his wristbands off and slid it over the 10-year-old’s left wrist.
Dwight said his mission was simple: Try to bring some joy to Deontae’s life.
“I just talked to him and encouraged him because I know things are bad for him right now. He needs some motivation and hope and that’s what I was trying to provide,’’ Howard said. “He just wanted to come here and meet me – that was his only wish. I’m just so blessed and humbled to be able to help a kid like him out however I can.’’
Before the accident, Deontae was an aspiring basketball player. And when he wasn’t in the park playing hoops, he was usually in his house playing the video game that has Dwight’s smiling face on the cover. New to the Orlando area after moving from Ohio, Deontae adopted Dwight as his favorite professional athlete and aspired to be like him some day.
Dwight said he left the visit with Deontae as the one most inspired. In Deontae, he saw a third-grader who was simply fighting for his life and looking for something to believe in. Dwight vowed that he would do what he could to help Deontae and promised to keep him in his prayers.
“I was just telling him to pray and keep believing that he can overcome this, and I hope that he can,’’ Dwight said. “With all of the stuff that I’ve been going through it’s good for me to talk to someone like Deontae and find out about his story. We’ve been through a lot of adversity this year as a team, but it’s inspiring to me to see how this kid is fighting to try and overcome the adversity in his life.’’
Since his accident, Deontae has battled through depression. But the doctor and nurses who care for him report that one thing that inspires him is watching Dwight and the Magic play on television. Getting to meet his hero helped to temporarily ease some of his pain.
“Since the accident, this is the happiest that Deontae’s been,’’ Marcus Shuler said.