Eric Christian looks poised as he sits in front of dozens of teenage faces awaiting his next word.
Eric, however, isn’t the one delivering his words — the spinocerebellar ataxia that he has been living with for 13 years makes it hard for him to speak beyond short bursts.
Instead, his childhood friend and fellow Ellison graduate, Dan Hull, delivers the speech at his side — a speech that Eric sent Hull and his own son, Eric II, for multiple edits before addressing the Eagles at football practice Tuesday.
“I’ve known this guy for a long time, and I’ve known the fight that he has for a long time,” Hull says to the team. “And I know what kind of guy he is. That’s why I’m here today to give this message.”
Yet despite his stoic demeanor, and the typical confidence he exudes from his wheelchair, Eric is nervous.
“(The players are) probably saying to themselves, ‘Who the heck is he?’” Eric later said with a laugh.
But the Eagles, who Eric has watched at every home game for the past 13 years, are very aware of who sits in front of them.
In fact, they are honored to be in his presence.
“That actually is crazy,” Eagle senior linebacker Isaiah Ivey said later. “I really just met someone who started out at Ellison.”
Eric is an Ellison graduate of 1982, the first class to attend Ellison for all four years of high school.
He also played quarterback and cornerback for the first Eagle team to avoid a loss to Killeen, playing the Roos to a 0-0 tie in 1981.
And Eric has been touching lives, and making lifelong friendships, in the city of Killeen ever since.
Two days later, Eric is on the sideline awaiting the coin toss for the 2015 Eagles’ game against rival Killeen.
Eric is the Eagles’ honorary captain, an honor for which he is given a white T-shirt that says “Explosive Power” in green, which he slips on over his navy blue T-shirt that says “I am the strength behind ataxia.”
His friend, Fabrice Sueoka, has on the same shirt and flanks him along with Eric II.
Sueoka is a Killeen graduate of 1982, and Eric II graduated from Ellison in 2008, but neither has been back to Leo Buckley Stadium since graduating.
But returning for this occasion was a no-brainer.
“It’s an honor,” Eric II said, “just to see his impact.”
On the sideline, Eric has already been greeted by former Ellison trainer Tony Dunn and Ellison head football coach Trent Gregory. He is later greeted by one of his former Ellison coaches, Bill Farley, and classmate Tony Gonzales, both of whom stood behind him for his speech Tuesday.
It is a theme for the night — many are touched by his story.
Eric said he and his son had just finished lifting weights and were at a Wendy’s drive thru in 2002 when his voice suddenly left him.
After numerous doctor visits and a battery of tests, Eric was diagnosed with ataxia, a degenerative disease of the nervous system.
Today, he gets around in a wheelchair and his sentences come out in hoarse bursts that sound painful to get out.
Yet Eric says he is not, nor has he ever been, in pain.
“It’s more frustrating,” he said. “Because physically, I’m losing my faculties, but my mind and spirit is still good. Other than that, the most frustrating thing is you know what you want to do, but you can’t do it.”
But Eric still finds a way to do plenty.
‘Life is good to me’
Sueoka, Hull and Eric II stand behind Eric while the Ellison captains stand to his left.
The official hands Eric the game coin, which he flips slightly to the left and way in front of him.
But the errant toss wasn’t because of his condition — Eric said he was just nervous.
“Yes,” he says later with a laugh, “did you see that toss?”
One look at Eric and it isn’t hard to tell he keeps himself in great shape.
Eric II said he does 500-700 push-ups a week.
“A quarter million a year,” Sueoka interjects. “He’s done the math.”
Eric does his best to keep his mind and body sharp, and for the stuff he can’t do, his large circle of family and friends help out.
Gonzales, for example, has taken him to every Ellison home game since he learned of his condition and also installed grab bars in his shower and built a handicap ramp at his home.
“We were always good friends,” Gonzales said. “So when he got hit with the disease I had to step up.”
A family friend, Mary Hernandez Orenstein, helped throw a celebration of life for Eric the previous week at the Shilo Inn, where Eric said 180 showed up to celebrate with him.
He said he has even received donations in the thousands of dollars, one of which was specifically for he and his family to take a trip.
But Eric says he is going to donate part of the proceeds to the National Ataxia Foundation.
After all, he is doing well in spite of his condition.
“It all has to do with being involved with team sports and stuff,” Eric says. “That has kept my attitude positive. Plus, I have a great support system — friends and family — so, life is good to me.
“Life might be slower now, but it’s still all good.”
For Thursday’s festivities, Eric II sports a black T-shirt with the words “It’s all good” emblazoned in big white letters.
It is the same slogan emblazoned on a banner at Eric’s celebration of life.
While Eric II and Seuoku do an interview on his behalf upstairs, Farley stops by the room next to the visitor’s radio booth to see how Eric is doing.
On his way to the booth, Eric was stopped by a Killeen fan whose hair he used to cut.
Before that, he was stopped by Killeen ISD superintendent John Craft.
Contrary to what Eric thought at that Ellison practice, everyone seems to know him.
And Eric II was more than happy to see that in his return to Leo Buckley Stadium.
“It’s good to have that support,” he said. “I’m happy that he has all that support.”
Eric, however, was hoping that his son saw something else Thursday.
“I was glad my son got to see if you treat your friends with respect and you’re loyal to them it’ll last forever,” he said. “Whenever I was giving the message to those players on Tuesday, that’s basically what I wanted to say to them. Have fun, make long-lasting friendships and be respectful to others. Love people and you’ll be surprised the sky is the limit.
“If I can do this in my condition being jacked up in this wheelchair. I said if you’re healthy and able bodied you should be able to do it too.”
Of course, being able to take in Eagle games has helped.
On Thursday, Eric and his son trade war stories like when Eric II dislocated his shoulder against Brownwood or when a blindside sack against Temple left Eric without three of his front teeth.
“It brings back memories,” Eric II said.
But the best part for Eric isn’t a memory.
Because Eric is still making memories with the people he’s met through this game.
“The main thing is that that I had a good time and made good friends from football,” Eric said after his speech.
“(Friends) that’ll last forever, right brother?” Hull said.