During her recent commencement speech to Tulane University graduates, Hoda Kotb singled out an inspiring alum who attained tremendous success after overcoming extraordinary odds.
Derrick Edwards exemplified one of the 10 life lessons Kotb shared with graduates. The two met more than 20 years when Kotb was a local reporter in New Orleans and Edwards was a former football star left paralyzed by a game-related injury.
“As I was running down the field, I collided with a player. When I fell backwards, I tried to get up, and I tried to get up, and I tried to get up, and I couldn't get up,” he recalled.
Edwards, who was 17 at the time, broke his neck and would never walk again.
“I didn't want to live,” he said.
He spent the next six months of his life in the hospital, two of them in intensive care. His lungs collapsed repeatedly. Doctors advised his mother to put him in a facility that could provide him with 24-hour nursing care, but his mom refused.
“She said that, ‘If God didn't take him the night of his injury, I'm taking him home with me,’” Edwards said.
A school teacher and single mom raising three boys, Madeline Washington also lacked the money to make their home wheelchair accessible. She sometimes stood on street corners, asking drivers for anything they could spare.
“I'd have a sign, ‘Football player paralyzed! Please help him,’" she told Kotb.
Eventually, Edwards rallied back. He graduated with his high school class and earned a bachelor's degree from Tulane University. He then got a master's degree in accounting and ultimately became a practicing attorney after earning a law degree from Loyola.
“The words of encouragement from many people have actually pushed me and encouraged me to keep going,” he said.
Kotb was one of those people who provided Edwards with encouragement, he said. Her words of support during their conversation more than 20 years ago remained with him.
“Hoda encouraged me, motivated me. She indicated to me that, you know, just never give up in life,” Edwards said. “I've always remembered what Hoda told me.”
When Kotb was asked to speak at Tulane’s graduation earlier this month, she couldn’t wait to see Edwards again — and knew she had to include him in her speech about life lessons.
“Lesson No. 9 is sitting right here in front of me. His name is Derrick Edwards,” she told her audience. “Do you know what Derrick Edwards is doing today? Derrick Edwards, in the front row, is running for the United States Senate.”
In addition to launching his Senate bid, Edwards also speaks to school groups and hospital patients to share his story, providing hope that it’s possible to find light even when dropped into life’s darkest places.
“If you have faith, because with God, all things are possible, believe in yourself and work hard,” he said. “There's nothing you can't accomplish.”