Justin Collins sees the world much like you do.
So ask the Riverdale High senior about his dreams. He’s got plenty.
And ask him about goals. Because he surely has a plan.
Try not to see the world any differently than he would, because the disability he has, the wheelchair he utilizes, it means nothing more than a set of circumstances that’s raised him to be the man he is today.
His mother, Mary Edwards Katz, knew before he was born that he had spina bifida, a rare condition where the spinal cord fails to form properly. Over his 18 years, he’s had close to 25 surgeries. He’s been to the hospital more times than he can count.
He’s never been able to walk or run or jump. He’s never been able to line up with the Raiders football team, dunk a basketball or run the 100 meters.
Justin doesn’t think in nevers. He’s only ever focused on what he can do.
Like his freshman year, when he was the manager for the freshman football team. Or that time when most of the team was running sprints because of grades, and Justin made himself deal with the consequences, too. He pushed his way through those laps.
“He took the punishment,” said Jack Gunn, who was his coach three years ago.
Sports have been a big influence. For a long time, Justin’s goal was to be a play-by-play announcer on radio or TV. Since joining the school’s Explorers program, he wants to be a dispatcher for a local law enforcement agency.
“He grabs that radio, and he doesn’t let it loose,” said JR Norwood, the Lee County Sheriff’s Department deputy in charge of the program. “He’s perfect on the radio. I don’t think he knew what he could do. I think he was used to people saying you can’t do that, but the sheriff’s department showed him that if you can’t go left, maybe you can go right.”
Norwood’s seen Justin do push-ups and pull-ups. He’s taken him in his patrol car on ride-alongs, quizzed him on subjects and even had lunch with him at school.
“I can do anything. Anything,” said Collins, who was born in Oklahoma City. “I don’t let the wheelchair get the best of me. A lot of people think I do. But I really don’t.”
So in sports, Justin can just be himself.
He likes tossing a football. Or having an opportunity to work with a team on a drill. On his own time, Justin participates in sled hockey, a disabled hockey program that gives anyone a chance to get on the ice.
“I fell in love with his spirit,” Gunn said.
As a junior, Justin started working with the girls basketball team, keeping stats. The team’s coach, Bill McChesney, usually included him in the team’s pre- and post-game chats.
One time Justin missed a foul call in the book. McChesney was about to call him out for it, but then the teenager said something that made him laugh.
“You see that cheerleader over there?” he said.
“You need to pay attention to the game, Justin, not the cheerleader,” McChesney said, laughing.
It’s easy to see. Justin and McChesney, his onetime algebra teacher at Riverdale, have formed a strong bond over the last two seasons. It was derived, in part, from their relative close proximity to each other back at home. McChesney lives about a mile from Collins’ house in Lehigh.
But more than that, they just connect.
Over the last two years, McChesney has been there to offer a ride when Justin needed it. The coach often drove Collins and his 85-year-old father to basketball games.
Which is why Justin, who also helps out with McChesney’s softball team, has cherished his time with the coach. He’s become like a second father to him.
In some ways, so has Norwood, and so has Gunn. Justin can count on two hands the amount of “moms” and “dads” he has inside the halls at Riverdale, which is a credit to the many mentors that have made a difference in his life.
“He’s an excellent kid,” McChesney said.
And being part of the team, Collins was able to share in the Raiders girls basketball team’s first district title since 2004 this winter.
Justin watched as the final seconds ticked down. He could feel the big moment. It was going down in the record book.
“If I wasn’t in this wheelchair, I probably would have been jumping up and down,” he said. “Who knows, maybe I could have gotten out of this wheelchair and jumped up and down.”
In his world, his heart was telling him he could do anything.