DAILY NEWS STAFF
Greg Acosta was the kid who made everybody laugh.
During his senior year at Jacksonville High School in 2005, he was voted class clown and most unforgettable in the yearbook.
He was a laid back kind of guy who didn't have a care in the world.
But life has changed for the 20-year-old. It took just a split second, said his mother, Sandy Acosta of Jacksonville.
Greg Acosta attended a St. Patrick's Day party at a friend's house in the Northwoods area March 17. He went hoping to have a good time, but he ended up in the middle of a dispute that put him in New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington with a traumatic head injury.
Joseph Aragona, 19, of Shadowood Drive, was charged by the Jacksonville Police Department with assault inflicting serious bodily injury, which is a felony. Aragona is accused of inflicting frontal and temporal damage as well as contusions and hemorrhaging in Greg Acosta.
At first glance, it's difficult to tell that the left side of Greg Acosta's face was fractured - allegedly by Aragona's fist - or that he has hearing loss and can't open his jaw very wide.
The scars on the back of his head - where he hit the concrete, bounced and hit the concrete a second time - are now hidden behind wavy brown hair. There's little sign that the force of the blow caused his brain to bleed and swell.
His memory loss and confusion when information just doesn't add up aren't readily apparent. A somber mood has replaced his usual playfulness. He sometimes stares into space and spends a lot of time struggling with headaches that are now commonplace.
"He can breathe, but he can't smell," Sandy Acosta said. "He can eat, but he can't taste."
He can't drive. He can't work. He and his parents have no health insurance, and medical bills are mounting.
Still, the message that Sandy Acosta wants to drive home to other kids is that there are better ways to resolve differences.
"If I could touch one person - one kid - and make them realize that the most effective way to hash out something with a friend is verbally and not physically," she said.
Aragona and Greg Acosta weren't enemies. They both played together on Jacksonville High's football team. The Acostas sat next to Aragona's family at football games. While Greg Acosta was a year ahead of Aragona, they both hung out with each other at last year's senior prom.
On the night of March 17, however, Aragona allegedly got into a dispute with a friend of Greg Acosta's that escalated into punches. Acosta approached in an attempt to find out what was going on. That's when warrants allege that Aragona hit him. The case has not gone to court.
Julius Acosta III, Greg's younger brother, rushed him to Onslow Memorial Hospital. When his parents arrived, they heard the news no parent wants to hear.
"We've got to get your son out of here," Sandy Acosta said she was told by doctors. "He has serious head trauma."
Greg Acosta was vomiting profusely. He was transferred to New Hanover Regional Hospital and then put in a drug-induced coma. While he didn't stay in the hospital long, it will be six months to a year before doctors will know if Acosta will make a full recovery.
Acosta knows he's different, but he's not quite sure how to get back to who he once was.
"I used to be that funny guy," he said and offered a smile. "Trying to find happiness is harder."
He's still trying to come to grips with what happened.
After the incident, many of Acosta's friends wanted to defend him. But Sandy Acosta asked them to focus their attention on helping her son get better.
"I told them that justice comes through the court," she said. "I'd rather you pray for Greg and leave Joe and his family alone. The first thing kids think about is what do we do to get even."
And that was the last thing Sandy Acosta wanted.
Sandy Acosta was grateful her son was alive and overwhelmed by the support she received from family and friends who gathered at the hospital. Aragona's aunt and grandmother even went to the hospital to check on Greg, she said.
"I don't want so much animosity," Sandy Acosta said. "There's so much animosity in the world. We don't need more."
Still, as a mother, Sandy Acosta worries every day. Greg, who experiences piercing pain in his head daily, is prone to seizures. She now understands why some mothers who lose a child to an overdose or to suicide frequently become active in educating others about their situation.
"I can appreciate it now," she said. "This can happen to you. Your whole life can change."