After being paralyzed in accident, Mealer will lead Michigan on field
With two canes, Brock Mealer will lead Michigan out of tunnel on Saturday
Doctors told Brock he had a one percent chance of ever walking again
With the help of Michigan strength staff, Mealer has fought to get use of legs back
Around 9:35 p.m. on Christmas Eve three years ago in the small northwest Ohio town of Wauseon, David Mealer drove his family to Midnight Mass. The family had been on their way home from a holiday party and made sure to leave in time to get to the church, a long-standing tradition on Christmas Eve for the Mealers. Along with David, a 50-year-old family man, were his wife, Shelly, and his sons Brock and Elliott, athletic boys who had both found sports they loved in high school -- basketball for Brock, football for Elliott. Hollis Richer, Elliott's longtime girlfriend and a charming 17-year-old girl who knew the Bible like the back of her hand, was also with them. Hollis had fallen asleep on Elliott's shoulder. The rest of the car was quiet.
As David moved toward the intersection of Route 2 and Fulton County Road 19, the last thing he saw was 90-year-old Edward Johnson running a stop sign. Johnson's 1991 Buick Skylark smashed into the Mealers' SUV, toppling it onto its passenger side.
David and Hollis died in the accident. Elliott would require shoulder surgery and rehabilitation before he could return to football.
Brock, who was 23 at the time, ended up pinned between the SUV and the ground. He could not move his legs. He was immediately brought to nearby Fulton County Hospital, but was unable to receive surgery there. He later spent 10 days at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, where he underwent spinal surgery. There, doctors told him that his T-12 vertebra was broken and his L-1 vertebra was shattered. He had also broken his right forearm near his wrist. For days after his surgery, he couldn't sit upright without assistance. Nights were the hardest on his mother Shelly, who slept in a chair to be near her son. "At night, in the beginning, he cried for his mother every night," Shelly said. "And he just cried for his dad."
The television wasn't on in Brock hospital room on Feb. 3, 2008, but if it had been, it would have shown Super Bowl XLII. The Giants were playing the heavily favored and undefeated New England Patriots, but kickoff had come and gone and Brock wasn't watching. He had finished up his afternoon physical therapy when a visitor arrived. "I had forgotten the game was even on," Brock said. "I was been lying in bed when my mom said, 'Someone's here to see you.' She told me it was (Michigan) coach (Rich) Rodriguez."
A little more than a month earlier, Rodriguez had been named Lloyd Carr's successor in Ann Arbor. His name and face had been plastered all over newspapers, magazines and television for weeks. Brock, who had been enrolled at Ohio State since 2004, was in awe of the Wolverines' coach, who was visiting just a few days before National Signing Day. It was one of the most hectic periods of time for any coach, let alone one desperately trying to round up players who would fit his new system. Why was Rodriguez in the hospital room? Elliott, who is four years younger than Brock, had committed to play offensive lineman at Michigan in 2007, and the new coach met with Brock for more than an hour, reassuring him that his brother's scholarship was safe. Then he told Brock something that would change his life: "How great would it be if you led us out the tunnel one of the games?" Rodriguez said.
The University of Michigan's medical rehab center is located two miles down the road from Schembechler Hall, the football team's training facility named after the legendary football coach whom many refer to simply as "Bo."
It is home to the football coaching staff offices, team meeting rooms and the team weight room. Soon after Rodriguez came to Michigan, the football program spent more than $1 million on new, state-of-the-art fitness equipment and free weights.
At the medical rehab center, the weight room area is slightly different.
The facility's gym includes a set of parallel bars -- to help patients stand, turn and perfect their gait after they begin walking -- as well as mat tables, where patients practice transferring from sitting to standing.
In the back corner, there's the Lokomat, a robotic walking device. Many times during his year rehabbing at the center, Brock strapped his legs into the device and practiced walking on a treadmill surface.
Doctors and surgeons had told Brock after the accident that spinal cord injury patients typically have a one percent chance of ever walking again.
"They made it clear that I may get some muscle twitching or things like that, but as far as actual functional muscle movement, it wouldn't come," Brock said. "They always just wanted me to accept that fact instead of being in denial and thinking I was going to walk again."
But Brock and his therapists knew a few things made him special -- and a candidate to be a part of the one percent. First was the type of injury he suffered.
"With an incomplete (spinal cord injury), which is what Brock has, there are still nerve fibers that are intact," said Paula Kartje, a therapist at the rehab center. Kartje said that once the swelling initially goes down, some of those nerve fibers that are not working because of spinal shock can come back and heal themselves because they weren't completely damaged.