More than a year ago, Brad and Adrienne Davis couldn’t be sure their son Curtis would ever be able to go to school again, but Wednesday afternoon Curtis stood in the Catholic High School gymnasium soaking in the thunderous applause of CHS students.
The student body, which Curtis will become a part of in the fall, piled into the CHS gymnasium about an hour before school ended Wednesday for a presentation from John O’Leary, a Missouri-based motivational speaker who has traveled the world sharing the story of his own tragic childhood.
It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Leary was there. The speaker not only has personal similarities to Curtis’ story, but was intimately involved with the hard journey that Curtis and his family took last year.
When he was 9 years old, O’Leary was involved in a fire that burned 100 percent of his body. It was an accident that no one thought he would survive, and resulted in the amputation of all of his fingers.
Speaking to CHS students Wednesday, O’Leary recounted how his Catholic faith and parents pushed him to never give up despite the tragic circumstances. Despite his injuries, his mother pushed for him to continue his piano lessons and eventually he was welcomed back to school with signs bearing his name and applause from children his age.
O’Leary also recounted his relationship with Jack Buck, an American sportscaster best known for his work announcing Major League Baseball games of the St. Louis Cardinals. Buck visited O’Leary in the hospital when his eyes were swollen shut.
“I can’t hear anything. All of a sudden I hear a door open up, I hear footsteps come in, a chair comes across the floor and a voice says to me very clearly, ‘Kid, wake up. You are going to live. You are going to survive. Keep fighting.’”
The visits continued for the five months that O’Leary was in the hospital, and established a relationship that continued when O’Leary was an adult and Buck gave him the crystal baseball presented to Buck upon his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Since then, O’Leary’s relentless optimism and religious faith have served as motivation for many across the world. At CHS Wednesday, O’Leary pushed students to say who inspired them the most.
“My dad, because he taught me everything and I love him,” one fourth-grade student before she broke into tears.
‘Only God does this’
During his travels as a motivational speaker last year, O’Leary got a phone call from a friend about a young boy who was involved in a car crash.
Burt and Angela Cestia, who had seen O’Leary speak at a St. Louis conference, reached out to O’Leary about Curtis Davis. At the time, O’Leary said he was only asked to keep the 8-year-old in his thoughts and prayers.
“I said ‘Burt absolutely, if you tell me where they live I’ll send them a book and a personal note,’” O’Leary said Wednesday.
After landing in Jackson, Mississippi, O’Leary finally received the address for Burt and Adrienne Davis. Call it coincidence or divine providence, but Brad and Adrienne happened to be in Jackson at the same time when he got the message of their whereabouts.
“He reached out to them, and the day he reached out was the day when they were in Jackson,” Angela Cestia said Wednesday.
“A city they never had been in ever before and a city that I had never been in my entire life. I land in Jackson, and I get a message saying they’re in Jackson,” O’Leary said. “Only God does this.”
After setting up a meeting, O’Leary said he found Brad and Adrienne mourning, praying and holding out hope that their boy who had been struggling for two weeks would somehow make it through.
When he went to leave, the elevator doors opened and Curtis was being rolled to his room.
“He just came out of surgery and they rolled him right by me and I got to meet this kid I had been praying for the past 12 hours. He cruises by and I say a little prayer with him. He goes to his room, I hug his mom and dad and I encourage them to hold out hope,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary and Brad Davis maintained contact after that meeting, and O’Leary was able to keep track of the remarkable progress Curtis had made. O’Leary was told about the moment Curtis began to show signs of excitement when his sister visited him for the first time.
“She decides to go by and visit her brother, her brother has not seen or shown a lot of response for the last month but now that his sister is there he starts to stir and a lion starts to roar,” O’Leary recounted. “And this little boy that no one really held out hope for except for his mom and dad and New Iberia, they begin to see a miracle starting to happen.”
O’Leary continued to stay up to date when Curtis began walking again, when his eyesight returned and when he was able to throw a football.
According to Adrienne Davis, who also serves as admissions director for CHS, Curtis is back at school with his classmates and even made honor roll.
“His vision is the main thing but right now physically he’s about 95 percenet back to where he was,” Adrienne Davis said.
‘A hero among you’
In fact, Curtis is going to be attending Catholic High as a fourth grader next year, which was part of the reason he was at the school Wednesday.
Like the support O’Leary experienced when he finally returned to school following his own accident, all eyes were on Curtis in the gymnasium after O’Leary recounted his personal connection with Curtis.
Finally, O’Leary asked Curtis to stand up, and for the entire student body to give a round of applause to the future CHS student. Rousing applause resounded through the gymnasium while Curtis stood and watched.
“What I would like you Panthers, in the same way I was welcomed back to school, I want you today to make some noise for Curtis,” O’Leary said.
The crowd erupted after Curtis walked forward near the podium near O’Leary. It was an emotional scene that didn’t leave many dry eyes in the room.
And Jack Buck was there for O’Leary when he was recovering, O’Leary has supported Curtis, and showed a lot of pride over the progress Curtis has made in one year.
“I have met presidents and actors and great musicians, stars, people you follow,” O’Leary said. “I have never met someone that I respect to the degree and look up to like Curtis. Next year in your very halls you will have a hero walking among you. You will know that everytime you see Curtis.”
And whether or not Curtis understood the full impact of the moment, it’s a day that Adrienne Davis said the family isn’t likely to forget anytime soon.
“It was awesome, we had this in the works for almost a year,” Adrienne Davis said after the event. “I don’t know if he fully realized what was going on, but it was awesome.”