By John Prime

Few people watching Josh Porter walk across the stage at the Bossier Civic Center in late February, graduating at age 32 as the “old man” of his Bossier Fire Academy class, would know that short strut was a final chapter of personal tragedy that began just over a decade ago.

Days after Thanksgiving 2006, playing as a senior guard for the LSUS Pilots basketball team, he collided with teammate Kyile Byrd, 60 pounds heavier. Porter went down hard, flat in center court, and lay motionless as play continued around him.

He didn’t learn until later he had broken his C5 neck vertebrae. But he knew something was wrong when he couldn’t move his arms or his legs.

“I broke my neck, shattered it in three places,” said Porter, the next-to-youngest of five children of retired Shreveport Police Assistant Chief of Police Louis D. Porter.

“There was spinal fluid seen. I later learned there was a 99.9 percent chance of not living and if I did live I would be completely paralyzed.”

But thanks to fast response by trainers Lance Champagne and Joel Thompson, and by his coach, Chad McDowell, “I made that .1 percent.” Rushed to LSU Hospital and to its renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Anil Nanda, Porter went into surgery and into the arms of God.

“I was able to walk two and a half days after surgery,” Porter said. “I spent 10 months total in rehab. My mom, Tanya Porter, was the biggest reason I made it back from all of this. She is so amazing and I will always remember how she added the third set of footprints in the sand to give me the encouragement to keep trusting in God. She is a praying mom and to me she’s worth every breath I take.”

Josh Porter

As for eventually working as a Bossier City firefighter, “the strenuous activity is nothing different than what I have already been through. You have techniques you learn and practice to make it not so strenuous. The most strenuous part of being a firefighter is being able to react spur-of-the-moment when someone’s life is on the line. Everything is healed up. I wouldn’t have been able to have a full release if everything wasn’t fused correctly and I wasn’t able to bear the weight. The doctor said ‘Your neck is like cement.’ So as long as I don’t do anything too crazy or try to flip, I’ll be OK.”

Still, the accident changed his life in many ways. Originally at C.E. Byrd High School, he transferred to Southwood High School to follow McDowell, a coach he adored, and at Southwood he proved to be a star on the court, garnering scores of write-ups and accolades for his performance. He graduated from Southwood in 2003, and then attended Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. After two years there, Porter learned that his beloved coach had hired on as head coach at LSUS, so Porter decided to do his last two years at his local university.

All along the way his court performance led to headlines, glowing sports press write-ups and growing talk of a pro career. At the time he was injured, Porter was a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American and led the Pilots in scoring, averaging more than 22 points a game and ranking among the NAIA’s top five scorers nationally.

“My initial dream was to play pro basketball, NBA, and the road I was on looked promising,” Porter said. “I had a really decent shot and I was making that come true. I worked hard for it. Endless days in the gym, trying to perfect my craft and working on the places I wasn’t so good. Just trying to make sure I had all the tools necessary when I was given the chance, that I wouldn’t fail.”

Then there was the accident.

“When it’s taken away in just a split second, it really messes with your mind and you start to question ‘Why am I even here, why is this happening to me?'”

Within a year of his accident, Porter was back on the court, but his plans for an NBA career were over.

“After finishing my career playing at LSUS I was blessed to play professional basketball overseas,” he recalled. “I had maybe 18 hours left to get my degree and decided to go play overseas instead of finishing my degree. I played in Germany, Lebanon, Holland and Canada from 2008 to 2012.”

He still has a few lingering aftereffects of nerve damage.

“I feel warmth but I can’t feel it as heat,” he said of his hands. “Everything else I can move, but sensation… I can feel warmth but I can’t feel the burning, so I have burned myself on occasion.”

The accident and its aftermath “changed my life because it proved that anything is possible when you trust in God and work every day to achieve your dreams. If there is a will, then there is a way.”

Faith led him.

“You have to realize that God created everything. If he creates everything, then he has the choice how he wants it to go. So you have to learn to just be patient and surrender yourself, take all your feelings out of it. You have to become neutral to everything, really just listen and go with the flow. … He put people in places to help me along the way.”

Chief among those people were his coach, his parents, and Yetta Lee, the woman who now shares his life and is the mother to his 1-year-old daughter, Everlie.

Porter first noticed Yetta, his wife-to-be, when she posted a comment on the Facebook page of one of his friends.

“She had beautiful eyes and a beautiful smile, and that’s my weakness,” Porter said.

Yetta, sleepless, was online around 3 o’clock one morning when she got a ‘poke’ from Josh Porter. She was on autopilot, responding to ‘pokes’ and got a response back from Josh right away. ‘What are you doing up at this hour responding to pokes?’

“At the time I was a federal investigator, so I was thinking ‘Who is this?'” she said.

“I told her I didn’t want to seem like a creep,” he said. “I was just being honest.”

Yetta was polite but uninterested.

“I had been single about a year and a half at that time, getting my life together, focusing on me and my eldest daughter,” she said of Alzeara, now 6. “We kept in communication, but it wasn’t much. Then one day I wrote on Facebook ‘I have to talk to you later I’m going fishing.’ ‘You fish?’ he asked me. ‘Yes, I fish and I deer hunt. I’m a daddy’s baby.’”

That was all it took him to realize: She’s the one.

“Then he was writing ‘Can we meet?'”

She lived in Nashville at the time but had family in Shreveport, and a few months later, in early 2013, she came home for a visit.

“I met him at his dad’s house in Benton,” she said. “We hung out and went bowling. We had some small dates here and there through 2013. Then he visited me in March 2014. I took him all around Nashville. We had a blast. From that point on, we were attached at the hip.”

Her feelings for him grew so strong that she decided it had to stop.

“I sent him a message and told him I didn’t want to see him any more,” she recalled. “Here he was, this basketball star, playing overseas. I just KNEW he was a player, and I was NOT going to get my feelings hurt. So I broke it off with him.”

She was moping and crying at the church where her father, Alvin Lee, is a deacon and opened up when her mother, Lillie Lee, asked her what was wrong.

“She was like ‘What is wrong with you?'” Yetta recalled. “My mom knew he had to be a really good guy. She just knew.”

So she met with Porter and opened up.

“I said I’m really falling for you and I don’t want to get my feelings hurt. I was just honest with him,” she said. “He looked at me and gave me that little half grin smile and said ‘I told you I would not hurt you. I’m not that type of guy. I’m not like that.”

Of course, as a federal investigator with a Top Secret clearance she had to do her due diligence. She ran a background check and Googled him.

“Oh, I had to do that,” she said, laughing. “And his credit report. Sorry, my daddy raised me right!”

Her job transferred her to Virginia and then to Arkansas, which allowed her to visit her family and Josh here more often, and finally she set up her own investigative agency. She now has a number of state and federal government clients. The two now live on Barksdale Air Force Base.

Faced with the initial truth that Porter stalked her on her Facebook page, and faced with either arresting him or marrying him, she did the latter and has no regrets.

“He’s been such a blessing for me as well as for my daughter,” she said. “Joshua is a good guy. He could have been paraplegic or a quadriplegic. Thank God for the doctors.”

Most of the articles and features written about Porter in the days and weeks after his accident begin with the words “miracle” or “miraculous,” something he doesn’t dispute.

God “gave me two dreams in a lifetime,” Porter said. “He allowed me to come back and play basketball again and still perform at the level I was before. To me it seemed I was even at a higher level. Everything was enhanced because I had to start from ground zero. I did it for five years and then I called it quits per my doctor’s request so I could have a quality of life.”

At the Bossier fire training facility, days involved donning firefighters bunker gear, rigorous physical training, learning procedure and hitting the books while learning the ropes from people such as Chief of Training Keith Waldron.

“We call Josh ‘Paw-Paw, because he’s the oldest,” Waldron said. There are a dozen people in the class, and Porter is known as a cut-up with a sense of humor, a lot like his fellow students. “They name themselves as they go through training. The Hooligans, what they named themselves. Josh is a good guy, we’re glad to have him for sure.”

If plan A for Porter was a career in the NBA, plan B was being a firefighter. He’s spent the last few years as a transport driver and later a death investigator with the Caddo Parish Coroner’s office, something he hopes to continue to do part-time after his work with the Bossier City Fire Department commences.

Porter didn’t graduate from LSUS with his degree in Criminal Justice until 2013, 10 years after he left Southwood. Part of that was due to his accident, his therapy and then the pro ball he played overseas. A few years ago he applied to be a Bossier firefighter, but the spots were filled by people who had been sidelined. Now, in his second time around, he’s about to realize one of his goals.

“I’m going to live this dream, going to ride it out,” he said. “I’m trying to get myself in a position to have a good life and make a good life for my kids. I’m doing things to create memories. Life is precious. I remember what it was like thinking you’re about to die. That’s a horrible feeling.”

Honors:

In 2008, Josh Porter was named recipient of the “Most Courageous” award from the United States Basketball Writers Association, which “annually recognizes a player, coach, official or administrator who has demonstrated extraordinary courage reflecting honor on the sport of amateur basketball.”