Calling an Audible
With some help from Shepherd Center, Christion Abercrombie finds new purpose beyond the gridiron.
Christion Abercrombie, 22, was an ideal middle linebacker on the football field. Christion always anchored his team’s defense — from age 5 in South Fulton, Georgia, Little League ball to his time as an All-State standout at Westlake High School in metro Atlanta and through his brief career at Tennessee State University.
He didn’t talk much, but his teammates followed his lead. And his opponents were always aware of his presence. Christion was strong, fast and always ran through the ball carrier — another way of saying he was a player who rarely missed his mark.
On September 29, 2018, Christion’s skills were on full display as his Tennessee State Tigers sought an upset of the SEC’s Vanderbilt University. In the first half, Christion racked up five tackles and kept consistent pressure on Vandy’s quarterback. Then, just before halftime — following a seemingly routine play — Christion came off the field with a headache. Soon, he collapsed on the sidelines. He was rushed to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where doctors had Christion in emergency surgery within 30 minutes due to a traumatic brain injury.
“Those immediate hours were so confusing and so devastating,” says Christion’s mom, Staci. “We were just praying he would recover, and we were so thankful for the quick response on the field and at Vanderbilt.”
In all, Christion survived a series of strokes, multiple operations and two weeks using a ventilator to help him breathe. Three weeks after his injury, and still in a low-level state of consciousness, Christion arrived at Shepherd Center as a patient in the Disorders of Consciousness Program.
“We arrived on a Wednesday,” Staci says. “By Friday, he was on the rehab floor, and therapists were working with him all day. That was such a turning point. It was like our prayers had been answered.
“Dr. [Anna Choo] Elmers and the entire care team worked beyond expectations. They treated us like family. And they weren’t just working with Christion. They also helped us cope with how much our world had changed.”
Over the next two months of physical, speech and occupational therapy, Christion’s mind began to awaken. In November 2018, during his inpatient stay at Shepherd Center, he made a noise for the first time.
“My dad heard me, and he said, ‘Christion, can you talk?’ I just said, ‘Yes,’” Christion recalls.
From then on, his memory steadily returned — painfully, at first, as he reckoned with his injury and the loss of football. But Christion embraced his rehabilitation, going four days a week to Beyond Therapy®, an intensive neurological rehabilitation program at Shepherd Center that integrates physical therapy and exercise physiology. His memory, speech and motor skills continued to improve. Along the way, his confidence resurfaced, too.
A NEW PURPOSE
As Christion’s voice returned, he decided to share it with the world. The once reserved and soft-spoken student-athlete challenged himself to do interviews with the news media for the sake of reaching others in similar situations. He and his family also started the Christion Abercrombie Foundation to educate others about traumatic brain injuries, especially those that happen to student-athletes.
“Ever since Christion’s injury, families going through the same journey have been reaching out to us,” Staci says. “We were blessed to have Shepherd Center. Not everyone does. Our goal is to grow this foundation nationwide and become advocates for the families who are supporting their children through life-changing injuries.”
For Christion, whose identity was so connected to football, the speaking opportunities and his foundation have given him a new purpose.
“I’m honored to have the platform,” he says. “I questioned how I could handle this, but God has given me the strength. I want to be known for helping others, giving back. I want to be an example to others to live life and keep pushing through adversity.”
He already is.
On December 19, 2018, Christion took a special day trip from Shepherd Center to Westlake High School. There, the city of South Fulton celebrated Christion Abercrombie Day to recognize how much he’d inspired his hometown. In 2020, Christion received the National Football Federation’s annual Bonnie Sloan Courage Award. And while his playing days may be behind him, Christion still has his sights set on a potential career in football as a coach or front office leader. He’s already making connections.
When Christion was first injured, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel visited him in the hospital. The visit turned into an ongoing friendship — and led to a prime-time highlight.
On April 27, 2019, Christion attended the NFL Draft. He wasn’t there as a fan; he was there to announce the Titans’ fifth-round pick in front of a large crowd in Nashville. And the pick he called out? It just so happened to be one of his childhood friends from South Fulton — former University of Georgia football star D’Andre Walker.
“I didn’t know it would be him until they handed me the card,” Christion says. “We played Little League together and played against each other in high school. We got to take pictures on stage with our families, and when we talked afterward, we were just screaming and going crazy.”
This spring, Christion aims to graduate from Tennessee State with a bachelor of science degree in interdisciplinary studies. No matter where the future leads from there, his mom is confident he’ll be ready for whatever opportunities — and challenges — come his way.
“Christion is a God-fearing man, the happiest person in the world now,” Staci says. “He wakes up with a smile. He doesn’t waste moments; he lives life fully every day. He’s just so thankful, and to see him live in this moment after what he’s gone through, it gives me life, too.”
Written by Phillip Jordan
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.