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Muma College of Business Grad Student Sam Bridgman Will Bring His Own Brand Of Inspiration to Commencement

By Keith Morelli

Sam wearing his cap

TAMPA (May 2, 2017) -- Of the hundreds of mortarboard-and-robe-clad graduates crossing the University of South Florida Sun Dome stage this weekend to receive their diplomas, Sam Bridgman's steps may be the most poignant.

Bridgman is graduating with a master's degree and an MBA from the Muma College of Business' Sport & Entertainment Management program. He already has a job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, in a dream career for the sports-minded, 25-year-old from the state of Washington.

For Bridgman, his studies came easy, as will his career. The immediate challenge now is to rise from his wheelchair and walk across the stage to receive his diploma from USF President Judy Genshaft.

"I'm seeking miracles every single day," Bridgman says. "I keep moving forward."

Forward is the only direction for Bridgman. There is no looking back.

He has Friedreich's ataxia, a rare inherited disease that causes nervous system damage and movement problems. He began showing symptoms at 12 years old and was diagnosed when he was 15, cutting short his time on the baseball diamond and on the ski slopes of the Cascades Range.

He was in a wheelchair by the time he was 18, but that didn't stop him from pursuing a bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Portland in Oregon. There, he became one of the most popular students on campus and as a senior, was named Student Leader of the Year by the student government. It was clear then, as it is now, this insidious disease won't stop him from living his life.

On his left wrist is a tattoo. Seams of a baseball form a delicate red bracelet and inked into his skin are these words: "Seek A Miracle ... Impossible Is Nothing."

"It's kind of my goal," he says. "My theme. My motto."

He and his brother conspired five years ago to get the matching tattoos without their parents knowing. They designed it and were about to head to the parlor when Mom and Dad found out. They didn't object. They wanted to get one too. Now the whole family has tattoos, the guys on their wrists, Mom just above her ankle.

Forging ahead is all Bridgman knows. Now, forward means an office at Amalie Arena, helping the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey club fill the executive suites. It's a dream job with the Lightning.

He's spent two years working at Amalie Arena, the first year for the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the second year as a resident working in the department that oversees sales of the luxury suites.

Last week, the Lightning officially hired Bridgman as the team's business development coordinator in the executive suite sales department.

He's come a long way from growing up in Seattle where he was a normal rambunctious boy, eager to go out in the summer to play baseball and head to the mountains in the winter to ski.

"I was really big into sports," he says. "We were a sports family. Baseball, football, skiing. We had a cabin up in east Washington State and used to go skiing all the time."

Then, the physical problems became more pronounced.

"It was the summer after my freshman year in high school," he says. "Sports, and life in general, suddenly got a little tougher, physically, at least. And it slowly progressed from there."

Walking became difficult. He began to stagger, "stumbling through life," he says.

Friedreich's ataxia usually begins in childhood and leads to impaired muscle coordination that worsens over time, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. There is no cure and the prognosis for those living with the disease is not good.

In Friedreich's ataxia, often referred to as FA, the spinal cord and peripheral nerves degenerate, becoming thinner. The part of the brain that coordinates balance and movement also degenerates, though to a lesser extent. The result: awkward, unsteady movements along with heart and spinal problems. The disorder, however, has no effect on thinking and reasoning abilities and Bridgman's mind is as sharp as any grad-school grad.

It turns out he is the one person out of 50,000 who contract the disorder, which is caused by a recessive gene, meaning it occurs only in someone who inherits two defective copies of the gene.

Symptoms typically begin early, between the ages of 5 and 15 years, the institute says. The rate of progression varies from person to person. Generally, within 10 to 20 years after the appearance of the first symptoms, the person is confined to a wheelchair, and in later stages of the disease individuals may become completely incapacitated.

Friedreich's ataxia can shorten life expectancy, and heart disease is the most common cause of death. However, some people with less severe features of Friedreich's ataxia live into their sixties, seventies or older. But there's no guarantee. Bridgman's doctors have told him that he eventually may be unable to care for himself and his heart will fail.

By the time he graduated high school, Bridgman was in a wheelchair, though he has refused to allow that to slow him down, staying involved in sports as much as he could. So instead of rounding the bases, he became the social media manager for his college baseball team.

Bridgman picking up his cap and gown

At his University of Portland graduation, he challenged himself to walk to receive his diploma. And he did. After that, the young man was off. He left the Northwest and moved about as far away from his family as he could, telling them he had to live his life and that he found a program at USF that was perfect for him, the Muma College of Business Sport & Entertainment Management program, headed by Bill Sutton.

"I had heard about Sam from two former students,"  Sutton says. "They said I needed to meet him. I did meet him and I was blown away. I've never met anybody with a better outlook on life."

A bond formed between Sutton and Bridgman. And between Bridgman and the faculty. And between Bridgman and his fellow classmates.

"Sam makes this program and everybody in it better," Sutton says. "How can you ever be in a bad mood for a second when you're around this guy?"

Seeing Bridgman walk across the stage will be an emotional moment for Sutton, whom Bridgman affectionately calls "Doc."

"He wants to be challenged. He can do anything," Sutton says. "If he walks across that stage, that 'seek a miracle' thing; well that's a miracle. Sam just does not see obstacles."

While his immediate family is 3,000 miles away, Bridgman does have extended family in the Tampa Bay area. His grandparents live in Clearwater and he has an uncle and some cousins scattered in the region.

Bridgman hopes to remain in Tampa and will be moving into a downtown condo near Amalie Arena.

"I really like Tampa," he says. "I have a lot of friends here."

He is disarmingly comfortable talking about his condition, perhaps more comfortable than people talking to him about it. He's a spokesman for a foundation focused on a cure, helping in any way he can to raise money for research. He was involved in one recent fundraiser that pulled in more than $2 million in one night.

Short of that miracle Bridgman is looking for, the disease isn't going away.

"It gets worse over time," he says. "There is no treatment. There is no cure."

An articulate young man, Bridgman pauses a bit when asked about his prognosis hoping for the best, ready for the worst.

"The prognosis for me, in two or three years, is ... I guess ... I mean ... It's always, I mean FA affects people in different ways. It's hard to say what's its' going to be like."

Now, he says, it is getting more and more difficult to perform some simple tasks.

"It's getting harder to eat food," he says, "harder to tie my shoes and button my shirt. Harder to brush my teeth, even getting the toothpaste on the toothbrush.

"There are some days that I don't feel like even getting out of bed."

On those days, he turns to friends and family for support, for motivation. He listens to rousing talks of sports icons, like Jimmy Valvano. "Never. Give. Up."

And Sam Bridgman will never give up.

"Number One: I do it for myself," he says with resolve. "I've always wanted to work in sports and be successful. I want to show myself that I can do it. Number Two: I want to do it for my family. And Number Three: I want to show my friends and others with FA that they can do whatever they want to do. If they have a mind to do it, they can accomplish that."

Asked about being an inspiration to others, not only afflicted with FA, but to everyone, Bridgman shrugged, his modesty showing through.

"I think that anytime you have an opportunity to motivate and inspire others to live better lives, well, it is just something really cool to see."

Sam Bridgman

All that aside, he's about to meet the next immediate challenge head on, as a graduate student walking – not rolling – across the stage Saturday night to receive his diploma. He will have achieved far more than many expected: an MBA and master's degree in sport and entertainment management, among the most marketable degrees offered at the university. It has translated into a full-time job with the Lightning, voted the best in professional sports by ESPN Ultimate Standings "in categories that matter most to fans."

"Sam started with us two years ago and he made an immediate impact on everybody here," says Matt Hill, vice president of suites, premium and group tickets with the Tampa Bay Lightning. "Sam is a special guy. He brings a way and a spirit with him that is contagious.

"He knows everybody here. He really has an ability to connect and relate to people."

It's a perfect match for the work Bridgman will be doing, Hill says.

"He's got a skill set that you wish you could put into everybody," Hill says. "He's got a work ethic that is second to none. The world needs more Sam Bridgmans. The guy truly makes everybody around him better."

When Hill met Bridgman's parents, "I thanked them for sharing him with us."

"Sam has been an inspiration to our entire Lightning organization," said Lightning CEO Steve Griggs. "He is a very bright young man and over the past two years since joining the Lightning, he's done an exceptional job with all of his projects and tasks. It's been a pleasure to watch him grow professionally.

"We are excited to have Sam join the organization on a full-time basis," he said. "He has proven to be a tireless worker and embodies the world class spirit that we strive for in our organization.".

Sutton, whose graduate program has close ties with the Lightning, says Bridgman earned the position.

"Sam wanted a real job," Sutton says. "He didn't want someone to pay him to just be around. And now, he's part of that family. He's part of that community. He's built relationships here and there.

"The Lightning is great for him," Sutton says. "They love him. He's now an integral part of who they are."

Pretty much, just like everyone who's ever met Sam Bridgman.