GURLEY, Ala. - High school graduations are almost here. For one Madison County senior, it will be a step toward one of the biggest goals of his young life. April 20, 2005, Hunter Esslinger’s dad parked in the driveway and crossed the road to get the mail. Five-year-old Hunter climbed out of his car seat, got out and ran into the road. It was a parent’s worst nightmare.
When Victoria Esslinger got home, she noticed a lot of vehicles in her driveway. Minutes later, an Alabama State Trooper knocked on the door of their house and told her to lock her home so he could take her to the hospital. Grabbing her purse, she heard a man whisper over her shoulder. She remembers him saying, “if you believe in me, you will not be without your son.” She believes it was the voice of Jesus. “And it was a feeling that rushed over me, almost a calmness,” she recalls.
Doctors didn’t think Hunter would live. When she got to the hospital, “They told me to come and say my goodbyes there in the trauma center,” she remembered. But Hunter beat the odds. He survived. Some would call it a second chance. “Absolutely,” Victoria said, “and he's taken advantage of it.”
Hunter suffered a traumatic brain injury, but just 14 years later, he’s ready to receive his diploma from Madison County High School. “It's a huge accomplishment,” his mom said proudly, “He’s done well. By the grace of God, he has made it as far as he has.” Hunter smiled and said, “It’s a very exciting experience for me.”
Hunter doesn’t remember the accident but sometimes relives it while sleeping. “There was this one time where I literally felt the car hit me,” he recalls, “I felt my body fly through the air, hit hard and then I snapped right awake.” He still dreams about the horrific accident from time to time, “Well, one would call them dreams. I'd call them nightmares,” he said with a laugh.
Hunter has used a walker since he was six years old. He set a big goal for his graduation. “To walk across the stage on my crutches,” he said. He has a team of supporters. Johnathan Moore is Hunter’s adaptive physical education teacher. “I tell him to think more of what he can do instead of the things he can't do,” Coach Moore told me. Traci Aday is a physical therapist. “This is Hunter's goal,” she said, “This is a decision, a decision for himself. So, we’ve been just doing what we could to make that happen.”
The two of them have been working with Hunter his senior year. “When we first started, he could do about five steps and he'd have to sit down,” Traci said. Coach Moore added, “And now, he's able to do laps without stopping so it's touching to see him come so far.” Coach Moore pushes Hunter. “I do, I push all my kids,” he said, “I believe in hard work and I believe you get out of it what you put into it.”
Hunter is ready. “I can most certainly get across that stage,” he said confidently. He’s an example of courage. “I feel like it shows how strong I’ve become,” he added. He’s a role model for others who face similar challenges in life. “I'm probably going to be very happy,” he said. “Of course, I won't be jumping around doing back flips or anything like that,” he added with a laugh.
Hunter graduates with the Class of 2019, May 22 at the VBC Propst Arena. Coach Moore and Traci will be there for him every step across the stage.