MARIETTA, Ga.-- Randy Heitzman talks about his son like any proud dad. "He's made a lot of difference in a lot of people's lives," he said. "He would have never told us, because we're his parents. We never knew all of the things he did for other people. If this hadn't happened, we never would have known."
Chris Heitzman had just graduated from Lassiter High School in 2012. He was headed to college in the fall to play baseball. "Baseball was his passion," his mom, Debbie, said. "It was his life."
Seven months ago, on the 4th of July, it all came crashing down.
Christopher was in a car with two other friends. They'd just won a baseball game and were on their way to grab lunch. Randy got a phone call from a friend. He had just passed an accident on Trickum Road.
It's still unclear what caused the accident. According to police reports, the driver of the car swerved or lost control, crossed the center line, and was hit by an on-coming car. The driver of the car, Ryan Aschenbach, died in the crash. Christopher was in a coma. He sustained a brain injury, multiple broken bones, damage to his bladder and kidneys. He was airlifted to Grady Memorial Hospital.
For 32 days, Randy and Debbie Heitzman waited.
"We didn't have that sort of wow moment that we were hoping for all along," Debbie said.
Instead, it has been months measured in minuscule miracles: moving fingers, eating soft food, gaining weight.
"People tell us we're doing such a great job," Randy said. "But in my mind, we're not doing anything different than what anyone else would do for their own child. We love him and we're going to take care of him, no matter what."
Then, just two weeks ago, it happened. Christopher smiled. It's a lop-sided grin his family can easily inspire with goofy faces and silly jokes.
"When it first happened, we were all laughing," Debbie remembered. "But then we broke down into tears because it was such a momentous occasion because Christopher started looking like himself again.
Reacting to the world around him was another tiny step in the battle to find the old Christopher. "It is possible he will fully recover. The Heitzmans have met other patients with similar brain injuries that are doing well. Doctors just can't tell when, how, and if it will happen. The Heitzmans, and the community of support they've inspired, remain hopeful.
Others have said it, and you can see it in the way he locks eyes with his dad. When you spend time with Christopher, it just seems like he has something to say. "We've talked about how frustrating it must be for him," Debbie said.
"This isn't the Christopher we know," he dad said. "So it's hard for us to see that. When his friends are coming over and have to leave to go back to school, and that's where we know he is supposed to be. But we just have to be faithful that it's going to be delayed a little while. He's going to be back where he wants to be and where he needs to be."
His family says the constant support they've received from their community is amazing. Taking care of Christopher is a time-consuming group effort. Seven months after the accident, volunteers continue to bring them dinner on a regular basis. Friends and former classmates offer to sit with Christopher. "We haven't even met all of the people that have helped us, and that's really what's kept us going."
This Saturday, Randy will push Christopher in a 5K in his name. It will raise money to pay for therapies and technology not covered by insurance. A family friend, Jamie Cole, is planning the event. "I've seen this family during some of the darkest moments of their life," she said. "And I see them uplifted by the community support. It does make a difference."
The 5K is Saturday, January 26th. It starts and ends at Lassiter High School. About 70 people have pre-registered for the event. You can still register the morning of the race. The $25 donation will go straight to an account set up in Christopher's name. Registration starts at 7:30 a.m. The event starts at 8:30 a.m.