FOUNTAIN CITY, Ind. — As is common courtesy at graduations, senior class coordinator Mike Roeder asked for spectators to save their applause until the end Friday night at Northeastern (Fountain City, Ind.) High School.
Everybody knew this wasn’t realistic on this emotional Friday night.
About four names in, not only did everyone applaud, but a long, standing ovation followed Austin McNew as he received his diploma as a member of Northeastern High School’s graduating Class of 2017.
About a year and a half after being paralyzed in a sledding accident, Austin returned to Northeastern for his graduation ceremony. He graduated with academic honors.
“I just felt like it’s time for the next step in my life,” Austin said. “I finally know I’m done now and now it’s just time to move on to college and then graduate school and a career.”
Though still in a wheelchair, Austin continues his fight to walk again, and after graduating last December he rejoined the classmates who have done so much for him in his journey back.
It was an emotional night at the small school in Fountain City, where the community from Northeastern and rival high school programs have come together since a tragic January 2016 day to support Austin and his family.
“It was super humbling,” said his mother, Teresa McNew. “We’ve been very, very fortunate to have the community support. We couldn’t do it without community support.”
Before the accident, McNew was a regular teenager, who enjoyed football, fishing, Pizza King, Buffalo Wild Wings, and his favorite: watching football at Buffalo Wild Wings.
Things changed dramatically on Jan. 12, 2016, when he was injured in a sledding accident.
It started when McNew took advantage of a snow day, going sledding with his best friends from football, Josh Tudor, Jacob Auger and Seth Killen.
According to his father, Austin and his friends were in an old truck liner being pulled by an ATV.
When it got flipped, Austin couldn’t move. His friends thought he was joking, but soon saw the reality.
Austin was eventually flown from Reid Hospital in Richmond to IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where he spent a month doing physical therapy at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” said his father, Michael McNew, who was an assistant coach for Northeastern’s football team. “He actually graduated at midterm, so he put in some hard work to get it done, so pretty proud of him.”
Graduating early was always a goal for Austin, but the recovery from the accident gave him extra motivation to do so.
For the past six months, he amped up his physical therapy from two days a week to three, and the other two, he’s gotten a head start on taking college courses through Ivy Tech Community College and Vincennes University.
He already has 21 college credits, nine away from finishing his first year of college.
“So I graduated to take a break, but I wasn’t getting a break,” he said. “Classes twice a week, four classes and therapy three times a week, so I was working just as hard as I was in school.”
Austin’s younger brother Chase also graduated a full year early. He said he had considered doing so in the past, but seeing his family deal with Austin’s injury also made it an easy decision.
“It’s been great to see the support on my family and all the money donated and everybody just putting their two cents in and helping out,” said Chase, who is going to Purdue Polytechnic to study mechanical engineering.
It’s been hard to get discouraged. Roeder, also Northeastern’s football head coach for the last 20 years, called Austin the toughest kid he’s ever coached. He kept a positive mindset during the first few days following his injury, and though it’s been hard, he hasn’t given up.
“I’m getting movement back, left arm is getting stronger, I’m almost able to feed myself, my left leg’s getting stronger, and really, I’m just continuing to work on my legs and my core right now,” he said. “So I’m not where I want to be right now, but I’m getting closer every time I go to therapy.”
Days after his injury, Austin’s friends reached out to Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who called Austin via Facetime. Before Brown could ask how Austin was doing, Austin asked how Antonio was doing following his concussion. Brown also got Austin and his family tickets to a game last fall.
Austin grew up rooting for the Steelers, and looked up to defensive stars Troy Polamalu as well as Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. Austin wore his No. 54, before accepting 55 when he got to high school, a number that’s become the rally number for Northeastern athletics.
Austin has taken a photo with the Northeastern softball team that won the first sectional and regional titles earlier this week, and other athletes put two open hands in the air when they win to symbolize two 5’s for the #McNewStrong and #55Strong movements.
“I think it’s awesome that Austin graduated, and I knew he would,” Northeastern athletic director Mark Pierson said. “He’s an inspiration to everybody, and I think that’s what’s amazing. He’s going to fight, I know one day he’s going to walk and he’s got the heart of a lion. It’s great. Wonderful kid.”
Austin was an All-Tri-Eastern Conference linebacker for the Northeastern and helped the Knights win championships every year since fourth grade.
Austin’s senior class won championships in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, then went undefeated in eighth grade and allowed only two touchdowns.
Then as freshmen, Austin helped the varsity Knights win the program’s first TEC championship ever, sharing it with Winchester, and helped the Knights win two more on the field.
Last fall, he rode his wheelchair onto the field with the team running onto the field behind him, and often he served as the motivation to win.
“It is remarkable, it’s absolutely remarkable,” principal Wes Wisner said Friday. “He’s a great kid. He ‘s very academic and he works hard at everything he does and he does a great job.”
Football is now a memory, but Austin fights with paralysis with the same heart he battled opponents on a football field.
His focus is on therapy and school. He went from having to strap himself to exercise machines to now being able to lift his legs and move his hands to the point where he can almost feed himself.
“He’s making improvements,” Michael McNew said. “They’re still slow improvements, but recently he’s been able to start changing his body temperature and stuff, so that’s a big deal.”
And though people have been inspired by the way Austin has maintained a positive attitude, he said the support has been the inspiration for him.
“People always say I’m an inspiration, but all the support makes it hard to give up, so everyone else is an inspiration to me at the same time,” he said. “They’re giving it to me, I’m just giving it back.”