As a senior at McKinley High School in 1965, Thomas Fulton was a 1,100-yard rusher and one of the most sought-after high school football players in the Washington area. A 6-foot-2, 220-pound fullback, Fulton was an all-Interhigh selection and was named Most Outstanding Football Player in the league by the D.C. Football Officials Association. To those who followed the Interhigh in the mid-'60s, Fulton is still the standard by which all others are judged.
Fulton lives with those memories. But now he also must live with something else: multiple sclerosis. The disease struck Fulton in 1974, and by '78 it had him bedridden and wheelchair-bound. He now can do very little for himself. Day-to-day living is a struggle.
Through it all, Tom Fulton has maintained the same attitude he had when he faced tacklers on the football field. He's met MS head-on.
"Tom was very pragmatic and realistic about what he was dealing with," said Dr. Richard Edelson, who worked with Fulton when the illness first began taking its toll on his body. "He wanted to know what we could do to fight it. He was out running when he could barely walk. And he went back to school when he could hardly see. He was just very determined to beat it somehow."
"I told my doctor that he was crazy when he first told me I had MS," Fulton remembers with a laugh. "I felt the first effects in '74 when my equilibrium wasn't right. I felt off balance all the time. I got it diagnosed in '75 and that next year I had to move back home with my mother because I began having trouble getting around. So I put myself on a jogging program as a way to fight it.
"I started running in February and by the summer I was running three miles a day," he said. "But I had to stop that because my legs were getting weaker and I had less and less control of them. I said to myself, 'Boy, you better get back in school while you still got your mind.' "
Fulton did just that, enrolling at the then-Federal City College and taking up accounting. From the time he started classes in the fall of 1976 to the time he had to withdraw in '78, Fulton was a dean's list student.
"My clear vision started leaving me," he said. "I was still tops in the class but I could no longer keep up. I couldn't see and write. I've tutored people since then. I have that knowledge stored up. I know accounting thoroughly."
Fulton now regrets not taking advantage of the many scholarship offers he had when he finished high school. He had considered going to Nebraska, Ohio State or West Point. All three schools recruited him actively.
"I fell in love and wanted to get married," he said. "I got on the wrong track. I had been poor all my life and, instead of going to school, I wanted to start making money right away and have a family. I never liked the thought of being poor. I was determined to be something and I didn't think I needed football to do that. I was naive enough to think that I could step right out into the world and get on top right away."
Fulton never did get married. Instead he went into the Army, where his brief stint was aborted after 29 days because of an old football injury. He then went to work for the United Planning Organization as a youth organizer. At age 23, he landed a job as a housing inspector for the D.C. government. Later he opened a crab house with his sister and got his first taste of the kind of success he had wanted. It was then that MS began affecting him.
Many of the people who were Fulton's friends before he was stricken with MS still come around now. They are impressed, though not surprised, by his attitude toward life and how he has tried to overcome his handicap.
"Fulton was always a very aggressive and determined young man," said Ralph Jordan, his football coach at McKinley. "He had a lot of drive and he still does because he grew up with that. He was a natural leader. . . . He was a joy to be around and to work with."
"Tom is always prefacing what he says with, 'When I get up from here,' " said Gerald Dindy, one of Fulton's longtime friends. "He has a frame of mind that is hard to believe sometimes. He is inspiring. They say that MS is not curable, but from being around Tom, I don't believe it."
"It's something to see Tom like this after having known him when he was healthy," said Warren (Boat) Jackson, a basketball star at McKinley during Fulton's days there. "That guy came to Tech and was the best in the city his sophomore year! He had a winning attitude and even now he doesn't have a defeatist one. He'll never give up."
Fulton said that his faith in God has kept him going.
"I would like to be more active in church but that's not possible now," he said. "My minister comes around on the first Sunday of each month and gives me Communion, and I get visits from my friends at church. My faith hasn't wavered. What good is being bitter going to do? That won't make me well again. I just have to continue to trust in the Lord."