JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Richard Collier had made a promise to those close to him that he would stand for his July wedding, that he would remove the veil from his bride's face and kiss her when pronounced husband and wife. Chandra Baker knew of Collier's intentions, but she was tucked away, out of sight since, according to wedding customs and superstitions, it's unlucky for the groom to see the bride in her wedding dress until she arrives for the ceremony.
As Baker waited, she heard a thunderous ovation erupt from the hotel ballroom, where, in a few minutes, the couple would exchange their vows. When it was time, Baker emerged from behind a curtain and saw Collier, in his handsome gray tuxedo and white bow tie, waiting on his bride. He was sweating. He was smiling.
And, as he promised, he was standing, an empty wheelchair off to the side.
"Many people there hadn't seen him stand in almost two years and forgotten how tall he was," a smiling Chandra said of her 6-foot-7 newlywed husband. "Walking out and seeing Richard standing there wasn't a shock to me because I always knew he could do it. And I believe he will walk again, too, because of his determination. He's not a pity person.
"He doesn't have pity parties."
Collier, 29, a former offensive tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was left paralyzed from the waist down and had his left leg amputated after he suffered multiple gunshot wounds -- 14 to be exact -- in an ambush-style shooting in early 2008. Collier's life hung in balance for weeks, he underwent 15 surgeries and, to this day, continues to deal with medical problems. His doctors say he will never walk again.
Wrong prognosis, Doc.
"I will never let people tell me what I can't do," Collier told a FanHouse reporter, a wide grin spreading across his face as he sat in his motorized wheelchair here in the living room of his home, 15 minutes or so from Alltel Stadium, where he played two seasons for the Jags.
"I plan on walking again. I really do. I don't doubt myself, I don't put limits on myself. I wake up every day and I smile and I laugh because I'm alive. They have told me I would never walk again, but, man, I stood at my wedding the entire time. I really wanted to stand tall at my wedding, to show people this is what I've been doing for the last year and a half.
"And I got to kiss my wife standing up."
Collier stood with the help of an intricate brace that was strapped onto the outside of his body at the hips and extended around his legs. Collier was fitted with a prosthetic limb following the shooting. He says he can manipulate slight movement in leg and limb during therapy sessions and has walked up to 100 steps in his brace. Of course, the nervous groom may have been perfect with his vows but he badly misread the game clock.
"I had no idea the ceremony would last 45 minutes," Collier laughed.
Collier boasts a hearty, deep laugh. He has a quick, bright smile, too. His brown eyes dance with life. Despite his hardships, Collier says he's blessed -- and he immediately counted the ways. Collier points to his wife, a teacher for disadvantaged children. He points to his tight-knit family and daily telephone calls to his mother, and he points to his former Jaguars and Valdosta State teammates and coaches, many of whom remain in touch and visit him at his south Jacksonville home. Complain? Collier says his life still holds unlimited promise and potential.
Collier has replaced what if with what's next.
"I have a chance to be a better person in life in every aspect," Collier explained.
"I have the chance to take advantage of every second in life instead of wasting it for something that doesn't matter. I try to do that every day now. Sure, I still get sad, but that's life, that's normal, and I quickly snap out of it. I hate being down. I want to be positive. I am not going to let you see me down. Don't look at me as a helpless guy. I just feel the sky is the limit. I want to help change the world, want to show people who have disabilities can do whatever they want."
Collier relies on his faith, too. He says he has forgiven Tyrone Hartsfield, the man who was convicted of shooting him and is spending the rest of his life in prison. Collier was competing for a starting job on the offensive line in 2008 during training camp when he was shot Labor Day weekend after leaving a nightclub. Collier survived, according to his doctors, because he was in great physical shape.
Collier, who dropped close to 60 pounds while hospitalized following the shooting, remains motivated physically. Broad shouldered with muscular arms, Collier lifts weights three days a week at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital and can bench 350 pounds three times. He hopes to start playing wheelchair basketball if time permits, but his schedule fills quickly.
Collier enjoys public speaking and can be found at civic groups to detention centers, stressing opportunities, second chances and advocacy for the disabled. He loves to read, likes to fish and is a weekly guest on a local radio show. Every Friday is date night for the newlyweds and every Sunday morning is reserved for church.
Chandra says her husband is her hero and she never contemplated leaving him during their courtship when he was shot. Children are in their future plans, too.
"It never crossed my mind," she explained. "I always wanted to be the one by his side, and it was an easy decision for me to stay. I honestly don't think he even realizes how many lives he has impacted because he is such an inspiration."
There are examples. Collier also spends time on social networking sites such as Facebook, where he connects with persons, able bodied and disabled, in need of encouragement. Collier recently traded telephone numbers with a gentleman who, like himself, was paralyzed from a gunshot wound. The two talked, helped each other emotionally and Collier said it was gratifying knowing he made a difference.
Collier also has a keen eye for style, crediting his five sisters. Collier clothes shops for his wife and himself and he decorated his entire 3,000-square foot home. Naturally, the latter has become a slight problem since his marriage.
Collier's living room -- make that his entire home, he laughed -- is, in his words, bachelory with red and suede colored walls. Three red leather couches offer a perfect view to the big-screen television on the wall above the fireplace. A pool table is in the dining room, flanked by Collier's framed football jerseys, plaques, autographed helmets and footballs.
Chandra has won round one. New furniture for the living room is being delivered this week. The pool table stays -- for now. Collier's disability hasn't forced him to make many adjustments to his home, but he added a ramp at the front door, widened a few doors and had a roll-in shower and a larger tub installed.
Much like a teenager striving for independence, Collier sets daily goals. He reached a milestone in September when he started to drive again after his two vehicles -- a black Cadillac Escalade ("It's the same kind of vehicle I was shot in," he said) and a light green 1994 Chevy Impala, a childhood favorite -- were customized with a hand clutch in the middle console that that enables him to accelerate or break. Collier had no intention of driving the recommended vehicle for the disabled: a van. Shoot, Collier even customized his motorized wheelchair with leather padding and had RICH embroidered into the chair back.
"People try to put disabled people into a corner, 'You can't do this, you can't do that,' " Collier said. "I am like 'I am going to go totally against the grain and I will make it work.' "
Collier makes it work because he feels he's blessed, pointing to his life story.
He quit football after high school in Shreveport, La., and was stocking produce at a Wal-Mart when he was encouraged to enroll in junior college. After two years at Tyler Junior College in Texas, Collier moved on to Valdosta State in Georgia, winning the Division II national championship his first year and meeting his future wife. He signed as a free agent for $13,000 with the Jags in 2006, playing two seasons. In May 2008, the Jaguars signed Collier to a contract extension. He played in all four of the Jaguars' preseason games in a reserve role that season before the shooting.
In the early hours of Sept. 2, 2008, Collier's life changed forever. He acknowledged mistakes. Collier also admitted it was difficult to look across the courtroom more than a year later, in Nov. 2009, and see Hartsfield, who was arrested, charged with attempted murder and convicted.
"The fact that someone took so much from you," Collier said.
"You were right where you wanted to be... but this person changed not only your career but your whole way of life. That anger I felt then motivated me. I didn't want to be seen on TV as a guy looking down or being sad. I would not give anyone that power over me to let him think he defeated me.
"He tried to destroy me, he tried to take my life. I dealt with all that at the trial. I think I handled it professionally. I didn't bash him. I told him I would pray for him. I asked the judge that justice be served and I'm thankful that happened. Now I've moved on. I am a fighter and I am not going to stay down for long. Immediately after the trial, I put all that behind me.
"It was time to get on with life."
Life is trying to keep pace with Collier.
Football remains an important part of his routine, but from a different vantage point. He's now a fan. Collier may watch the offensive linemen fire off the line of scrimmage, but he doesn't look for adjustments or blitz packages or try to critique a play. He cheers. He wants the Jags to win and wishes them better luck when they lose. Collier has attended two Jaguar home games this year, and makes a point to watch every game on television. Just like Sunday, when Jacksonville beat the Houston Texans on a 50-yard Hail Mary pass in the closing seconds.
Game announcers called it a miracle.
Collier believes in miracles, too.
"I will always cherish those football memories, but I don't miss football, I really don't," Collier said.
"I look at it as that was a chapter of my life and it's over now. I don't dwell on the past. Just like with my injuries now being hurt, I know what happened and I know what's going on. I remember I couldn't even say the word paralyzed. I didn't want to say it because I couldn't grasp it, but I've grown so much since then. I've gotten a lot stronger physically, mentally and I've moved forward. Like I said, I believe I will walk again.
"I get mad now when people take their bodies for granted. They may say, 'Oh, my foot hurts and I don't want to walk.' Man, I'd kill for my foot to hurt. I know people who don't take care of their bodies. You are up walking and you should take care of what you are given. I hate to see people waste their lives. It's the easy stuff, too, like going to the bathroom or getting into the car. I mean, everything is an adventure for me."
Even standing at his wedding.