It's noon Wednesday and John Comstock just finished his last college final. Ever.
The 29-year-old wheels himself into the Dixie Chicken as his girlfriend, Jen Seelig, tries to allow his passage by holding the heavy wooden doors swinging back and forth.
There's a hint that this day isn't like most weekdays at the favorite Northgate bar and eatery where students and soon-to-be former students like Comstock sit with friends and family, an early celebration to three days of graduation-related events ahead.
"I am done," Comstock says as he greets an Eagle reporter whom he met a decade ago while recovering in a Dallas suburb from critical injuries sustained in the 1999 Aggie Bonfire collapse.
He spent Tuesday cramming for that final in Math 131, a freshman calculus class that Comstock somehow skipped over.
"Not sure how that happened, but it's over with. That I'm graduating hasn't really hit me because I've been so busy," he said before ordering his usual -- a Freddy Burger and a Shiner to wash it down. "Took me long enough, but I am getting my diploma."
Comstock's long journey toward a degree was far from his fault.
The agricultural leadership and development major was crushed amid the 2-million pound pile of logs for seven hours. The accident killed 12 Aggies and injured 26 others. Comstock's injuries made him the most severely hurt in the university's deadliest disaster.
But he doesn't look at it that way: He says it made him the most fortunate, his voice trailing off about the dozen lives lost. He can't remember how many surgeries he's gone through for his leg; meanwhile, his right hand still is partially paralyzed.
And yet, it's rare to find a better attitude than Comstock's.
He has lived through a singular experience at Texas A&M: The destruction of one of the most revered Aggie traditions altered his body forever. He initially was the focus of national news coverage as doctors said it was a miracle that he survived. Anniversaries of the collapse drew the press corps back to his doorstep year after year. He left and came back to campus four times between physical therapy and going to a junior college in his hometown. He ended up joining a lawsuit filed by some families of the dead and injured; it took nine years to settle.
As with most college students, Comstock grew from a teenager to a man, having to deal not just with recovering and constant medical problems, but personal tragedy as well: His mother and No. 1 champion and caregiver, Dixie Edwards, died three years ago; his father a decade before that.
He hoped to be used as a guinea pig for the university to assess how good or poor its access to the disabled was across campus. That never happened, just like a few of Comstock's dreams, including that he would walk across his graduation stage.
He's been a student through 2 1/2 groups of Aggies cycling through with a degree, four A&M presidents and three U.S. presidents.
Along the 11 years since first stepping foot on campus, Comstock has repeatedly brushed off suggestions that he's become a symbol of hope and inspiration to many.
He graduates during a 2 p.m. Friday ceremony, but if a friend or family member didn't get an invitation, don't worry about it. He didn't send any.
Sitting at a long table worn down by names and class years carved into the wood and beneath dead wildlife mounted on the walls, Comstock recalls a few memories born at his favorite honky tonk.
After Comstock's girlfriend responds to one of his jokes, she fires back and then playfully says she likes to push him around. Both laugh at the double-meaning.
"That is funny," says Comstock, wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a handicap symbol on it that says: "The parking is awesome," under a pin-striped blue and white cotton button-down shirt.
The volume on the Chicken's stereo is loud enough that Comstock has to yell some during the two-hour interview to be heard. Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues kicks it off.
The Eagle: Graduation is two days away. What's going through your mind right now?
His girlfriend, Jen Seelig, hands John medicine that will help him digest his food. The collapse crushed his torso. Years later, he suffered a grand mal seizure and pancreatitis, so medicine is a must.
John: Well, let's see. I have something to do tomorrow. Lots of errands. Gotta be at Reed Arena at 11 a.m. so they can show me what the set-up is for me at graduation Friday.
The Eagle: Let's back up. You got your Aggie ring last month after a decade in and out of Texas A&M four times. Tell me about that.
John: Heavy sigh. He looks down at the ring with a broad smile.
It's taken a long time to get it and I'm so glad to have it. It feels good. I don't like typing on the computer with it though. Kind-of heavy, you know? I didn't get to dunk it (in a pitcher of beer) though because the Chicken doesn't allow that anymore.
Jen: We came here to dunk it, then we heard he couldn't, so we just said, fine, here's a cup. Dunk it and drink it.
John: I didn't do the normal wait-in-line thing to get the ring. The Association of Former Students actually called up and ended up having a presentation for me. Porter Garner (CEO and president of the organization) presented it to me and their magazine did a story on it all. It was pretty cool.
Jen: He wasn't even sure if he was going to get the ring.
John: I did have a glitch with my degree plan. That's true. But it all got worked out in the end. I didn't fill out the right paperwork and didn't know that until we were right up on the deadline. I got my ring, though.
The Eagle: And your's says 2010 rather than your class year of 2003?
John: Yeah. I chose 2010 because it's taken more than 10 years to get this. Besides, if I kept it 2003 and head into a job interview, they might ask what the hell I've been doing for the last seven years. "Um. I was in Cambodia feeding hungry children." Not going to work. It took this long. I'll be honest about it.
The Eagle: Getting your senior ring is a big deal at A&M. It was for me when I graduated. For many, it's their favorite tradition. What's yours?
John: Bonfire. Aggie Bonfire. On campus.
The Eagle: Really? After what happened to you?
John: Yeah ... I think it probably embodies the Texas A&M Spirit the best. The best that I've seen anyway. The camaraderie, building it. Being a part of this big tradition. It's all those memories and that time in my life. Even a lot of my friends feel this way. If they could name their top 10 moments in college here, that'd be at the top of their list. Absolutely. What happened, happened. I can't change it.
I've never seen one burn though.
Eagle photographer Dave McDermand arrives. Dave also met John during his recovery a decade ago.
Dave: Let's get right to it. How much are you going to miss Mom not being there to see you graduate on Friday?
John: I think it would have been bigger for her than it is for me. For me, it's just the next thing in life, you know? She'd be proud, though, I think.
Dave: Do you think the other people graduating Friday are going to be like, "Who is John Comstock?"
John: Oh yeah, I'm sure. I might get a standing ovation from some in the faculty, but the students are going to be like "Who is he?"
Jen: It became clear to me that the students didn't know who he was because, you know, it's been a while since the collapse. But when the 10-year anniversary hit last fall and he was in the news again, some of the students in his class came up to him and talked about it. One guy made him a shirt and wrote all this stuff on it. It was really nice.
John: I've definitely been an older student in most my classes, but there were a few older than me every once in awhile. It never bothered me. End result -- I'm graduating.
The Eagle: Did you send out invitations?
John: Nope. Now, my mom would have done that for me. My cousin is coming down with her family, my sister will be here and, of course, Jen and her family will be here.
The Eagle: Jen, what's this been like? You've dated for more than a year and a half and his goal of graduating is upon you guys.
Jen: Smiles at John.
I am really excited for him and proud of everything he's done. Now, it's like he said -- the next step.
The Eagle: What is that next step? You own a home here in College Station. Any job prospects, local or otherwise?
John: I'm looking. Either here or Dallas since Jen's family lives up there. I put my resume out there through the Aggie network, but haven't really been knocking on doors just yet.
The Eagle: I'm going to sound like a high school guidance counselor, but John Comstock, what do you want to do with your life.
John: Make a lot of money. Does that sound bad? My degree is in ag leadership, but I can do a lot of things. I'm smart. I think I'd enjoy just getting to use my people skills. That's probably my strong point. I'm funny. Don't know if that matters.
Even after my accident, everything's kind of worked out for me. I don't necessarily worry about things for some reason. I don't worry about what job it will be. I just am looking for that opportunity to do something I enjoy. I obviously can adapt to big changes.
The Eagle: What'd you have your sights set on when you entered Texas A&M as a freshman in the fall of 1999?
John: Veterinarian. The thing is, I probably would have failed. I'm not the 4.0-kind-of-guy. I'm an average student, so I think I went the right route. I thought about going to grad school and studying prosthetics orthotics but that's another two years. I just want to get out there and work.
The Eagle: When I first met you a decade ago, you wanted your Aggie ring and a diploma from Texas A&M. Nowhere else. You went to a junior college while staying with your mom up in Richardson, but always came back to Aggieland. Why A&M and why not just forget the degree?
John: I wanted to finish what I started where I started it. I wanted to be back here with my friends. And I knew I needed a degree because my injury prevents me from doing a blue-collar job, pretty much. I knew I had to have a degree if I was going to make a good living. After a few years, my friends all had graduated and I figured, man, I might as well finish it. It was the right thing to do.
The Eagle: Where does most of your pain come from these days?
John: Mostly lower back. I have a lot of back pain. I don't want to take painkillers. My body knows what a painkiller looks like. I'm pretty much in varying degrees of pain much of the time. I get through it, though.
The Eagle: Your right hand was crushed and there's partial paralysis. How is it doing these days?
John: The last surgery on my hand in San Diego didn't work. Didn't get much movement out of my thumb. I can pick up stuff, grab it. I can do presses at the gym because my palm works. But I had to learn to do everything left-handed. I'll probably get back working with a personal trainer maybe.
The Eagle: A goal all along has been that you wanted to walk across that stage at Reed Arena to get your diploma.
John: That's not going to happen. Sadly. It's my next personal goal -- to walk with the prosthetic leg. With school, I had to make that priority; I tried to do both, but couldn't. So I'm going to start going to the gym and working out again, get on it.
The Eagle: Explain how we routinely see on the news soldiers returning from Iraq with lost limbs and they're up on a prosthetic leg or have the prosthetic arm within months or sooner, but your situation couldn't allow that.
John: If you have a regular amputation and go through the surgery, then most of the time, you're back on the leg within a week. I laid in a bed and wasted away to 93 pounds before I was fitted with a prosthesis five and a half months later. Muscle turned to nothing. But my legs have evolved -- first, I had a simple one that I couldn't stand on, but it allowed me to have six more inches of arm reach. Then I was fitted for one that I could start working toward walking on. I lose or gain five pounds and have to get fitted again.
The Eagle: Is the next goal walking down the aisle?
John: Looks at Jen and says it with his eyes before uttering a word.
Yep. That's the plan.
The Eagle: If you do move, will you guys come back down to visit Aggieland much?
Jen: I love it here.
John: I'm sure we'll be like all the other Aggies who come back for games and events. Right now, I'm just like all the other people graduating this week. I just want to be done with it and move on to that next stage in my life. I'm looking forward to it. But ... first, I need a job.