PLEASANT VALLEY — David Pitts smiles as one of his Pleasant Valley High School football coaches hands him his pristinely clean, No. 88 game jersey. Head coach Jeff Davis says there's another item in Pitts' locker.
It's the unused helmet Davis ordered, unusual in its small size, to fit Pitts' size-7ish head.
Pitts had hoped to wear those items in Raider games this season. He had come up through the program since seventh grade, doing mostly scout-team work, but he was likely to start at cornerback as a senior.
When Pitts talks about this past summer and the approach of the football season he's missing, a tear leaks from behind his glasses and down his right cheek, drawing attention away from his wheelchair.
"That was hard," he said softly.
Pitts has been paralyzed below the sternum since January, when a seemingly harmless bump and fall in basketball practice touched off methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the most drug-resistant form of staph infection.
The infection spread from a spot on his right elbow to his spine, dramatically altering the life of a teen who loved playing sports for his high school.
While his feelings about missing his final seasons of Raider sports show when he's asked about it, Pitts makes a point of not dwelling on it. He seems to have embraced his new life, which includes playing basketball at Birmingham's Lakeshore Foundation, cruising in a new, specially equipped pickup and whipping his friends at Xbox video games.
The former Pleasant Valley point guard grins when asked if his old Raider basketball teammates doubted he could continue playing that sport.
"I can shoot better than most of them," he said.
An infection starts, grows
Things seemed harmless when Davis was asked to help out during a Raiders basketball practice, sometime around Christmas. At some point, Davis made contact with Pitts, and Pitts hit the floor.
Shortly thereafter, a spot developed on Pitts' right elbow. Pitts' mom, Susan Quinn, said there was no open wound, just redness and swelling.
A registered nurse, she knows the dangers of staph, so she took her son to have the spot checked on Jan. 2. A staph infection was diagnosed, and Pitts was given medication.
"We were never told he had MRSA," she said.
On Jan. 13, Pitts noticed a backache but played his last Raider basketball game that night.
The pain worsened over the next six days, so badly that he could not participate in practice or do lifts in the weight room.
"He walked into basketball practice one day just slumped over, and he could barely walk," said Michael Lockeridge, one of Pitts' teammates in basketball and football.
Quinn is guarded about details but said she consulted "several doctors" during those six days. Still, the pain progressed.
Then came the awful morning of Jan. 19, when Pitts awoke to numbness and weakness in his legs.
"It just kept getting worse and worse until I couldn't move them at all," he said.
Quinn took her son back to Gadsden Regional. An MRI turned up an abscess on Pitts' spine, in the area of the T6-T8 vertebra, and Quinn had her son transferred to Children's Hospital in Birmingham.
Pitts underwent surgery for the abscess, but the damage was done. The only question was whether the damage was permanent.
Pitts said "there's a chance" that his condition could improve, "but I don't really sit around and dwell on it."
Quinn keeps her hopes high.
"We were given some statistics during surgery," she said. "But as of right now, we're taking every day day-by-day."
Living with paralysis
Quinn admits she has "good days and bad days" as she and her son face his life with paralysis.
Pitts says he deals with it "pretty good," but Davis corrects him.
"No, you didn't deal with it 'pretty good,'" he said. "You deal with it great."
Pitts was in the hospital from Jan. 19 to Feb. 13 and returned to school in late February.
He began rehabilitation at the Tyler Center, going twice a week most weeks, and works out during his physical education period at school.
He wheels up a ramp outside the Pleasant Valley field house to work on his strength and conditioning. In the weight room, he does mostly dumbbell work but gets out of his chair for exercises like triceps dips.
Dips became part of his workout when Davis doubted whether he could do them.
"Coach Davis was like, 'You can't get up there,'" Pitts said. "I said, 'Watch me,' and I did it."
Within the past month, Pitts resumed driving with a specially equipped white GMC Canyon pickup. Controls on and around the steering wheel allow him to accelerate and brake with his hands. He operates a remote-control arm, which lifts his wheelchair out of the truck bed, swings it around and sits it on the ground by the driver's door.
He gets in and out of his truck without help.
Pitts also started basketball practice at Lakeshore two weeks ago. He teams with Alexandria High School sophomore Savannah Gardner, and the families take turns driving on the twice-a-week trips to Birmingham.
Gardner, who has limited use of her legs because of cerebral palsy, said she's impressed with how Pitts handles the sudden change in his life.
"He's very friendly and very helpful. He lifts up our team," she said. "With everything that's happened to him and stuff, he's taken it really well.
"His mom told me in the car one day that he's still David. He just has to go about things in a different way."
Quinn said she swears off barriers and keeps her son encouraged.
"When he says he wants to do something," she said, "we try to find a way to make it happen."
A Raider at heart
Among the hardest things for Pitts emotionally is missing his senior season in football, his favorite sport.
"David has always been a Raider, first and foremost," Davis said, as another tear descends Pitts' face. "David spent his first two or three years with us mostly on scout team. It didn't matter if we needed a fullback or a guard. He played it and did it the best he could do it with one speed, and that was wide open.
"We were looking forward to this fall, because David had worked his tail off and got in a position to start at one of our corners."
The gravity hit Pitts hardest just before Pleasant Valley's season-opening game at Ohatchee. As his teammates readied to take the field, they noticed him crying.
"He'd been working his whole life, and all he ever wanted to do was just start on the varsity team," teammate and friend Corey Shackelford said. "When I saw him start crying, I started crying."
Pitts' teammates rally around him. When he got hot and ill on the bus ride home from Ohatchee, they jumped to action, opening windows.
He has attended most of the Raiders' seven games, wheeling up and down their sideline in conditions good and bad. His mom jokes about a game on a rainy night, when the wheels on his chair sprayed mud on his clothes.
Pleasant Valley has struggled this season, winning its first game Friday after seven losses. The team made the playoffs in 2007 and 2008. And Pitts has struggled with his teammates emotionally as he has watched.
"It's hard not to yell sometimes," he said with a grin.
Pitts gets his licks in when he plays teammates on the Xbox. They say he dominates in games like Call to Duty, Halo and NCAA Football.
"Anything that he wants, we do," Shackelford said. "We never keep him out of anything. Whenever we go do stuff, he's the first person we invite along. We always want him around.
"He's been an inspiration to me. I don't know how I'd react if I was in that type of situation, but the strength he has, he acts like it doesn't even bother him."
Davis said Pitts' situation raises mixed emotions.
"You feel sad for a young man in the prime of his life getting struck down like he did, but also it's been a blessing to see David overcome this," he said. "David's not backing up on it. He's not saying poor, poor pitiful me.
"He's saying watch me and what I can do."