“I wanted to be a Redhound.”
That was the dream of 12-year-old Travis Freeman in the early 1990s — but achieving that dream would take Freeman down a dark tunnel from which he’d never — ever — return.
Freeman, now 33, stood describing his path into the darkness as the guest speaker at the November luncheon of the Southern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Thursday.
Freeman, an adjunct professor at the University of the Cumberlands and president of The Freeman Foundation, was once the star of a national media frenzy concerning his school days in Corbin.
Particularly, that he was completely blind yet playing an active role as a center for the Redhounds’ football team.
But long before the frenzy, according to Dr. Freeman, came the headaches.
He told chamber members that he would frequently get headaches as a child — but this one particular Wednesday at the end of June in 1993 he awoke with what he called “a severe migraine.”
“I was the typical All-American kid — I was involved in athletics and academics,” Freeman said Thursday. “I suffered from headaches as a child — but this (migraine) was different.”
“It would not go away.”
Freeman said that migraine headache lasted for nine straight days.
“Everything I did made it hurt worse,” he said, adding that light, sounds and talking even pained him.
That’s when he was taken to the doctor — for the first time.
“The doctors all said it’s just a headache,” Freeman explained. “It would go away.”
On the tenth day — it did.
Freeman said he awoke that day free of the headache — but his left eye was beginning to hurt.
His parents decided to watch for the day — but when his mother came home from work, she looked at his eye.
It was beginning to swell, he said — and it worsened.
Freeman said that when he awoke on Saturday, July 3, 1993, his eye still hurt and was even more swollen — and the area around the eye was also beginning to swell.
That sent the family back to the doctor — and that doctor “took a deep look” into Freeman’s head, finding a severe infection.
Freeman was immediately transported to the University of Kentucky Medical Center for further testing — where the then 12-year-old underwent CT scans, MRIs, and even a spinal tap, to find the source of the growing infection.
Finally, doctors found their answer.
Freeman was suffering from cavernous sinus thrombosis.
According to the website WebMD.com, “Cavernous sinus thrombosis is typically caused by an infection that has spread beyond the face, sinuses, or teeth. Less commonly, infections of the ears or eyes may cause cavernous sinus thrombosis.”
“To contain the infection, the body’s immune system creates a clot to prevent bacteria or other pathogens from spreading,” states the website. “The clot increases pressure inside the brain. This pressure can damage the brain and may ultimately cause death.”
And according to Freeman, it nearly did in his case.
He told chamber members that approximately 70 percent of those diagnosed with this condition ultimately die.
The bulk of those who do survive — they do so with little brain activity, Freeman added.
Freeman’s head continued to swell, and he said that he spent three days with a 106-degree temperature.
“Literally, I was on my deathbed,” Freeman said to chamber members. “But God was not through with my life.”
There was light at the end of this tunnel — but Freeman would never see it. “(The doctors) saved my life — but I would not see the light of day again,” he said.
Freeman said that he ended up being the second person in the world to have the illness only take away the eyesight.
In roughly 48 hours, Freeman said he went from 20-20 vision to complete blindness — then spent 17 days recuperating at UK Medical Center.
“Those 17 days changed everything about me,” Freeman said. “It changed everything about how I lived my life — I didn’t know what to do — I didn’t know what to think — and I didn’t know how to act.”
His family had been given some direction in finding help to cope with Freeman’s new life challenge — so a phone call was made to the Kentucky School for the Blind.
And one of the first things told to his mother, according to Freeman, was that she no longer had a son.
“She said that I would have to live life in a dark, dark world,” he said, adding that part of that included his mother no longer being a part of his life. “(My mother) would no longer have a son.”
He told chamber members that the family “assumed what she said was true,” because they were trying to help Freeman cope.
So the family visited the School for the Blind — only to be told that Freeman simply didn’t belong there.
“(They said) I belonged at home — in Corbin,” Freeman said, adding that with his family and friends he had a “good support network.”
So what happened next? Freeman became the first blind student ever to grace the halls of any Corbin city school — and he did so as a seventh grader at Corbin Middle School.
“It was not easy,” he said. “I had to learn to live life all over again.”
But instead of letting the pressure of learning a new way to live take over — Freeman said he said simple goals to achieve for himself.
By the end of his seventh grade year, everything seemed to be getting back on track — “but something was missing.”
Freeman explained that not only had he been raised around football — he’d played in both fifth and sixth grades.
So, instead of convincing him to give up the dream of football — Freeman’s family approached the coaching staff and asked if he could at least have some part on the football team. He wouldn’t expect to play.
But the Corbin coach said no — that if Freeman wanted to be a part of the team, he’d play too.
And play he did — in August of 1994, Freeman became the first blind person in America to take his place among sighted football players on the field.
He was the Redhounds’ center.
That was then — but Freeman told chamber members that a second life-changing event began with a telephone call about five or six years ago.
The woman on the other end of the line was writing a screenplay with her son — and hoped to do so using Freeman as the screenplay’s inspiration.
But Freeman never expected it to get past that phone call — however, this year, more than 600 theaters across the country shared Freeman’s story on the big screen with the release of “23 Blast” in October.
Freeman said the name of the movie came from an old football play — and that the movie itself “was loosely inspired by the events in my life.”
He said there were three things that supported him through that time — faith, family and football.
Freeman earned a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctorate of Philosophy degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Besides his adjunct position at UC, he also serves as president of The Freeman Foundation.
He shared with chamber members that the foundation is “in the process” of acquiring nonprofit status.
What is The Freeman Foundation?
Freeman said that his foundation was set up to assist others in learning one thing — that disability is not inability.
“We all have challenges and obstacles to overcome,” Freeman said. “Don’t let your circumstances define you as a person.”
For more information on The Freeman Foundation, visit www.travisfreeman.org.