'Now he's back to himself': Inside Christion Abercrombie's journey from brain surgery to Atlanta Falcons coaching intern

Christion Abercrombie, four years removed from a traumatic brain injury, spent training camp as a Bill Walsh coaching intern with the Atlanta Falcons. Courtesy of Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Every morning for about three weeks, Christion Abercrombie woke up in his dorm room at the Atlanta Falcons training facility, got dressed and walked to the team's weight room. A smile on his face -- there's always a smile -- he began to work with players.

Then he'd help his boss, Falcons director of strength and conditioning Thomas Stallworth, prepare for practice. During practice, Abercrombie looked around. Thought how he used to play and how this could have been him. But it doesn't sadden him.

Instead, he's happy. Grateful.

That Abercrombie is in the NFL, even for a few weeks as part of the Bill Walsh diversity internship program, is remarkable. That it's his second internship -- the first was with the Tennessee Titans last training camp and this year with Atlanta -- is a sign of his progress.

If the 24-year-old needs a reminder, he can feel the two chains he wears around his neck -- a cross and the No. 6, the number he wore as a linebacker at Tennessee State when his entire world changed.

Or on his cellphone, where he saved a story about his recovery from a traumatic brain injury. Last month, he wasn't looking for anything special. He just wanted to work.

"This is not a sympathy thing. No, he said he wanted to be part of it," Stallworth said. "He wanted to be treated normal. So we treat him that way."

A little under four years ago, this would have seemed impossible after doctors told Abercrombie's parents their son might not survive the night.

ON SEPT. 29, 2018, Abercrombie was in the middle of one of his best games as a middle linebacker for Tennessee State. The Tigers were playing the crosstown SEC team, Vanderbilt, and it was a potential showcase for Abercrombie, a standout high school player in Atlanta who earned a scholarship to Illinois before transferring to TSU.

The how and why of what happened next is unclear.

Abercrombie says he had headaches the week leading up to the Vanderbilt game, "but I just thought it was football." Abercrombie practiced, but "I was popping pain pills the whole week to help." He talked with his parents, Staci and Derrick, in Atlanta, and never indicated anything was wrong.

Christion had headaches before, and he said he remembers telling coaches he was having them. His defensive coordinator, Garry Fisher, told ESPN he didn't recall Abercrombie mentioning it. Even today, Staci said, they aren't positive what, if anything, their son was dealing with that week.

Against Vanderbilt, Christion was doing what he and his coaches hoped. He had five tackles and one quarterback hit.

At the end of the first half, Fisher said, players came to him and told him Christion wasn't speaking clearly. Fisher noticed Christion wasn't reacting like normal. Christion walked to the sideline. Fisher said he told him, "Coach, my head is killing me."

Christion collapsed. Staci said doctors told her that her son suffered multiple strokes -- possibly during the game -- and a severe brain injury. He was rushed to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he underwent emergency brain surgery -- a craniotomy removing part of the left side of his skull -- within an hour of collapsing.

Police escorted Christion's parents to the field. Staci and Derrick had no idea what was going on. Christion had a history of dehydration. Maybe it was that. Then they arrived at the hospital and saw administrators for both Vanderbilt and TSU in the waiting room.

"A lot of people were there," Staci said. "And I knew then that something was not really right."

THE LAST THING Christion remembers is making a tackle. At the hospital, Christion was in a coma postsurgery, where Staci and Derrick spent every day for weeks -- Derrick never leaving the hospital grounds and sleeping in his son's hotel room every night -- feeling it was "my duty" not to leave his son's side. Initially, doctors told Christion's parents he had less than a 50% chance of surviving.

They prayed their son would recover. The first few days, at least, they weren't sure.

Progress was slow. There would be a blink here or a movement there. Then, hope. Derrick asked Christion to squeeze his hand. He did. Derrick still doesn't know if it was voluntary or reactionary to the pain, but in that moment, it was great.

College football players honored Christion with "AB6" on their cleats. Titans coach Mike Vrabel showed up to the hospital, held Christion's hand and Christion squeezed it, beginning a friendship. Now-Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell, Christion's friend and high school teammate, reached out. One of Staci's last tweets before her son's injury wished Terrell luck before a Clemson game.

Those messages kept them going. By Oct. 9, Christion responded to videos his parents showed him of people praying for him, squeezed Staci's hand and counted on command using his fingers.

On Oct. 17, Christion was discharged from Vanderbilt and transported to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the country's top brain rehabilitation specialization centers, to continue his recovery.

CHRISTION HAD TO RELEARN how to walk and talk, eat and use the restroom. His memory was shaky.

Less than a week after arriving in Atlanta, as Derrick was moving him around in the bed, Christion grunted. Derrick asked him if he could speak. Abercrombie whispered, "Yes." "And from that day on," Staci said, "he continued to talk."

It was another sign maybe Christion would recover as he started occupational therapy. And the signs kept coming. He started walking and doing math problems.

Concerns began falling away. Friends, including Terrell, visited the hospital after Christion had a cranioplasty in December to repair the part of the skull that had to be taken out during the initial surgery. They saw videos of him getting stronger.

By the time Christion was discharged on Dec. 21, 2018, he didn't need a wheelchair.

"He went back up to the third floor, like he had just left for the weekend," Staci said. "He knew exactly where his room was. And we never did move it."

CHRISTION FINALLY UNDERSTOOD what happened a couple of months after returning home. His parents and doctors explained it before, but it didn't stick. Sitting with Derrick, he searched his name on YouTube.

"All these videos were coming up that I had a brain injury," Christion said. "I didn't understand that until I got home. It was a crazy feeling.

"Why am I not in school? It was crazy."

Christion started to cry. The gravity of it all overwhelmed him. Christion said his dad sat there, told him it was going to be OK.

The Abercrombies believed and soon enough, it showed. In April 2019, Christion stood on stage and announced the Titans' fifth-round pick during the NFL draft in Nashville -- linebacker D'Andre Walker, coincidentally a former youth football teammate.

Christion reenrolled in online classes at Tennessee State in the summer of 2019. His parents, at that time, didn't feel comfortable sending him back to Nashville. Staci and Derrick hired tutors to help him. A sports science major at Illinois, he majored in interdisciplinary studies at Tennessee State.

Christion finished his degree at home and graduated in May 2021.

"It was a milestone for us, just to see him earn his degree after all of the obstacles he faced," Staci said. "He was still able to do it. It was amazing."

Now graduated, Christion needed to find a job.

THE ABERCROMBIES BEGAN the Christion Abercrombie Foundation to help bring awareness to traumatic brain injuries and support for those who endure their lasting effects. It has become a passion because of the help they received during their son's recovery.

"I want to be there for other people who went through what I went through," Christion said. "People who have traumatic brain injuries, sometimes they don't recover as fast as I did. So I want to help them out, help them get better."

Christion's recovery changed his personality. Before the injury, he was quiet and shy. Now he's consistently gregarious and talks to everyone. Abercrombie believes the injury "has made me a better me." And it has helped fit with the jobs he has ended up landing.

Christion wanted to remain in sports. He loves football, even after all he has been through.

He found a job as an instructional paraprofessional in the physical education department at Feldwood Elementary in College Park, Georgia. Kids being kids, they'll ask him what happened to his head. So he shares his story of recovery from his brain injury. At the end, they usually tell him they're glad he's still around.

"To tell you the truth, the first day I went in I thought it wasn't going to be that fun but it's one of the best jobs ever," Abercrombie said. "I love it. I love the kids. I can't complain. It's not a hard job. I have fun."

His NFL dreams stuck, too. He'd rather be playing, but along the way he developed relationships with Vrabel and other Titans staffers.

Tennessee hired Christion as a strength-and-conditioning intern last training camp -- telling him in a video Vrabel sent that played during a fundraiser Christion attended.

It was the first time Christion had been on his own since the injury. He lives with his parents in Smyrna, Georgia, and one of his few remaining restrictions is self-imposed. He doesn't drive because of issues with peripheral vision on his right side.

Included in the internship was working the opening preseason game -- in Atlanta against his hometown Falcons. The two teams he had been closest to -- the Titans who embraced him and the Falcons who he grew up rooting for -- in one building.

"That was crazy, man," Derrick said. "It kind of let you know, you can have dreams and think you're going to make it to the NFL one way and you make it another way. That's how he felt about it.

"It doesn't have to always happen the way you want it to happen or thought it was going to happen, but it's happening."

FALCONS COACH ARTHUR SMITH knew Christion's story from Smith's time in Tennessee and briefly met him at a practice.

When applications for this year's Bill Walsh internship program came through, Smith saw Christion's familiar face. Vrabel reached out and vouched for Christion. Smith went to the team's Walsh program coordinators, special teams coordinator Marquice Williams and Sarah Hogan, coordinator of head coach operations, and asked that they interview him.

"It's our job to find great coaches out there," Williams said. "And minus whatever circumstances happened, we always want to give people an opportunity to grow on and off the field."

Christion did well in the interview and landed an internship under Stallworth in the strength-and-conditioning department. When Terrell heard his friend might have a chance, he texted Smith, imploring him to hire Christion. Terrell didn't know they already had.

When Terrell saw Abercrombie on the field and in the weight room during Christion's internship, which ended after the first preseason game, he thought of his friend's journey. What being there meant for his friend, who one day wants to be an NFL linebackers coach or defensive coordinator.

"Yeah, you always look, like, there's definitely an angel," Terrell said. "It's crazy how bad it was and now he's back to himself, laughing, right where we left off."

Christion's attitude permeated the building. Smith called his energy "contagious." Whenever he finished a conversation with Christion, Smith discarded whatever outside annoyances he had and smiled. Christion's presence made Stallworth better appreciate his own children, the oldest of whom is about to go off to college.

"Thinking about what his parents have had to sacrifice for him to get to this point in life," Stallworth said. "So it's not just Christion, but his whole family.

"Like, the love, the support system, his appreciation for life puts everything in perspective for anybody."