As a former Division I college football player for the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, Justin Moon faced many challenges on the field.
But more than a decade later, the 36-year-old step dad may have met his toughest opponent yet, when coronavirus left him fighting for his life earlier this summer just days before he was set to get his first dose of vaccine, he said.
“There's only one other step beyond where I was at, and that's cremation or going in your box,” Moon, who is still hospitalized but on the road to recovery, told ABC News. “I actually died for 4 minutes, and they paddled me and brought me back.”
Moon, of Guntersville, Alabama, was an athlete his entire life, and prior to his COVID diagnosis, he said he had no known underlying health conditions.
“I was never sick, and never missed a day of work,” said Moon, who has spent more than 10 weeks in the hospital, including nearly six weeks on a ventilator. “I could not do anything but blink. I could not talk, did not raise my head up off the pillow. You got to understand, being a 300-pound former athlete… man, that was tough.”
Now he and his wife, Mel, have dedicated themselves to spreading the word about vaccination and said that their efforts have helped encourage some 250 people to get their shots.
'Never dreamt...this would be our story'
What had first seemed to be a sinus infection in July, turned out to be much more severe than anyone could have imagined, said Moon’s wife, Mel.
“We never dreamt in a million years that this would be our story,” said Mel.
When his symptoms worsened, Justin was taken to the hospital, and within six days of hospitalization, he was put on a ventilator.
“At one point, the doctors told my aunt, my stepdaughter and my wife to prepare to get a call in the next 24 hours, to come up here, you know, say goodbye. It is going to happen, it's just a matter of time,” said Moon.
When the vaccines became widely available, Moon said he was hesitant given the mixed messaging on vaccinations in political circles. Even though the company he works for, Waste Connections, encouraged workers to get vaccinated, he chose not to get the shot after avoiding the disease during the first wave of the pandemic.
“I was very unsure, so I stood still. And I was wrong,” Moon said.
'COVID doesn't care'
Across the state of Alabama, just 42% of residents have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus as of Wednesday, a reality that drove the state to a record-breaking surge over the summer. Although infection rates are beginning to abate, less than 2% of intensive care unit beds remain available across the state.
The vast majority of the patients who are currently hospitalized at the University of Alabama Birmingham have not been vaccinated, according to the hospital, Brent Patterson, and those who tend to fare better and avoid severe illness are vaccinated.
“COVID doesn’t care. If you are healthy, but unvaccinated, it is gonna take everyone,” Patterson said.
Just prior to his diagnosis, Moon grew concerned by the increasing number of infections in the state. After a colleague tested positive for the virus, Moon said he overcame his skepticism, and made the decision, along with his wife, Mel, to get vaccinated.
His decision, ultimately, came too late, when he tested positive for the virus just days prior to when he planned to get the shot.
“If I had not been unsure of the vaccine, it would have probably gone like a lot of other stories,” said Moon. “Headaches, short breath, laying on the couch.”
'Do your homework'
In an effort to help people truly understand the realities of COVID-19, the Moon family decided to share their story in their community.
“We don't want anyone to ever have to go through what we've gone through. And that's the lesson we learned: don't stand still, do your homework. Don't listen to the wrong forces, talk to your physician, and your family,” Mel said. “There can’t be anything about being vaccinated that is as bad as this.”
So far, Moon’s wife, who is working to get the word out along with his employer, says his story has convinced at least 250 unvaccinated people within the community to get the shot.
Moon's family have been collecting texts and emails from people, who have reached out to let them know that they have got vaccinated after hearing Justin's story. As of this week, they said they have heard from at least 250 newly vaccinated people.
“They hear the entire story of what's going on with me, and, if they were in doubt, or we're just in the same situation that I was, they see me, and see that I very, very seldom got sick or had any issues… if we could affect Justin like this… it can be much, much worse,” Justin Moon said.
Moon still has a long road ahead of him, undergoing grueling rehabilitation, as he works to regain his strength and his sense of feeling in his dominant right arm, which is still completely numb. He is also learning how to stand up and walk again, and he still needs oxygen after walking a few feet.
“Not too many people get a second chance at life,” said Moon. “But it didn't have to be like that. The story could have gone very different.”