On a sunsplashed late afternoon, the end of Long Beach High School senior Robert Browne's long journey was just a few steps away.
His motionless legs steadied by braces, Browne gripped the sides of his wheelchair parked on stage Wednesday at the school's graduation ceremony and slowly, haltingly, lifted himself to his feet.
Browne, 18, had a few false starts in which he settled back into his wheelchair and collected himself. He had gotten the leg braces and walker six months ago but didn’t have the time to practice this feat of strength.
Yet spurred by a wave of cheers washing over him, and with the help of a walker, Browne finally stood and slowly made his way across the stage and received his diploma.
In the crowd, his dad, Tim Browne, stood and clapped with everyone else. Just five years ago, a surfing accident left his son paralyzed from below the chest. A day Tim Browne described as among the saddest of his life.
What a difference five years and endless hours of arduous hard work by his determined teenage son made.
“Now he’s giving me one of the proudest,” Tim Browne said.
For his part, Robert Browne said, nothing could have kept him from making that walk. Tuesday night went into Wednesday morning and he was still hanging out with friends after attending the school's prom. Just last week, he was so sick with pneumonia, he checked into a hospital.
But in the end, it was a combination of a steely will — the type that got him through endless hours of physical therapy — and the encouragement of those cheering him on, that brought him to his feet.
“There was a switch of emotion with the crowd and everything,” Browne said afterward. “I’m getting over pneumonia and I didn’t even feel it. I had to do it.”
Next up for Browne is a long summer spent with family and friends before he is off to the University at Albany to study business.
He was by himself when he got his diploma but he couldn't have gotten there alone.
After the July 3, 2014, surfing accident, which also left him with limited use of his fingers, his family and the community were never far away.
Teachers came to the hospital to keep him up on his studies. Assistant Principal Andrew Smith joined him every Friday morning for a swim.
In fact, as Browne swayed his hips to move his brace-locked legs on his graduation walk, Smith was right beside him, steadying him at every step before Principal Jeffrey Meyers held out the diploma.
A goal cooked up three years ago with the help of his grandmother officially achieved.
“It was a magical moment,” Smith said later.
Tim Browne echoed that, as only a father could.
“I watched with tears in my eyes,” he said. “He worked very hard and he did it. He has come over a mountain since the accident.” After the graduates, attired in blue caps and gowns, threw their hats in the air and stood for pictures with each other, Brown talked of the priceless lessons learned since that day his head hit a sandbar.
“I didn’t even know what life was,” he said. "You’re going to face hardships. This isn’t the hardest part of life. Keep you’re spirits up."