Kevin Shorter donned a burnt orange Texas hat and black T-shirt, gathered his big family in the Newton High School library and enjoyed a day he'll never forget.
For Cedric Collins, it was a stylish look as always. A large, checkered bow tie and white dress shirt topped with a navy collar sweater and a white Texas A&M ball cap. Anyone who's spent time with the cornerback from Dallas' Skyline High School will tell you he dresses to the nines, as he did to celebrate signing day.
The two high school seniors are going different places, yet what they've signed up for appears all too similar.
The letters of intent that Shorter and Collins signed and faxed on Wednesday typically signify a binding promise for a future. For these two recruits, there can be no guarantee.
They've never met, but they now have plenty in common. Shorter and Collins, once coveted and touted recruits, have both been told that due to spinal cord conditions, they'll never play football again.
This is the story of how the game they love was taken away from them, though the better tale might be what comes next.
Leader of his class
Collins knew where he'd end up a long time ago. He was the first member of the Aggies' 2014 recruiting class, committing to Texas A&M all the way back on Aug. 22, 2012, before his junior season even began.
Little did he know his decision to commit then, before friends and family 533 days ago at the Eastside Church of Christ in Forney, Texas, would be a life-changing one for reasons other than football.
Collins was enjoying his junior season and helping his Skyline teammates advance in the state playoffs when, on the night of Nov. 16, 2012, unbeknownst to Collins, his family or Texas A&M for that matter, he would play what proved to be his final football game.
That night, Collins left Skyline's win over Plano with an injury that initially didn't appear serious. After a next-day trip to the doctor, the Collins family was advised to seek further evaluation because, as his father Cedric Collins Sr. put it, "something didn't look right."
His next trip was to see orthopedic surgeon Dr. Andrew Dossett at the W.B. Carrell Memorial Clinic in Dallas, and his evaluation led to a troubling discovery. Collins had a rare congenital fusion of vertebrae termed Klippel-Feil Syndrome.
Collins had this condition all his life, yet he showed no symptoms growing up. By playing football, he was putting himself at a heightened risk for paralysis.
"He told us, 'This could happen or may not happen, but it's a risk that you'll take [if you play],'" recalled the elder Collins. "'You just never know. A wrong hit and you could be paralyzed. I recommend that you not play again.'"
Meanwhile, in College Station, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was dealing with a remarkably similar situation. One day after Collins left the playoff game with his injury, A&M freshman defensive end Michael Richardson exited a win over Sam Houston State and complained of neck pain.
Tests and X-rays revealed a cervical spine injury. Richardson, who hails from the Dallas Metroplex just as Collins does, underwent successful surgery, but hasn't played since. He's now a student assistant coach for the Aggies. Though he won't suit up again, he's no less a member of the team than before.
And like Collins, he learned this game can be taken away in an instant. Nearly 11 months later, another touted recruit would learn the same lesson.
In an instant, an injury
Daejah Dennis showed up to East Chambers High in Southeast Texas on Oct. 11, 2013, late but just in time. Newton trailed 17-15 in the second quarter. She pulled out her cell phone and began recording the kickoff.
The ball bounced near the 20 and rolled. Shorter ran to scoop it up. Ahead of him, a teammate ran backward to block an oncoming defender. They collided at the 23.
The blocker's knee slammed into Shorter's neck, right below his jaw. His head snapped back. By the time Newton coach W.T. Johnston got to him, Shorter wasn't conscious or breathing.
"In 27 years of coaching, that was as scared as I've ever been with a kid getting hurt," Johnston said.
"He just laid there," said Dennis, Shorter's girlfriend of one year. "I dropped my phone and went into shock."
Shorter remembers nothing about this. His memory begins with waking up in a Beaumont hospital and being told he had a mild concussion and pinched nerves. Doctors gave him medicine and sent him home.
For the next 36 hours, the future Longhorn was in excruciating pain. His mother joked that even the wind hurt. When Shorter awoke Sunday, he said, his arms were completely locked up. He couldn't move them.
After church, his family went to the hospital in Jasper, and doctors put him on an ambulance to Houston.
He'd spend the next six days in a Houston hospital bed, more mad than upset. Texas coach Mack Brown called a few days in to assure Shorter he had nothing to worry about. The Longhorns were going to honor his scholarship no matter how bad the injury.
And it was bad. Shorter had suffered a bruised spinal cord. He was fortunate his lower body was unaffected, but the damage was serious. Unbeknownst to his family, Shorter was born with a narrow spinal column, and the trauma had led to swelling and bruising.
But the prognosis was initially promising. When Shorter left the hospital that Friday, he believed he'd be out four weeks and might return during the playoffs.
"I was trying to get back out there and play, that's what I was trying to do," Shorter said. "I was ready to play again."
A return trip to Houston for a checkup weeks later dashed those hopes. The doctors gave their verdict: His playing days were over. They recommended he give up football.
"They were saying if I get another hit like that, if I do try to play at the next level, I'd possibly be paralyzed," he said. "That's how they were putting it."
Monique Shorter says her son never cries. He did on the ride home. She was bawling, too. She remembers having to stop at a gas station on the 150-mile drive back to Newton.
"And he said, 'Momma, I didn't want to hear that. I didn't want to hear nothing about playing football no more,'" she recalled. "I cried all the way home. Reality set in."
After a shock, a reassurance
The hard part for the Collins family was understanding it all.
Cedric played football throughout his youth with this condition. Suddenly he was being told he could risk losing movement of his limbs if he continued to play the sport he'd poured so much into, the sport that held the key to his future at Texas A&M.
That brought the next concern: telling the Texas A&M coaching staff. Would Sumlin honor Collins' scholarship? Would he still be able to go to A&M? Or would it all fall apart as Collins' life changed forever?
As soon as Collins and his father left Dossett's office, they phoned receivers coach David Beaty, the man who recruited Collins and is in charge of the Dallas area for the Aggies' recruiting.
"The first thing I told them was, 'Listen, do not worry about Texas A&M or anything that has to do with your scholarship right now,'" Beaty said. "'Don't worry about that.' I felt very confident, knowing Coach Sumlin like I do and the family man that he is and what he stands for.
"I felt like Coach Sumlin would do everything he could to make sure he took care of that kid. So I wanted to put them at ease with that pretty quickly."
Shortly thereafter, Beaty informed the head coach of the situation and Sumlin didn't hesitate.
"Commitment is a two-way street," Sumlin said Wednesday. "His family believed in us early in his career and I just thought it was important that we showed them the same type of commitment that they showed us from the beginning."
Receiving Sumlin's support was a relief, especially for Collins himself.
"I was just so worried about not being able to go to Texas A&M," Collins said. "It was very relieving."
All the while, Collins showed his appreciation for Texas A&M's belief in him by doing some recruiting work for the Aggies. The highly-rated recruit talked up the Aggies' SEC success on his Twitter account and reached out to undecided recruits, encouraging them to give Aggieland a look.
"He did a great job of communicating with people in the Dallas area," Beaty said. "He started reaching out to Armani Watts and they became friends. Even Dylan Sumner-Gardner, before he flipped to Boise State, they were all friends. They all traveled down together. Nick Harvey, too, Cedric was really close with him. [Kealvin] Tank Davis, him as well.
"He was influential not only in this class, but in the 2013 class, too. He's such a personable kid and he developed relationships at a young age, and that definitely helped us."
The way his father sees it, Collins and Texas A&M seem to be a perfect match.
"I think there's something big in store for him at A&M," Cedric Sr. said. "If there wasn't, he would have never committed that early. I think it was meant for him to go to A&M. I really do."
A star's new reality
Newton, Texas, is nothing like Dallas. It's a town with 2,500 residents and a "Hoosiers"-like devotion to their Class 2A football team. Shorter was their superstar.
The do-everything tailback/receiver/defensive back nearly chose A&M but said he felt more at home at Texas. Shorter felt plenty comfortable in Johnston's wing-T offense, too, putting up more than 4,600 total yards and 69 touchdowns in three years.
And then on one play, one freak accident, it was all taken away.
"It makes me sick every time I look at him," Johnston said. "I wish there was something I could do for him."
Not long after Shorter was told his career was over, he went to Austin to meet with UT doctors. They offered a similar recommendation. Texas still stood by Shorter, even after its coaching change. He'd get a free education and chance to help out as a student coach.
Shorter, in his anger, was ready to throw it all away. For weeks, he contemplated skipping college and going to work, maybe on an oil rig.
"If I can't play football, I didn't want to have nothing to do with school," he said. "I believed them, but in the back of my mind, I knew I was going to play again. I've always had that in the back of my mind."
His family convinced him to keep going. They still do. Throughout these past four months, Shorter has refused to accept that this is the end of his football career.
He's hoping he can undergo spinal surgery in the next year, redshirt this season and resume his career in 2015. Is that truly possible and feasible? The Shorters don't know. His new coach is urging patience.
"What we are going to do, I think, with Kevin is when he gets here, the doctors are going to re-evaluate him and then I think I'm going to just go off of what our doctors say," Texas coach Charlie Strong said.
Different levels of acceptance
Shorter and Collins arrived at the same place on Wednesday, signing with the universities that stood by them. But that's where the similarities end, where their paths once again diverge.
What are they signing up for? College is supposed to be a time when a kid finds himself. Through their trials, Shorter and Collins were forced to do so long before they arrive on campus.
Collins has had more than a year to cope with what he's lost. He puts on a brave face and he makes the best of it. He might not truly find acceptance, though, until later this year.
Once he's made the move to College Station, his new life -- as the young football coach, not the player, just like Richardson -- will begin.
"Everything that happens doesn't necessarily happen for a bad reason," Collins said.
For Shorter, acceptance will take time. His family and coach see a maturation in progress, but his pain is still too fresh.
He'll continue to cling to the dream of playing football again. He's done with physical therapy, back in shape and preparing for track season. He says this is the start of the comeback, not the end of the road.
"Maybe I'm just crazy," he said. "I put in all the hard work to get to where I want to be, and now it's trying to go down the drain? No. Not happening."