To say that Brandon Jones was surprised when he received the Principal's Award at Harford Technical High School's senior awards banquet Wednesday is a gross understatement. In fact, he was overwhelmed.
And when his classmates gave him a standing ovation upon hearing his named announced as recipient of the award, he was even more moved.
"What a way to leave high school," the 18-year-old Havre de Grace resident said. "I won't ever forget how awesome I felt seeing my classmates clapping and cheering for me."
His classmates knew the long and difficult road Brandon traveled to be standing before them. Just more than two years ago, Brandon was severely burned and nearly died when the outfit he was wearing during a paintball game caught fire.
An arduous recovery was followed by the long effort to regain his footing in his personal life, catching up with his classmates academically and attempting to resume playing sports - all the while coping with the disfigurement that resulted from the accident.
"Brandon is a true example of courage and bravery," said Charles Hagan, principal at Harford Technical High School.
In February 2004, Jones and friends were in the woods playing paintball to celebrate his 16th birthday.
Jones - who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 260 pounds - lighted a smoke bomb that he planned to lob toward opposing players to screen himself. But the bomb sparked on his right wrist and the camouflage suit he was wearing caught fire.
"The gun caught on fire, and I tried to put that out," he said. "I tried rolling on the ground and my friends were throwing snow on me. But it kept burning."
His father, Scott Jones, arrived at the scene.
"I thought the woods were on fire," said the elder Jones, a 47-year-old truck driver. "Then I realized it was a person and then I realized it was Brandon."
Scott Jones ran to his son and put the flames out with his hands.
"I wasn't thinking at the time," he said. "I was running on adrenaline I think."
Scott Jones pulled what remained of the camouflage suit off his son, who walked out of the woods under his own power.
The cold breeze on the burns caused excruciating pain, Scott Jones said.
"I knew his injuries were bad, but not as bad as they were," he said.
Brandon was taken by ambulance to the burn center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. His mother met them there.
"When I first saw him at the hospital, he apologized to me right away," Cindy Jones said. "He was telling me not to cry."
Doctors put Brandon into a medically induced coma before coming out to talk with his parents.
"They told us that the next 48 hours would be touch-and-go," his mother said. "He had sustained third-degree burns on about 40 percent of his body."
After tending Brandon's wounds, the medical staff tried to explain to the Joneses what they would see when they entered their son's room. But his mother said nothing could prepare them for Brandon's appearance.
Brandon's head was significantly swollen and all of his facial hair had been shaved. His body was bloated and covered with bandages.
"When we went into his room, they told us that he could hear us, but that he couldn't speak," Cindy Jones said. "He communicated with us. He would shake his leg, to get me to scratch it for him."
After spending 21 days in a coma, Brandon awoke.
"They said that his good physical condition was probably what saved him," Cindy Jones said. "He was into weightlifting and played lacrosse."
But Brandon was not the same.
"He spoke but in a low monotone voice," Cindy Jones said. "None of his personality was in his voice. It was very strange."
His parents weren't sure what Brandon would think the first time he looked in a mirror.
"I have never cared too much about appearance," Brandon said. "It took me a while to adjust to it. But I didn't get upset when I saw my face."
Eighteen days after he awoke, he was transferred to the AI duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del. A rigorous rehabilitation followed.
"I was like an infant," Brandon said. "I had to learn to feed myself and bathe all over again. It made me realize how much we take for granted and how quickly it can all be taken away."
Although his progress seemed slow, Brandon did better than expected. His mother attributes his speedy recovery to his determination. For example, when he arrived, he couldn't feed himself. The staff pushed Brandon to take on as much as he could and at times he was irked that he didn't get more help eating.
"They insisted at the rehabilitation center that if Brandon was going to eat, he had to feed himself," his mother said. "He got down to 160 pounds. But eventually he did it."
His parents brought his lacrosse stick to the hospital and put it in a corner to help motivate him. His doctors told him he would never play lacrosse or paintball again.
"That really upset him and he refused to accept it," Cindy Jones said.
After Brandon's discharge from the rehabilitation center, Cindy Jones went to work to get him to use his right hand. Brandon favored his left hand because his burns were primarily on the right side of his body.
"I would make him load the dishwasher or vacuum using only his right hand," she said. "He would get so mad at me and ask me why I was treating him that way."
When he started going out in public again, Brandon had to adjust to the stares and the barrage of questions he got from strangers.
"He would go to the grocery store with me wearing a huge sombrero, a face mask and his skin was blood red," Cindy Jones said. "People would stare at him. I didn't care what he looked like because he was alive."
But to help out at school, Hagan, the principal, had a representative from the burn center make a presentation for the students because Brandon had to wear a plastic mask to help with the healing process.
"People at school didn't know if they should ask him questions, or if they should say anything at all," said Morgan, Brandon's 16-year-old sister, also a Harford Tech student. "So they asked me tons of questions."
Meanwhile, Brandon began working his way back to his two passions: lacrosse and paintball.
Four months after the accident, he played paintball, albeit with some changes.
"I don't wear a ghillie suit or use smoke bombs anymore," Brandon said.
And for a while, he couldn't play unless his father was with him.
"My dad has always played paintball with me so I didn't care," Brandon said. "He kept coming with me until he realized that I was OK."
Getting back on the lacrosse field was much tougher. Six months after his accident, Brandon went to a field and began practicing.
"Everyone was surprised, because I'm a goalie," he said. "The balls come at me 90 miles an hour and when they hit me it hurts. But I got through it."
Brandon did more than that.
He missed a semester of his sophomore year, but managed to complete the year with home tutors. He graduated with a 3.3 grade point average. He also became captain of the lacrosse team his senior year.
"He is such a role model for dealing with adversity," Hagan said. "What he went through was horrible. Yet he came back and set an example for other students. I am in awe of his character."
Brandon plans to attend Drexel University in the fall to study mechanical engineering.
And more than two years after his accident, his mother said it's almost as though it never happened.
"He realizes what's most important in his life," Cindy Jones said. "He is more pleasant than he was before the accident, and he spends a lot of time with us. I feel like I aged 10 years in those two months he was in the hospital, but Brandon is alive and doing much better than anyone expected. That's what matters."