Crabtree’s courageous life inspires recognition from Carson-Newman

 Carson-Newman President Randall O’Brien, right, presents Brad Crabtree with a “Commendation of Courage.”  The April 7, presentation took place at First Baptist Church Bristol.

Carson-Newman President Randall O’Brien, right, presents Brad Crabtree with a “Commendation of Courage.” The April 7, presentation took place at First Baptist Church Bristol.

“You folks have gone through the valley of the shadow of death. You are my heroes and I bet you are the heroes of lots of others here.”

The president of Carson-Newman University looks directly at the Crabtree family seated in the front row of First Baptist Bristol.

His gaze narrows on the middle-age man with a tightly trimmed goatee seated in a wheelchair. The man’s jaw hangs to the right but his eyes are bright.

“We came from Carson-Newman to say that though there are lots of heroes in this world, in our mind, you are one of them,” Dr. Randall O’Brien says to Brad Crabtree, a former student of the Baptist University located in Jefferson City, Tenn.

It has been 25 years since Crabtree attended the then College, and it has been 25 years since his life was changed forever.

C-N officials made the journey to Bristol to mark and honor the 25th anniversary of the accident that claimed Crabtree’s mobility and celebrate the courageous life he has led since that day.

O’Brien presented Crabtree and his wife Tammy with a “Commendation of Courage” bearing the seal of Carson-Newman.

“He has touched so many people in his situation,” said his father, Herald Crabtree.

The younger Crabtree is confined to wheelchair and is completely nonverbal.

“He is more aware than people think,” said his father. “His intelligence is greater than what you see by looking at him.

In 1988 Crabtree had just finished his freshman year at Carson-Newman pursuing his dream of one-day becoming a youth minister. His car was packed and ready for his trip home to Bristol.

There was time for one last college escapade before summer. Crabtree climbed into a friend’s Volkswagen, and the two drove off for a sandwich.

Perhaps the cusp of summer made the boys feel invincible as they attempted to pass three semi trucks. Suddenly a car appeared in the oncoming lane and the friend swerved back between the semis. He lost control of the vehicle and hit a culvert on the side of the road.

Brad was thrown from the vehicle and landed on his neck on the blacktop, according to his father’s retelling of the fateful day.

“We were told he would not be a candidate for rehab.” That wasn’t an option for the Crabtrees. They fought for Brad’s future and sought other doctors until one said yes.

“At this point he was walking and talking some,” said his father.

Brad faced each day with incredible optimism and challenged everyone who was around him.

However a second accident in 1990 would rob him of the limited mobility he had left. A bed railing he was using as support collapsed, and he sustained a second head injury affected the right side of his brain. The original car accident had injured his left.

Brad’s communication diminished to one finger for “yes,” two for “no” and corresponding eye blinks.

“Brad could have been bitter and angry,” said the elder Crabtree. “God gave him patience and courage. He never gives up and always makes an effort.”

Crabtree was never able to return to finish his education. However, the place where Crabtree began his college-career had not forgotten him.

Last year, Dr. Wayne Ballard, C-N religion professor, agreed to serve as interim pastor at First Baptist Bristol. He met the Crabtrees, and the C-N connection was rekindled.

He was struck by Crabtree’s story and worked with O’Brien to recognize the man’s perseverance over tragedy. Thus, the “Commendation of Courage” award was born.

Ballard says the award represents the C-N spirit of perseverance, hope and courage.

“So many could have given up and quit, but he hasn’t,” Ballard said. “His family has rallied around him, and the church has rallied around him.”

Although the award was presented to the younger Crabtree, it was his family who felt the significance of the moment.

“There are no words that can express our emotion, but I want to express my heartfelt thanks to each of you that had a hand in making this a special moment in Brad’s life,” said the elder Crabtree from behind the church podium moments after the award was placed in his son’s hands.

Crabtree will never walk or talk again, but his family says that has not stopped him from living. As the church choir stands to sing one of his favorite songs, he gives them a thumbs up.

He has even found love and built a family of his own. He and his wife Tammy have two children: two-year-old Rylan and eight-month-old Morgan.

“These tragedies still happen,” Ballard said. “but there is still a purpose, joy and meaning in life. Tragedy does happen, but life does go on.”