TAMPA - Antonio Dowels longs for what most of us take for granted. "I long for independence."
Antonio can’t drive himself in a regular car. He's paralyzed from the chest down, the result of a spinal cord injury after an accident.
Now the hands that intercepted many footballs can barely move, and the legs that took second in state track finals are motionless.
His grandmother Maria Murillo says the accident didn’t defeat him. “I didn't know he would pull himself up like this. He just flew. He didn't give himself time to think he was hurt. He just got up. "
Through rigorous rehab at TGH, Antonio learned how to feed and dress himself. He graduated Riverview High with honors and made the dean's list at Florida. But he has one more hurdle before he earns his university degree, a required summer internship. Antonio said, “My plan is to do an internship with the Bucs and its 25 to 30 minutes away, but my parents and grandmother have to work."
There are vans modified so the disabled like Antonio can drive. One at Ride Away in Tampa costs $60,000, out of reach financially for Antonio’s family.
So he entered a contest online run by National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, a non-profit trade organization.
Three modified vehicles will be given away.
“We started getting votes on Thursday," said Antonio. "This is the sixth day and we’ve gotten 1500 votes. I guess I know a lot of people with the NFL so I've been texting them and tweeting them and putting it on Facebook. I'm trying to raise awareness, but I see there are people with 5,000 or 6,000 votes."
He's passed out fliers at his high school, and is speaking at a church tonight. Asking not for money - but for votes.
He says he needs at least 4,000 votes by Friday. “They should vote for me because I'm a very passionate person and I'm very dedicated. Even if I don't get this van, I will try every opportunity and every avenue to become more independent. If you vote for me, I won’t let you down.
Antonio says becoming independent is the number one desire of most people with disabilities - so he's doing this to spread awareness as well.
Cast your vote for Antonio at mobilityawarenessmonth.com/antonio-dowels-tampa-fl.