The last time Army Col. Greg Gadson was in Tennessee, residents of the Volunteer State were happy to see him go.
In 1986, Gadson played outside linebacker for the U.S. Military Academy's Black Knights. That season the cadets stunned the University of Tennessee with a late score for a win, 25-21.
But in his return, 27 years later, the soldier on Wednesday received two standing ovations from a crowd of more than 500 people at a luncheon for Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation.
Siskin brought Gadson to talk about challenges he faced after losing both legs above the knee following a roadside bomb blast in Iraq on May 7, 2007.
Gadson joked that he'd been "run out of Tennessee" and hadn't been back since beating the Vols.
The 11th annual Possibilities Luncheon raised money to pay for otherwise unfunded adult rehabilitation services. Such services are not covered under Medicaid in Tennessee, said Siskin spokeswoman Lindsay Wyatt.
For the past fiscal year, charitable donations covered more than $750,000 worth of care for 21 patients at the hospital.
The colonel spent Wednesday morning touring Siskin's facilities adjacent to Erlanger hospital. He saw patients doing leg lifts, pushing resistance bands and working on simple tasks such as grasping objects with damaged hands.
Gadson recalled that immediately after he was injured, doctors worked to save his legs but were forced to amputate the left leg once he returned to the United States.
He chose to have the right leg amputated after surgeons deemed it wouldn't function.
In the weeks that followed, he said he reached his "rock bottom" moment and wasn't sure how to start again.
"I tried to quit. I tried to say this was more than I could take," Gadson told the audience.
"But I couldn't accept that," he said. "Because that wasn't what I'd become."
Fred Obear, retired University of Tennessee at Chattanooga chancellor and a member of Siskin's board of directors, said having Gadson come to speak was an easy choice.
"The fact that he saw hardships, the difficulties in his life that he overcame" made him a good speaker for the work Siskin does, Obear said.
During the year and a half as he recovered and worked to walk on artificial legs, his West Point football teammates began calling.
Mike Sullivan, a teammate of Gadson's and then wide receivers coach for the NFL Giants, asked the colonel to visit his team.
It was the third game of the 2007 season. The Giants had lost the first two games. Gadson talked with the team about belief and overcoming adversity.
They won the game and continued on to play in the 2008 Super Bowl.
In a video played before his talk, Michael Strahan, former Giants defensive end, said he would see Gadson on the sidelines during games and ask himself, "How can I say that I'm hurt or I'm injured, I'm tired. How can I say I don't have any fight left in me?"
The Giants upset the heavily favored and undefeated New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl.
Gadson stayed in contact with the team and was awarded his own Super Bowl rings following the team's 2008 and 2012 victories.
During that time he became the first wounded warrior to head an Army post and the first commander over the Army's Wounded Warrior program. Now he's commanding officer of Fort Belvoir, Va. The fort houses aviation, infantry, engineer, logistics and intelligence units.
Gadson ended his 20-minute talk by exhorting the audience not to take a day for granted but to do what the Army taught him to do -- fight hard and be the best he could be every day.
"I'm freer now without my legs than I was when I had my legs," he said. "I'm the only one who's going to limit my abilities to take on life."
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...