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March 6, 2007Tim Hawthorne is walking with a limp. When he tries to rise out of his chair at the end of an interview at the Auburn athletic complex, he struggles to find the strength.
His forehead is covered in bruises. His nose is one big bloody gash.
He has trouble taking deep breaths thanks to severe rib bruises. And doctors at East Alabama Medical Center told him he's sustained a mild concussion.
But he's not complaining. He knows how much worse things could be.
Hawthorne, a redshirt freshman wide receiver, survived a catastrophic car wreck early Sunday morning.
His friend, Auburn student Claude Reese, wasn't so lucky. Reese, who was sitting directly in front of Hawthorne in the front seat of a friend's Nissan Pathfinder, didn't survive the wreck.
"I'm very blessed to even be alive," Hawthorne said. "I wasn't supposed to be here today. My life was spared."
It's Hawthorne's second serious car accident in less than three months. He went to the hospital after an accident in his hometown of Birmingham in December.
Sunday's wreck was much, much worse.
Hawthorne, Reese and four other friends were on their way back from a day-trip to Decatur, Ga., to see Hawthorne's brother.
It had been a long day, starting with an AU football scrimmage at 10 a.m. The group didn't leave Decatur until around 1:30 a.m., according to Hawthorne.
They were more than halfway home when tragedy struck, on Interstate 85 between LaGrange, Ga., and the state line. The passengers, Hawthorne and Reese included, had dozed off. The car was quiet.
It was so quiet, the driver, Brian Sutherlin - as tired as his passengers - dozed off.
The SUV began to swerve. Hawthorne woke up as the vehicle veered right
"I don't know how fast we were going, but we were going pretty fast at the time," he said.
They were moving too fast for the SUV, which began to turn over. Once the flips started, they seemed to go on forever.
"We must have flipped at least 20 times," Hawthorne said.
Hawthorne, who wasn't wearing a seatbelt, was thrown against the ceiling, then tossed back and forth inside the backseat. By the time the car finally righted itself and crashed into a tree, every window had shattered.
Hawthorne was hanging partially out one window, dazed, bruised and bloody.
When he recovered enough to move around, he pulled himself out of the battered car with the help of one of his friends. His first move was toward the front seat, to check on Reese.
The crash had torn Reese's door from the vehicle. The Pathfinder's dashboard had crumpled over his legs. His white jacket was covered in blood.
"I thought the worst - I thought he was dead right then," Hawthorne said. "He had blood everywhere."
As Hawthorne tried to move the wreckage of the dashboard and glove compartment off his friend, Reese moved feebly.
Hawthorne kept talking, hoping to get some sort of response. But Reese never answered.
"He was moving, but that was it," Hawthorne said.
Eventually, Reese and Sutherlin were airlifted to Columbus Medical Center. Reese was pronounced dead at 3 p.m. Sunday. Sutherlin remains in intensive care, being treated for a shattered leg - broken in three places - and a bruised pelvis.
Hawthorne's most serious injuries are inside.
"I'm just afraid over everything," he said. "I'm very cautious about anything, whether it's being in a car or just walking or anything.
"It'll take some time for me to get over it."
Football is on the back burner for now. He says he's probably finished with spring practice, thanks to his physical injuries.
He's certainly not focused on football for now.
"I'm just thinking about the family that just suffered a loss, thinking about the rest of the people who were injured in the accident," Hawthorne said. "I'm trying to get myself healthy.
"I'm thinking about my friend, who's still in the hospital as we speak."
Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville isn't rushing his redshirt freshman star back to the practice field. He's hoping the tragedy will teach Hawthorne to be more careful.
"When you're growing up, you've got to understand you're not invincible," Tuberville said. "Tim learned a valuable lesson."
Hawthorne has learned his lesson. He just wishes it hadn't come at such a terrible price.
Collin Mickle covers the Auburn beat for the Opelika-Auburn News