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Tragedy makes journey to graduation sweeter - KOAM TV 7

Tragedy makes journey to graduation sweeter for Fort Scott native

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This past weekend more than 1,200 Pittsburg State University students crossed the stage to pick up their diplomas but for one graduate the journey to the stage made the walk that much sweeter.

For Fort Scott, Kansas native Pechone Stepps the path to graduation wasn't planned 10 years ago.

In 2002, Pechone was living his dream.  That January he was named as the interim head coach of the women's basketball team at St. John's University, a Division I program in New York.  At 28 years old he was the youngest D1 coaches in the country.

"Things were looking up, I was ahead of my life - my life goals," says Pechone.  "Being a head coach at such a young age was a big responsibility, so one minute I was on top of the world in New York City.  I tried to play it off and be cool about it but once I was by myself I shut the door and screamed out loud, because you just kind of hit one of your life long dreams."

His parents, Clyde and Marion Stepps were excited for their son.

"My expression was 'the St. John's? You know, the one in New York?'" Clyde says.  "It was beyond my imagination."

"I was just exuberant over the idea, I couldn't believe it, yet I knew my son and I felt like this was really the turning point of his life," says Marion.

But on May 24 everything changed.  On the way to a family reunion in Arkansas Pechone's truck got a flat tire.

"A flat tire's no big deal, I've changed 1,000 flat tires in my lifetime - we pulled off on an exit, taking all the precautions, put our hazard lights on, make sure there was no oncoming traffic," says Pechone.  "My younger brother was up under the truck first trying to fix the flat and me being the big brother - 'move out of the way, you don't know what you're doing.'

"So I had him get up so as I laid down to put the jack up under the wheel well, there was an underage drunk driver came off the exit, hit the back of our vehicle... and the truck popped up and landed on me and drug me down into the ditch and I got rolled up under our truck."

Pechone broke the C7-T2 vertebrae in his neck, paralyzing him from the waist down.

"The doctors had told my parents they didn't think I was going to make it.  I was pretty much on my death bed, internal injuries, broken arm, I was banged up pretty good."

"It's hard to explain how you feel when someone you love is hurt," Clyde says.  "When somebody says they know who you feel, they don't know and we probably can't explain in a thousand years how we felt, but we know that there was a void in our lives right there."

"It affected us in a way that we were almost lost for words at the time and it seemed like everybody's life had come to an end," Marion says.

Pechone spent six months in the hospital relearning how to do everything.

"The doctors weren't optimistic about me, about me walking again, they talk to you about trying to improve your quality of life, but they weren't to optimistic about me taking steps," says Pechone.  "I didn't accept that when they said that, coming from an athletic background your always taught not to give up."

Five years after the accident - 1,846 days to be exact - Pechone took his first steps.

"You finally feel like you get your sense of independence back," says Pechone.  "Actually being able to get up and take those steps, you feel like your back up and re-engaging in the real world."

Pechone's world got very busy.  He continued to rehab, coached at Fort Scott and started taking classes at Pittsburg State.

"Sound like I'm punishing myself, but like I said, I try to be motivated and the less time you can think about your situation and you can up that energy, that worry energy into something else, the better off your going to be."

"And being able to coach and move around, all that's therapy for me."

Since the beginning three words have kept Pechone going.

"Imagine and believe.  Imagine that day when you're upright and you can roll your chair and put it in the closet and never see it again, and believe, just continue to believe on those dark days you still got to believe and keep believe until you reach your goal."

Which brings us back to last weekends graduation.

"It kind of brings me full circle to the journey I've been on the last 10 years of being hurt and having to relearn how to do all that and receiving your Masters kind of feels like your at the finish line and all you hard work has paid off."

"He has inspired me because he is a strong," Marion says.  "One statement that he made, he said 'if this had to happen, I'm glad it happened to me and not my two younger brothers', so he has inspired me in a way that I can not even imagine."

"Everything he does, he does it with a purpose," Clyde says.

Graduation.  A time to celebrate, cherish and remember.

"From the beginning I said that's my son, he has accomplished this goal and I know there other things he's going to do in the future," says Marion.

Pechone says one day he wants to get a legit technical foul.  When an official makes a bad call he wants to get up and let him know it.

So Pechone continues to rehab.  But it is very expensive, so anyone interested in sponsoring Pechone for his rehab effort at Project Walk in Kansas City is asked to contact him at 620-223-4541.

"One day my ultimate goal is just to walk," says Pechone.  "I tell people all the time: 'I don't think I'll ever sit again because I sat for so long.  If I can get upright, I will sleep standing up because I sat so long.  I will sleep standing up.  I'll be on my feet all the time.  You can't get me to sit down any more after sitting down for these 10 years.'"

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