Orlando Carrillo Maffei is living his dream.
Although it's not exactly the way he'd imagined it.
This past Saturday, he once again rolled across the graduation stage in his wheelchair to receive his second degree from UT Arlington. Maffei earned his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the school in 2016. Now, he has a master’s of construction management.
He also spent three of his undergraduate years playing for the Movin' Mavs, UTA's collegiate wheelchair basketball team.
That wheelchair became a part of his life after he fought off a kidnapping attempt in Venezuela back in 2006.
'Venezuela is the most corrupt country in the Western Hemisphere'
Growing up in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Maffei always knew that guerillas from either side of the Colombia-Venezuela border might come for him.
Since the death of Medellin drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, militia groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) assumed control of the drug trade, as well as sex trafficking and illegal arms dealing operations.
In Venezuela, citizens suffered under the reign of President Hugo Chavez from 1999 until his death in 2013. Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, has since presided over a worsening economic crisis that has drawn major criticism across Venezuela, South America and the nations around the world.
"Venezuela is the most corrupt country in the Western Hemisphere and it's also one of the countries with the weakest rule of law in the hemisphere, which means there are no rules," said Mark P. Jones, a Latin American studies professor in the Department of Political Science at Rice University.
Traditionally, the youngest son of a family is the primary target of these guerrilla groups, which put Maffei in greater danger than his nine other siblings. His father, Orlando Carrillo Leon, owned a prominent construction company that prospered mightily, until Chavez took power.
'Get in the car and don't look at my face'
Over time, Maffei’s school and gym schedules had become predictable. On this particular evening, he had decided to park his car on the street instead of inside the garage. When he leaned over to pick trash off the floor of his car outside his father's house, he felt the barrel of a gun impact his skull.
Moments after getting pistol whipped, he regained his senses. "Get in the car and don't look at my face," the man said as he pressed the muzzle into his side.
But even though his bodyguard had just gone inside and the weapon he usually kept in the glove box of his car was out of reach, Maffei was not going to be kidnapped or killed without putting up a serious fight. He actually earned his black belt in taekwondo when he was 16, partially in anticipation of this exact moment.
As his kidnapper became momentarily distracted by the commotion of people walking down the street, the then-22-year-old wheeled around and kicked the hand holding the gun.
Despite his valiant effort, the weapon still discharged and the bullet found its way through his midsection, hitting part of his spinal cord. All he could recall from the ensuing moments was the all-consuming desire to chase after the man responsible and his accomplice. But the moment he tried to set off in pursuit, he realized his legs didn’t work.
Eventually, the paramedics arrived and loaded him into an ambulance. Maffei tried as hard as he could to stay awake on the way to the hospital.
"I told him (the paramedics) to tell my parents that I love them and I am sorry for everything that I've done," Maffei said. "Growing up you misbehave. I ran away from home when I was 15. I wanted to tell them sorry because I thought I was going to die."
The paramedics and doctors did as much as they could before he fell into a coma that lasted almost eight weeks.
When he finally woke, he saw his mother, who had flown down from her home in Utah, crying.
The doctors had informed her that the accident had left her son a paraplegic. There was a high probability that he might suffer unconscionable pain in his left and parts of his right leg for the rest of his life.
"My first thought was not: Will I be in a wheelchair?" he said. "I was wondering what's going to happen to my girlfriend? I wanted kids and a family at some point. What's going to happen now? Who is going to want to be with a guy in a wheelchair? I didn't shed a tear, but I just didn't know if any of that was possible."
'I'm going to get out of here somehow'
Once he came out of the coma, the doctor told him his physical response and arduous rehab would determine his condition. If his injury was 'complete' he would not regain any feeling in either of his legs. If it was incomplete he could regain some movement.
“I wasn’t sad or mad,” he said. "I told myself, ‘I am going to get out of here somehow.’ I knew I was going to get good medical care with help from my father. I had a strong mentality before and after the accident. The support of my family helped, too, because they were willing to do anything for me.”
After a year of therapy and rehab he regained some movement in his right leg. His left leg remained dead.
In 2008, he moved to Miami where he underwent more therapy, rehab and treatment under the care of the world-renowned The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which focuses on developing cures of various forms of paralysis.
In 2008, he was operated on by Dr. Barth Green, who once performed a surgery on actor Christopher Reeve that allowed the famed actor to live without his ventilator. Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down after suffering a tragic horseback riding accident in June of 1995.
Unfortunately, Green's surgery on Maffei didn't lessen the pain at all. Things got so bad he would go up to five days at a time without sleeping.
There was another potential procedure he could try at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. The hospital specializes in neuro-rehabilitation and research of patients with traumatic spinal cord and brain injuries.
But the negative side effects had the potential to undo all of the progress he had made with his right leg and could render him almost permanently impotent.
Then, during one of those miserable sleepless nights in 2009, his mind went to the darkest place imaginable for the first and only time in his life.
“I started thinking: How could I kill myself? What was the easiest way where I wouldn’t have to suffer?” he said. “My mind was going crazy without sleep. And then my brain kind of clicked and I said to myself, ‘What are you thinking? You’ve never thought about this before.’ But the pain was killing me and I had to do something.”
So in 2010, he took a big chance and scheduled the procedure in Colorado.
When he awoke, he assumed that the near complete absence of pain in his left leg was due to the effects of the drugs still present in his system. But after two weeks, his left and right legs were virtually pain-free.
'It's all been a blessing to me'
When he returned to Miami post-operation, he started feeling like himself again.
But when a friend suggested he come by to a nearby gym and give amateur wheelchair basketball a try, Maffei hesitated.
“I still thought I was different than everyone else (with this condition),” he said. “I used to go out to movies and bars, and I thought I was different than all the guys that were playing. I assumed they were sad and depressed, but many of them weren't. I realized I was the same.
"I met two guys that played for Miami Heat Wheels and I saw their positive attitudes. Then I went to a practice and saw guys getting up on one wheel, doing handstands and pushups with the chair up in the air. I was amazed and I loved it."
But the physical dynamics of this sport differed so much from the game he loved as a youth. Maffei's first two shots in the gym were both airballs. On the third try, he finally sunk one.
The arc, angle, strength of his shot, not to mention the muscles he had to use, were all different. It took him a whole year-and-a-half of training with the team before he got on the Heat Wheels' roster and played in games.
During that time, the team reached out to filmmaker Shaina Koren to direct a commercial that would help raise money for the amateur organization. Koren didn't know anything about the team or the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, but she would go on to produce the award-winning documentary 'The Rebound.' Her piece focused on the harrowing back stories of Maffei and two other Heat Wheels' players.
The production allowed him the opportunity to discuss not only his condition, but the issues plaguing his home country. Now he's considering writing an autobiography that would be edited by a professor at UTA.
“With the documentary and on my own, I try to let people know how it is, but it’s hard to change people’s perspective,” he said. “There is always going to be some kind of judgment.
"It’s been a blessing to me, because if this all didn’t happen to me, I don’t know where I’d be. I’ve grown so much as a person, mentally. I value things more. It’s something that I didn’t expect. It changes how you see others, how others see you. It really provided perspective.”
Ballin' with the Movin' Mavs
In 2013, Maffei applied to several schools and accepted a scholarship to UT Arlington. When he arrived on campus, he was also introduced to Doug Garner, the head coach of UTA's wheelchair basketball team, the Movin' Mavs.
"A lot of people get into sport as part of their therapy or rehab, but if they were athletes before, they find that competitive drive to get out there and be the best they can be,” said Garner, who has been with UTA since 2007.
Maffei thoroughly embodied that sentiment. He committed to the 20-hour-a-week schedule, including practices, games and weight training, so that he could be as good a player and teammate as he was a student.
Every athlete is given a classification based on his functional capacity after his injury, with one being the least able and four being the most able. A team can only put 14 points at a time, which allows everyone to participate and creates a competitive balance. Maffei's condition put him in the 2-point category, but his speed made an excellent defender and a great role player on offense.
After three years of balancing athletics and academics, though, Maffei realized that he needed to devote as much time as he could to starting his professional career.
According to three of his professors from UTA, Maffei's mathematical adaptability, work ethic and attention to detail earned him excellent grades. He also was never late, always participated in class, and never asked for special accommodations despite his physical limitations.
'OK, what's next?'
Two days before his graduation, the 34-year-old was a little bit flustered.
Twenty-two members of his family had flown in for the occasion, and he spent much of Thursday and Friday shuttling back and forth between a Dallas hotel and the airport.
"The fact that I'm the second one to earn a master's degree (in my family) and the first male to do so?" he said. "I'm proud of that. I did this for my family. And to show people that my condition and privilege would not keep me from doing what I wanted to do."
Despite the potential danger, some of his family members, including his father, still reside and work in San Cristobal. Maffei himself has even risked returning a few times since the incident.
He hopes to see an end to the strife in San Cristobal and wants to be part of the solution. But he doesn't envision himself getting directly involved with politics.
Maffei is a U.S. citizen and has dreamed of his father obtaining a green card so that the two could potentially start a construction business here in DFW.
He refuses to settle.
“It’s about what you can do and then what you try," he said. "I think people are comfortable and don’t push themselves past their limits. I try to push myself to do more and more. Like right now I am finishing this (degree). It’s not enough. I say ‘OK, what’s next?’ ”