Jackie Lithgow got out of his wheelchair at the starting line and began walking.
He didn't think about the steps he was taking last weekend at the Flyers Charities 5K race. He just walked, and looked like anybody else walking, flanked by his parents and sister and grandmother and other family and friends, and that was the beauty of it.
After a first few steps, the 20-year-old stopped to do a little dance move - what his parents might call the twist - right there in the middle of Pattison Avenue because he was happy and because he could.
"Woo-woo!" he sang out.
His mother, Lisa Lithgow, who had spent 275 nights in a row away from home, many on a cot next to her son's hospital bed, wiped tears from her eyes.
"This is such an amazing day," she said.
On Feb. 23, 2014, Jackie Lithgow, a freshman at Bloomsburg University, tried to break up a fight after four football players from Kutztown University crashed a party at a fraternity he was about to pledge. Angel Cruz, a 185-pound fullback, punched Jackie, who fell backward, cracking his skull on the curb. Cruz is serving time for assault.
Physicians at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., removed the top of Jackie's skull to make room for his swelling brain. Weeks later, after an infection, his cranium was opened again.
For months, Jackie couldn't speak, stand, sit, or swallow. Every part of his brain was injured. He spent more than nine months in hospitals - mostly Magee Rehab in Philadelphia - before finally going home to Carlisle last Thanksgiving, a story The Inquirer chronicled.
Back at home, he still couldn't take a step on his own and needed a feeding tube. His left hand was perpetually clenched in a fist. He couldn't say more than a few words. He had blurry vision.
But between being back at home and going to therapy daily in Hershey, he improved significantly by summer.
"I'm walking 5,000 steps a day now," Jackie said as he walked the 5K course, stopping to pose with a Flyers cheerleader. "I'm typing 28 words a minute. I'm going back to Bloomsburg next semester to take one class."
"And what are some of the other goals you've reached?" prompted his father, Jim.
"We got rid of the stair lift. I walk up the steps myself."
"And the wheelchair ramp out front?" Jim asked.
"Gone!" said Jackie.
He practices yoga, which helps with his flexibility, balance, and breathing. He's eagerly anticipating the return of his girlfriend, who went to Boiling Springs High School with him, and is taking a semester abroad.
Jackie's mother attributes his progress to excellent medical care, her son's determination, and the family's faith. "So many people have prayed for him," she said.
Jackie is a big Flyers fan, a passion he inherited from his father. Even before leaving Magee in November for home, the two went to the Flyers practice facility in Voorhees. In the locker room, several players and coaches spent time encouraging him.
In April, the Flyers invited him to their last game of the season. Jackie again went into the locker room. They gave him jerseys and a hockey stick and more encouragement.
"The Flyers have given us so much, we thought we'd give back," Jackie said, explaining his determination to walk the 5K, an annual charity event.
Before the race began, the Flyers gave Jackie an inaugural "7th Man Award," for overcoming adversity.
About a mile and a half into the walk, Ian Laperrière, a former player and current assistant coach, came running up. He had finished the run with his son, and he went back on the course to look for Jackie.
They hugged and high-fived, and Laperrière fell in, walking the rest of the way with Jackie.
"You look a lot stronger," Laperrière said. "From a year ago, it's amazing to see how far you've come. There's a lot you can teach us about determination."
"How are you feeling?" Jackie asked Laperrière, who nearly lost an eye and suffered a concussion after being hit in the face with a hockey puck. Months later, post-concussion syndrome ended his playing career.
"I'm feeling pretty lucky I didn't lose my right eye," said Laperrière, better known by the nickname "Lappy."
Soon they started talking hockey.
"You're using the boards more," Jackie said.
"Great that you're noticing that," Lappy said.
They talked about players.
"My mom has a crush on [Michael] Del Zotto," Jackie said.
"I'm sure she's not the only mom," Lappy replied.
The family took a few short cuts at the end, and crossed the finish line after 6,279 steps, about two miles. That was plenty for Jackie.
Family members crossed the line together, holding hands. Jackie bear-hugged his sister Lindsay, 26, lifting her off the ground.
Next year, Jackie plans to run the whole way.