Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Robert Pritchard, 22, of Buford a 2008 North Gwinnett graduate suffered a series of strokes on July 10, 2012. Pritchard works with Occupational Therapist Anna Winders to strengthen his left arm during rehabilitation at Shepherd Pathways in Decatur on Thursday.
Robert Pritchard has about two dozen baseball hats that cover the couch in his bedroom at his mother's house in Suwanee.
It's just five miles from North Gwinnett High School where Pritchard was a standout football player.
The baseball hats are typically part of Pritchard's attire for the day. Or at least they were three months ago.
Now the 22-year-old is relegated to wearing a protective helmet, one that looks like what football players wore in the 1930s.
"It's protecting me, so I have to like it," Pritchard said with a smile.
It was just three months ago that Pritchard was hanging out with his cousin when he suffered from seizures and later found out he had a stroke.
After a month in the hospital, Pritchard is back home in Suwanee. He goes to rehab five days a week as he tries to get his life back in order and pursue his master's degree at the University of Central Florida.
"I've been feeling good," Pritchard said of his recovery. "Just taking it day by day. I'm trying to get better physically."
Pritchard, a 2008 North grad, helped lead the Bulldogs to the state championship game his senior year. He was a four-year letterman and recorded 19 career sacks as a defensive end, earning all-county honors as a senior.
"He was a big part of our success my first two years here," North head coach Bob Sphire said.
Pritchard signed a football scholarship with Central Florida where he was a key contributor on the scout team and earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice in four years.
After graduating in May, Pritchard was home for the summer. He had just recovered from some nagging illnesses and was ready to get out of the house.
"It was random and unexpected for me to do something," he said.
A typical home body, on July 10, Prichard was itching to get out of the house. He contacted his cousin, whose birthday was on that particular Monday, and they decided to go Atlanta to celebrate.
On his way to pick up his cousin Christopher Kirkland in Grayson, he stopped at a gas station and felt kind of weird on one side of his body like he sat wrong in the seat or something.
"That was the first time I noticed something was kind of weird," Pritchard said.
When he got to Kirkland's house, his speech started to mess up and he couldn't get words out and began stuttering.
Pritchard's body began to act even weirder as they drove to Midtown and he began to lean to the left and caused the car to drift.
"I said to my cousin, 'Do you see that? I don't know what's wrong with me,'" Pritchard said. "He kind of just laughed it off. I knew something wasn't right, but I was able to keep the car straight, but I had to really concentrate."
They eventually got lost in Atlanta and decided not to go to a club. Instead they contacted some friends, who were staying at the Holiday Inn near Centennial Olympic Park. As Pritchard parked his car, his whole body went limp as he opened the door and got out. After a few minutes, he was able to stand up, but walked with a limp to the hotel.
He wasn't in the hotel very long before he had a seizure.
"This is how I remembered it happening. I was talking and my speech was hard to come out again," Pritchard said. "I felt this sensation in my head and on my side. I got confused and disoriented. Everything got tight and I had a seizure."
Kirkland called 911 and Pritchard was taken to a nearby hospital.
"I was still conscious and able to communicate and talk," he said.
Pritchard had a CAT scan performed and suffered another seizure during the scan.
"I never had seizures before in my life," he said.
He had three more seizures that night and the doctors determined he had a stroke with blood clots on his brain.
"It was touch and go and of course I prayed," Robert's mother Natalie Pritchard said. "I told the doctors God is good and he's not going to send my son this far to leave him."
Pritchard suffered from cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), a rare form of stroke that results in a blood clot on the brain.
He was the No. 1 priority at Emory and had 17 doctors consulting his case. While he was sedated, a nurse noticed a change in him and alerted the on-call radiologist to perform a brain scan. That revealed Pritchard had swelling on his brain and the doctors removed part of his skull to make room for his brain.
"The nurse that he had actually saved his life," Natalie Pritchard said. "His nurse he had, noticed there was a change."
After three weeks of being in intensive care, Pritchard was cleared for rehabilitation."All through this, the doctor kept saying Robert was clinically healthy," Natalie Pritchard said. "This was a 22-year-old with no signs of drugs or alcohol in his system. They wanted to know why something like this would happen to him."
Pritchard spent more than a month at The Shepherd Center for rehabilitation. He now goes five days a week for five hours a day at Shepherd Pathways.
"If you don't believe in the power of God, you have to believe in something," Natalie Pritchard said. "Just for Robert to leave here. If he was at home and it happened, I would have been asleep upstairs. I wouldn't have gotten up (to check on him) and gone to work."
Pritchard will tell you himself the series of events on July 10 were a little out the ordinary.
He doesn't really like to go out. It was a Monday and he just happened to contact his cousin.
"I usually wouldn't do anything. I would probably be home," Pritchard said.
The plan was to go to a club, but they got lost and ended up at a hotel that was less than a mile away from Emory Crawford Long Hospital. It's the same hospital that's the only one in the Atlanta area that treats the type of stroke Pritchard suffered.
"He doesn't go out and he had been sick and bored," Natalie Pritchard said. "It was like something pulled him out of here. God said I'm going to take you and protect you and keep you covered."
The doctors told Pritchard that having his cousin by his side probably saved his life. Kirkland was able to keep Pritchard alert on his journey from Gwinnett to Atlanta.
"We had so many people praying for him. It was scary. We just thank God for where he is now," Natalie Pritchard said.
Pritchard has received overwhelming support from the North Gwinnett and Central Florida communities. A Facebook page was created for him while he was in the hospital sedated. He recovered to find more than 500 people were fans of the page and posted countless well wishes and blessings. He even got videos from his former UCF teammates wishing him well.
Marty O'Leary, the assistant A.D. for Football Operations at UCF, still contacts Pritchard every week or two to see how he's recovering. There's talks of the program recognizing him at a game later this year, but no details are final.
"They have been really great," Natalie Pritchard said. "They've been really supportive even though he graduated."
Pritchard plans to return to Central Florida next year to start his master's degree. Doctors tell him he should be back to full strength by next summer.
"I pray he continues to get better," Sphire said. "He's made some pretty significant improvements."
Until then, he has to have someone by his side all the time, which is usually his mother Natalie or father Ural Worthy to take care of him. He's fortunate to not have have any memory loss, but little things like moving around freely or walking up stairs he is unable to do right now.
"Everything is going well with my progress so far," he said.
Pritchard still has part of his skull stored in his stomach to keep it healthy and will have it attached in January.
"That's why I wear this helmet, because I don't have a scalp right there," Pritchard said.
Pritchard's surgery and rehabilitation have accumulated quite a stack of medical bills totaling nearly $400,000. The family is accepting donations to help cover medical costs and Pritchard was picked by the Stroke Awareness Foundation to receive a donation.
Despite all the tests, doctors don't know what would cause a young, healthy man to suffer a stroke.
"We will never know what caused it," Natalie Prichard said.
Pritchard isn't worried about knowing what has caused him to slowly move around with a walker. He's just focused on getting back to a normal life and putting one of his baseball hats on his scarred head.
"I've come a long way. I couldn't talk. I couldn't eat. I couldn't drink water. I went from that and not having much movement on my left side and not being able to walk to getting into the wheelchair and I've progressed to the walker," Pritchard said. "I've come a long ways, but I still have a long journey ahead of me."
HOW TO HELP
The family is accepting donations at Wells Fargo under the name Robert Pritchard. Donations can also be made via PayPal.com using the address firstname.lastname@example.org.