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A surfing accident left him paralyzed and unable to breathe on his own. A few words from a police officer changed his life.

For former teacher Billy Keenan, life had always been about action. He had served in the Army. He mastered musical instruments including the flute, guitar, bass guitar and piano. As a competitive triathlete and surfer, he completed numerous 5K, 10K and half-marathon runs. “I was at the peak of my powers,” he said.

But on Sept. 14, 2013, at the Jersey Shore.

I rode that wave, fell off my board, hit my head on the ocean floor,” Keenan told CBS News. “Everything faded to black.”

Keenan woke up in a hospital room two and a half weeks later. He had been paralyzed from the shoulders down and the medical team didn’t expect him to regain independent breathing.

“I resembled a train wreck,” he said. “I had a halo brace drilled into my skull to keep my head, neck immobilized. And I had a trach tube doing my breathing for me.”

Keenan called it one of the worst days of his life, saying it was “a lot of darkness.” When a parent of a former student visited him at the hospital, they handed him the phone.

It was NYPD Detective Steven McDonald. McDonald had survived a shooting in 1986. He eventually forgave his assailant. But he too was paralyzed. He became a public speaker, preaching the importance of forgiveness.

That day, he had advice for Keenan. At , Keenan recalled what McDonald had told him.

The only reason you survive is when you’re better, when you’re stronger, when your rehab is over, you’re going to come back and contribute in a significant way,” he said. “Don’t ever forget that in the end, there will be life.”

Keenan looked back on his life. As a former Army lieutenant and paratrooper, he realized he had been accustomed to what he called “deliberate discomfort.”

“I was challenging myself, but positively, when times were good, never knowing that I would need those times — that evidence of resilience — when everything went wrong,” Keenan told CBS News. “My experience as a soldier and then my experience as a dad.”

Drawing on his own faith and that reminder from McDonald, Keenan overcame the odds. Four months after his accident, he was able to breathe on his own again.

Billy Keenan shortly after a surfing accident left him paralyzed from the shoulders down in September 2013.

If you look at that picture, you would never think that that guy was going to be able to breathe again,” Keenan said. “You would never think that that guy was going to be able to teach again.”

In 2015, Keenan went back to teaching, but later retired. When , Keenan decided to start helping others — just like McDonald had — by becoming a motivational speaker.

With the energy I have left, you know, I try to be there as a steward and as a light of inspiration for, you know, the human family,” he said.

He published an autobiography in 2023 — “The Road to Resilience: The Billy Keenan Story” — and is already working on his next book, a new coming-of-age story called “I Am Iron Man.”

Keenan believes that on that day in the hospital, McDonald delivered him a message from God he needed to hear.

I’ve come to realize that conversation — those words — were not coming from Steven,” Keenan said at Berkeley College. “They were coming through Steven. I truly believe that he was the messenger from God to save a terribly lost soul.”

CBS News reporter Michael Roppolo is one of Billy Keenan’s former students.