Ray Cerda was a 16-year-old finishing up his junior year of high school. He had just played in the Irving High School Black/Gold game and was preparing for a summer of fun, college visits and training to be the starting quarterback of the Irving Tiger football team.

Instead, Cerda spent the summer of 1981 in a rehabilitation center relearning basic motor skills.

Cerda was ejected through the sunroof of a pickup in a late-night accident on Highway 114 between Grapevine and Irving. After four days in a coma, he awoke as a quadraplegic, confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. 

Despite the obstacles, Cerda was resilient. He graduated with his class. He earned an associate’s degree from North Lake College and later a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington before launching a 30-year career in municipal government, starting as a seasonal employee and retiring as director of parks and recreation from the City of Irving in 2018.

“After a couple of weeks of going, ‘what am I going to do now?’ after I retired, I decided to go ahead and write a life story,” he says. “I had kept a journal my entire career, and I had written things down.” 

Cerda compiled those reflections and a list of life lessons into a self-published book, The Life I Didn’t Expect (available on Amazon). Over the last two weeks, Cerda visited student-athletes at Irving, MacArthur and Nimitz high schools sharing his story and copies of the book.

“At their age, they don’t realize you’re not invincible, anything can happen to you,” he says. “No matter how connected you are, how popular you are, how smart you are, you’re not invincible. Things can change in a heartbeat. I’m living proof of that.”

That’s why he’s sharing his story. He hopes to inspire anyone facing a tragedy.

“Just because things happen to you in a tragic situation, know that the sun is going to come out tomorrow,” he says. “You can still be a productive citizen and have fulfillment in your life. You can overcome anything that comes your way.”