Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier asst. sports editor
Taylor Corley, Campus Carrier arts & living editor
On Sept. 22, 2018, junior free safety Justus Edwards suffered a serious spinal injury while playing football against Centre College. Edwards required surgery, and doctors informed him he would likely never walk again. Last Sunday, Edwards spoke at Greater Christ Temple about his journey since then. In his speech, he called his injury a blessing.
In an interview after his speech, Edwards explained why he had said that.
“The spinal injury was a blessing to my life,” Edwards said. “A blessing in disguise, I would say, because at first it seemed like destruction, but it made me a better man. It also helped me see things bigger than just football. The true importance of brotherhood, the true importance of inspiring, the true importance of continuing to push and have perseverance even in the hard times. Because, although it may be raining, the sun is going to shine again. It made me really appreciate life.”
Berry head football coach Tony Kunczewski said that that moment in Edwards’ speech inspired him.
“The one thing that struck me from when he was talking at the church on Sunday was that he called what happened a blessing,” Kunczewski said. “How many people would say that, that it was something good? He realizes that the Lord put him in this situation for a reason, to be able to speak to others, and what a great example of truly living out your faith. I consider myself a Christian and I would love to say that I would have that reaction when something like that happens to me. I hope I would, but I don’t know if I would, but he’s living it out so it’s pretty cool.”
Junior Julia Churchill, who attended the speech and has known Edwards since the summer before their freshman year, said his continued positivity is what has impressed her the most.
“I think it was really encouraging to hear how he hasn’t given up since then and how he is such a joy to be around and super encouraging,” Churchill said. “That really hasn’t changed even through his injury. Even though I know that there’s definitely hard days that come with it, he’s still persevering, he still loves football and still wants to get back to what he loves.”
Edwards said in his interview that that positivity comes not only from his faith, but also the knowledge that things could have been much worse.
“I still got breath in my body,” Edwards said. “I could have been dead. They didn’t know if I was going to make it at first, because when I was rushing to the hospital they didn’t know what level injury it was, and that’s something very scary that could happen.”
He added that he still has much to be thankful for and therefore wishes to share his outlook on life with those around him.
“When I think about the goodness of God, that helps me stay positive,” Edwards said. “When I think about my family, that helps me stay positive. When I think about my team going out there and fighting for me while I’m fighting in P.T. [Physical Therapy], that helps me stay positive. My friends, that helps me stay positive. The energy here at Berry, that helps me stay positive. Now, there have been some times where I’m not as positive, but you never know who needs that positivity more than you do, because somebody else could be going through something bad in their life. Just a simple ‘how are you doing?’ or ‘everything’s going to be okay,’ just a simple smile, you just having positivity to get through what you get through helps others get through what they get through in life.”
Kunczewski said that Edwards’ Christian faith has had a huge role in maintaining that attitude, as prayer and the reading of scripture had prepared Edwards for his trials before they even began. Kunczewski said this readiness then immediately showed itself to him in the moments following Edwards’ injury.
“I will never forget, for as long as I live, going out there right after he got injured and just how calm he was,” Kunczewski said. “I can vividly remember him saying ‘Hey, I’m going to be alright. God’s got me, we’re going to get through this.’ And just the positivity that he had from the moment that it happened, it made me think a lot.”
Since then, Edwards has used this mindset to fight his way through his recovery. Janna Johnson, a senior lecturer of mathematics at Berry who attended Edwards’ speech, said that his journey should be viewed as an inspiration by all.
“I thought it was amazing and he is such a great speaker,” Johnson said. “He was so well prepared and he had written it so that it would speak to everyone. His story is such an inspiration for anyone, whether they’re trying to get past an obstacle or reach a dream or just strengthen their faith.”
To keep motivated, Edwards has found a few key elements that help him regain his focus in times of need. One of them is a piece of tape he carries with him in his wallet. On it he has made a few annotations, such as writing Proverbs 14:23. He said that that proverb, which states that all hard work leads to profit, was one he and his teammates would keep in mind when training over the summer, and something he firmly believes to be true. And the tape itself has added significance as well.
“I keep the piece of tape, just the tape I wore in the game,” Edwards said. “When they were rushing me to the hospital, I told them not to cut this piece of tape off of me, I told them to keep it on me. I keep this on me because that pushes me, that helps me to push through those hard days.”
Another thing that helps him is the message he uses as his phone’s lock screen, which he calls his confession.
“Me and my mother wrote it down the 22nd of September 2018, and it’s basically my vision,” Edwards said. “I say it every day, morning time and night time, anytime it’s on my mind, because your words, your confessions bring possession. I encourage you to speak, and this one is very long but I have to remember it now. It is my vision, it’s what I’m speaking, and because I spoke this over and over, because I put work to my faith, now I’m actually walking in these words.”
Now, over a year since his injury took place, Edwards said he is happy with the progress he has been making.
“Recovery is coming along very well,” Edwards said. “I’m pushing every day, trying to get better every day, trying to remain positive every day. We’ve been reaching a lot of first downs and eventually we’ll be at the touchdown, I just got to keep pushing, keep the faith.”
Though the doctors initially gave Edwards a 20% chance of ever walking again, he told them that he was walking because God healed him, claiming he walks by faith, not by sight. And on Nov. 9, 2019, when Berry played Centre, Edwards traveled with the team and walked his way back to the exact spot where he was injured over a year prior. His condition has kept improving since, so that when he gave his speech last Sunday, he walked to the podium and stood the entire time. Kunczewski said that that was his highlight of the event.
“It was great hearing him speak, but it was even better watching him walk up to the podium,” Kunczewski said. “That was even more special.”
Edwards said that ever since the injury he knew he wanted to share his experience, and that he would do so on his feet, and he told his family as much while he was still in the hospital.
“I told them ‘I’m going to travel the world telling this story and I’m going to be walking doing it,’” Edwards said. “To see it come to pass was amazing. I tell my legs to move and they move, and just to be able to stand, I’m thankful to God for the strength, for the grace, for the test. I’m thankful for the test because He gave me a testimony to tell other people and to encourage other people. It was amazing.”
That desire to use his situation and his faith to help others is nothing new, according to junior Ei Noe. Noe and Edwards became good friends their freshman year, as they were part of the same cohort for the Gate of Opportunity Scholarship, and she said that even though she is not Christian, his support helped her to figure out her own faith.
“It’s really awesome to see how far he’s come and how he’s used his situation to help others as well,” Noe said. “I never really was a person that was close to my faith before coming to Berry, but coming here has opened my eyes and pushed me to grow in my faith and have a better relationship with God. And I remember Justus and I talking about that as well. I lost my uncle freshman year and Justus would pray with me, and through things like that and his testimony, it shows me how much he cares and how devoted he is to his faith, which motivates me to be strong in mine. Even though we’re from two separate religions, there are still some commonalities in that I can also be strong in my faith.”
Edwards said that he is not done helping others, as he wants to continue providing motivation for those who need it. He already has a few more events planned, such as a talking about how not to lose your fight with cancer patients at the Livestrong Foundation or the importance of finding your identity in Christ rather than your sport with the Rome Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
And in addition to his speaking engagements, Edwards has also created merchandise to help him give back.
“I’ve also come out with my logo, the 14strong logo, and come out with a clothing line, which is just work apparel, which is releasing this month,” Edwards said. “All the proceeds will go to spinal cord foundation, to help with spinal research, to help get other people that have had spinal cord injuries back on their feet. And in the future, I look forward to starting my own foundation.”