Imagine: You’re twelve years old, and you wake up one morning and you’re completely blind. Now, imagine finding the courage to rise up and continue following your dream to play high school football. If it sounds like the stuff of movies you’re on the right track; 23 Blast opens on 600 screens nationwide on October 24, and the movie is loosely based on the life of Travis Freeman, the Corbin, KY native who was stricken with a severe sinus infection and bounces back to become the first blind football player in the country. I caught up with Travis to talk faith, football, and overcoming incredible odds.
Take me back to when it all happened. When did you know something was wrong?
Travis Freeman: I had a migraine headache for nine straight days. My parents took me to a couple of different doctors, and they said it was just a headache and that it would go away just as quickly as it had come. Well, I woke up on the morning of the tenth day and the headache was gone, but my left eye was beginning to hurt. Then it began to swell. I went to the eye doctor, and he was looking for an eye injury but didn’t find anything wrong. He said to go home and put some ice on it, and it should be better by morning.
I woke up that Saturday, July 3, and the eye was still hurting, and the swelling was worse. That’s when I went back to the eye doctor and he looked behind my eye, and that’s when he saw the infection. They rushed me to the University of Kentucky hospital, and admitted me into the ER and began running all kinds of different tests. My temperature spiked at that point, and my head continued to swell. They eventually found out that I had Cavernous Sinus Thrombosis, which is an extremely rare but an extremely deadly form of a sinus infection. The doctor said that 70% of the people who have what I had die, and of the 30% that survive, only a very small percentage have normal brain activity afterward. I was only the second case in the world where the infection only affected the eye. So in less than 48 hours I went from perfect 20/20 vision to no vision at all.
You grew up in Corbin, KY, which is where the movie is based. 23 Blast focuses, in part, on the relationship between you and your friend, Jerry Baker. Please tell me about both.
Travis Freeman: Growing up in Corbin was a great experience. I had a great family and church life, and God truly blessed me in that way.
Jerry was a friend of mine growing up. When I lost my sight, I didn’t want any of my friends to come to the hospital to see me. One day there was a knock at the door and it was Jerry. He hung out with me all day, and helped me understand that my friends were still going to accept me, and that everything was going to be okay. Jerry was very instrumental in getting me out of my shell that first year. Once we got into high school, Jerry started going in a different direction. He wasn’t a believer, and he got wrapped up in drugs and alcohol. A few years ago he was involved in a roofing accident and was paralyzed. He didn’t take care of himself and died a few years later as a result of complications from the accident. So it’s really a story of two friends and how they deal with tragedy and adversity differently. I looked at the challenge and disability that came into my life and decided to overcome it, and, unfortunately, Jerry went down the path of feeling sorry for himself.
Tell me about your high school coach.
Travis Freeman: Coach Farris was amazing. He believed in me before I believed in myself. My parents knew that I loved football, and that I wanted to be a part of the team again, so they went to Coach Farris and told him that they wanted me to be a part of the team. They stressed that they didn’t expect me to play, but that it would be a good way to work out and get some exercise. Coach Farris simply refused to those conditions. He told them that if Travis Freeman was going to be associated with his team, then he was going to play. He convinced my parents that he had a plan that would work. He told them that I’d be the center, that the team would help me to and from the huddle, and that they would line me up over the ball. And then, once the ball was snapped, I would make contact with my opponent and it would be just like anyone else blocking until the play was over. So, in August of 1994, I stepped onto a football field as America’s first blind football player.
What position did you play before becoming blind?
Travis Freeman: In the movie I’m portrayed as a running back who becomes a center after I lose my sight. The real story is that I was a lineman the entire time. When I lost my sight, I moved from tackle to center.
What were some of the challenges you faced after being stricken?
Travis Freeman: The entire first year was a challenge. I was going through everything your normal seventh grader goes through, plus my body was adapting to the trauma that it had just experienced. I had to learn to live life all over again, because everything that I had done for the first twelve years of my life meant nothing at that point. I had to learn how to walk again, eat by myself, dress myself, read braille, study…I had to learn to live life all over again. So it was a matter of setting goals, achieving those goals, and moving on to the next one.
Faith is important to you. Please tell me about your faith, and how it sustained you.
Travis Freeman: The grace of God brought me through it. I don’t remember this story, because I was on a lot of medication at the time, but my parents say that when I lost my sight I told them that I was going to see again. And if not, then I couldn’t wait to see what God had in store for me. That was the attitude that I had from the very beginning. I never questioned it. I never asked why this had happened to me, and never asked God why He had done this to me. I just embraced the fact that God is good, God is in control, and God has my best interests in mind. I would not be where I am today without faith.
What was it like playing blind?
Travis Freeman: My teammates were great. They embraced it from the very beginning. They dealt with it, and it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for them. We never told the other team that I was blind. They never knew, and we didn’t tell the officials. We wanted it to be normal, and we didn’t want anyone doing anything any differently just because I was blind.
Tell me about the film.
Travis Freeman: My autobiography, Lights Out – Living in a Sightless World, was just released, and the movie 23 Blast will be released on 600 screens across the country on October 24. It’s just been a fun experience. It’s not the Travis Freeman story, but it is a movie loosely inspired by the events in my life.
I was approached several years ago by the lady who eventually wrote the screenplay. She said she wanted to base it on parts of my life. Well, she came back a few years later, and she said that she’d lined up a producer and a director, and that she was coming to Corbin to film this movie. So in April, 2012, they filmed 23 Blast in 23 days. And now, here it is, about to be released on 600 screens nationwide. I really believe God’s hand is at work in this project.
What message do you want to share with those who watch the movie?
Travis Freeman: I want people to be inspired to overcome the obstacles that they face in their lives. I want them to understand that disability doesn’t equal inability. We all have disabilities and obstacles in our lives that we have to overcome, but those obstacles are not insurmountable mountains. I just want people to be encouraged and inspired, and to realize that whatever their circumstances, they don’t have to be defined by them.