Shykem Lawrence didn't ask to be a hero, didn't ask to be an unofficial spokesman for all that's right with the troubled city of Camden.
It just turned out that way.
Lawrence, a senior safety on the Woodrow Wilson High School football team, joked with reporters yesterday, flashed a room-illuminating smile and talked about how happy he was to finally leave a hospital 71/2 months after he made a life-altering tackle in a scrimmage at Eastern High.
He talked about how lucky he was and said "there are a lot of people who are a lot worse off than me."
Lawrence, 18, said this while sitting in a wheelchair because he is paralyzed from the neck down. He is also hooked to a ventilator, but none of his physical shortcomings dampened his spirit yesterday.
After 71/2 grueling months - the last 6 months, 11 days at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia - Lawrence went home.
Camden, known for its crime, drugs and school scandals, never looked so good.
"It feels great to see my whole family," said Lawrence, one of six children. "I've been waiting for this for a long time."
"We still have a long road," said Alvinita "Nita" Lawrence, Shykem's mother, "but by the help of God and family, he's going to be all right."
Shykem Lawrence, known as "Shaka" to those close to him, has made strides since he arrived at Magee on Sept. 30. Gone are the feeding tube and the halo device that stabilized his neck and head. He can eat normally - he weighs 158 pounds, 32 more than when he entered the hospital - and, with the feeding tube long gone, he can now talk and spin stories with the best of them.
He talked yesterday about how he plans to take Samantha Sharper to Wilson's prom on May 25 and how he will graduate with his classmates. He talked about how he hopes to be one of the speakers at his June 21 graduation and how he plans to attend college in September.
In other words, Camden has a role model for the ages.
"He's an inspiration to all of us," said Guy Fried, Magee's chief medical officer.
As he sat in his wheelchair, Lawrence had a cell phone on his lap.
"My ladies call me and see how I'm doing," he explained, grinning widely.
Lawrence lauded the nurses and physical therapists at Magee and had special praise for his grandmother, Vivian Sims, Magee rehab attendant/assist nursing supervisor Fritz Louis-Jean, Adam Taliaferro ("I call him my big brother.") and the singer Teddy Pendergrass, paralyzed in a car crash in 1982, for helping him change his outlook.
Taliaferro, paralyzed while making a tackle for Penn State in 2000 and now walking and attending law school, visited Lawrence frequently and, with Pendergrass and others, helped the teenager through a depressing period.
Early in his stay at Magee, there were times when Lawrence yelled at workers and ordered them out of his room.
"When I first got here, I was angry. I had attitude. I was always asking, 'Why me?' " Lawrence said. "But the people at Magee kept me up. You just have to stay positive and move on."
"He's matured so much and become so philosophical in his seven months here," Fried said. "He's learned to roll with the punches."
Lots of punches were thrown at Lawrence. On top of recovering from a broken neck, he had repeated cases of pneumonia during his hospital stay. Yesterday, he said he was hopeful of walking someday.
Fried said "the longer time goes on, the less likely it will come back in a natural fashion, and we have to put hope in stem-cell research."
He said Lawrence's condition "was like a cut in a wire that leads to a light switch. The switch works, and the electricity is good, but there's a bad connection in there."
Perhaps in the future, thanks to stem-cell research, a bone-marrow transport will "reconnect the wires," Fried said.
"The message in his brain is not reaching his body," Fried said. "Hopefully, the stem-cell transplant could change that."
For now, Lawrence has a nurse by his side 24 hours a day in his Camden home. The Lawrence family moved into the house while Shaka Lawrence was hospitalized. A $25,000 donation from the Adam Taliaferro Foundation paid for making it wheelchair accessible and installation of an elevator-like lift.
A "Welcome Home" sign and four "get well" balloons adorned the Lawrences' brick house yesterday, and Lawrence received a hero's welcome from his family. Returning home was another positive step, Fried said.
"We all have bad days . . . but enjoy what you have," Fried said. "Enjoy each day. Shaka is teaching me that."
He's teaching all of us.