COLUMBIA — Last week, 330 members of Marching Mizzou gathered on the practice field to rehearse for the final football game of the season.
They quickly assembled their instruments and headed to their places on the field. Paul Heddings, in a red sweater and his trademark black-and-gold Mizzou sunglasses, was waiting.
The practice was special for Heddings, the 22-year-old senior who has been the band's drum major for two years. Saturday's game against Texas A&M in College Station will be his last.
For Heddings, who has led the band during two seasons ofhalftime shows, it will be a bittersweet mix of sadness and pride. He lost most of his vision when he was 17.
Losing vision suddenly as a teen
A series of retinal detachments cost Heddings the majority of his eyesight when he was a junior in high school. He eventually would become legally blind.
"Sept. 7, 2007, was an infamous day for me," he said. "I woke up and my vision was a little blurry."
"So, I went to the optometrist thinking I needed new contacts. I ended up having the first of several invasive surgeries to save my vision."
That night, Heddings and his family drove from their home in Carrollton to a hospital in Kansas City that could repair his retinas and prevent further damage.
"I can remember the doctor just looking at me and telling me my retinas had detached," Heddings said. "I wasn't sure how much vision I'd have at the end, or how they'd be able to repair my retinas. It hit me like a ton of bricks."
After the surgery, he spent five days at home recovering and struggling to accept a new reality.
"Retinal detachments usually happen after a traumatic accident, but it just kind of happened to me," he said. "I wasn't sure how to cope with everything."
Throughout his junior year, Heddings went through additional laser procedures and medical visits, while working to maintain a normal school and personal life, sharing very little about what happened.
"It was a U-curve of how much I wanted to share. At first, I wanted lay it out on the line, hoping that someone could help me," he said. "And then sometimes I didn't say anything because I didn't want it to be an issue. I was in denial."
At school, he would try to blend in with other students, despite the fact he couldn't play on his high school baseball team, participate in physical education classes or even read a textbook in class.
"For a long time, Paul would try to hide his problem," his mother, Traci, said. "It was hard getting him to acknowledge that what was gone, was gone. He didn't want to accept that."
Creating a new dream
Throughout the initial months, family and friends encouraged Heddings. They pushed him to go to school and use his disability as a motivation, not a crutch.
"I had tried to feel sorry for myself, I tried to get upset and I cried about it," he said. "But I realized it wasn't going to change it."
With a newfound attitude, Heddings focused on something he could do — play the drums.
"I began playing music in fifth grade," he said. "I couldn't play sports anymore, but I could play music. It's where I found solace."
During his senior year in high school, he was accepted at MU and decided to try out for the marching band.
"I knew Marching Mizzou was going to be hard, not only because of my disability, but because I started playing drums late," he said. "But it wasn't going to hold me back."
The summer before his freshman year at Mizzou, Heddings attended rehabiltation classes at Alphapointe Association for the Blind in Kansas City to help him read textbooks and music with magnifiers and perform other daily functions, such as cooking and cleaning.
"Alphapointe helped prepare him to go to college," his mother said. "It was amazing watching him become independent and comfortable with himself."
Trying out for Marching Mizzou
That fall, Heddings auditioned for Marching Mizzou and joined the band.
"There were days I sounded really bad," he said with a laugh. "There were days I didn't know what was going on because I couldn't see the music."
For two years, he kept his disability secret, learning how to memorize the arrangements quickly so he wouldn't have to depend on the music sheet.
"I wanted people to know me before my disability," he said.
But, when Heddings decided to try out for a coveted drum major position, he faced the possibility of sharing his disability with the band.
"I was honestly afraid it would affect if I got on the line or not," he said. "I didn't want them to feel like they had to a bunch of extra work for me, like I couldn't do what everyone else was doing."
He made it through the initial rounds of auditions to the final group interview, where bandmates and judges were allowed to ask questions.
"One of my friends asked me about my vision because she knew it would be my platform to explain everything," he said. "I didn't want anyone to have any preconceived notions."
As Heddings shared his story, he was amazed by the looks on his fellow bandmates and instructors.
"They thought I was joking," he said. "But I thought it was kind of cool they didn't know."
After the interview, Brad Snow, the band director, pulled Heddings aside to ask a few more questions.
During their conversation, Heddings explained that he used magnifiers to read music and learned to use his peripheral vision, heightened hearing and tactile skills to maneuver with the band.
"I was surprised," Snow said. "I wanted to know how he did what he did because marching bands are so visual. I think everyone respects his abilities much more now."
Living in the spotlight
Later that year, Heddings began to receive phone calls from local media outlets for interview requests.
Eventually, CNN caught wind of the story and featured him in Dr. Sanjay Gupta's "The Human Factor." The series "profiles survivors who have overcome the odds."
"It's weird having all this attention," Heddings said. "For me, it's just life; I didn't think it was inspiring. Everyone has barriers. I just have a couple more."
Nonetheless, he has accepted the spotlight as an opportunity to bring awareness to disability policies and inspire others in his situation.
"I come from a small town where the nearest Walmart is 30 miles away," he said. "There aren't a lot of resources out in rural areas for people with disabilities. For a year, I struggled because I didn't know what was available."
Last summer, Heddings met President Barack Obama to discuss disability issues in rural areas, as well as arranging to speak at local schools.
"I just think about all the kids with disabilities in rural areas that have resigned themselves to never achieving anything because everyone tells them they can't," he said. "They could be anything, even a future president. I want them to know they can overcome."
With his last performance fast approaching, Heddings has set his sights on a new goal — law school.
"It's a little scary, it's daunting, but I know I can do it," he said.
"Before, if you told me that I would have become head drum major for Marching Mizzou with my disability, I would have laughed. But I've learned to make every day a challenge to do the impossible."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.