After a Christmas Eve 2007 car crash in Clinton, Ohio left Brock Mealer with fractured T-12 and L-1 vertebrae and paralyzed from the waist down, he was given a one-percent chance of ever walking again. The crash killed his father, Dave Mealer, and his brother’s girlfriend, Hollis Richer.
Elliott Mealer, now a fifth-year senior on the Michigan football team, tore his rotator cuff trying to free Brock from the wreckage and redshirted the 2008 season.
Brock put his mind to fighting for that one percent.
On Sept. 4, 2010, Brock accepted an invitation from former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez to lead the team onto the field for the home opener against Connecticut. Clutching a pair of canes, he strode tall to the Block ‘M’ at midfield with a T-shirt that proclaimed, ‘1% — Glory to God,’ and flanked by his mother and brothers, Elliott and Blake Mealer.
With the roar of 113,090 at his back, Brock reached up and tapped the banner with his right hand. He had beaten the odds. But that was just the beginning.
The next step
A sign is taped onto wall at BarwisMethods in Plymouth, Mich.
“___ days until your ass walks down the aisle,” it reads.
Brock Mealer is months away from his Dec. 22 wedding. The countdown means more than you might expect. Just short of the five-year anniversary of the car crash that took two lives and Brock’s legs, Brock is going to walk down the aisle ahead of his bride, Haley Frank, and he’ll be walking unassisted.
Mike Barwis met Brock in a hospital bed. It was January 2008 and Barwis, then the new strength and conditioning coach at Michigan, had just arrived in town when a few coaches asked him to come along to visit Brock at the University of Michigan Hospital.
Brock doesn’t remember much about the hospital stay, but he said he’ll never forget the day he met Barwis. Barwis hadn’t even met Elliott, who wouldn’t enroll at Michigan for another eight months. When he met Brock, an Ohio State graduate, he pledged to help.
“I saw his fire,” Barwis said. “I saw his willingness to work and his unwillingness to submit to the fact that he was going to be paralyzed.”
Brock recalls that his physical therapist thought Barwis was a lunatic. Barwis had no experience with spinal-cord injuries, but Barwis wouldn’t accept the prognosis that Brock would never walk again.
When the insurance coverage for Brock’s rehab ran out in October 2009, Barwis took over the training. He set goals. For four years, those goals have steadily increased in magnitude, but Brock has met each of them.
There have been hundreds of goals: From standing with braces to squat his body weight, walking without braces, walking with canes and leading Michigan onto the field in 2010.
Since then, the goals have been to stand for a minute in one position, trying to to walk without canes or braces. Then it became walking a few steps, then 20 yards.
“I have those moments now where I’m not thinking, I’m just walking,” Brock said. “I can tell in those moments where everything mentally and physically works in sync that if I can do that constantly then I’ll be great.”
Every step is one closer to his final goal of walking the full 70-yard field at BarwisMethods. Barwis has been in front of Brock every step of the way.
Last week, he looked Brock in the eye as he readied to walk nearly 30 yards.
“I already walked down the aisle once, I’m not doing it twice,” Barwis said.
“What the hell does that mean,” Brock said, laughing.
“It means I’m not standing in front of you anymore,” Barwis said. “The last thing you need is my ugly face going down the aisle with you.”
“What do I do if I fall?”
“You put your hand out like everyone else does. I don’t know what to tell you, boss. You’re at that point. It’s time to walk.”
Barwis stepped back. Brock took a moment then took his first step, cautious and calculated. Sixty steps later, he was at the wall.
“It was exhilarating,” Barwis said. “Every time something happens I feel like someone’s kicking dirt in my eye. You know I don’t cry; I’m too tough for that.”
Triumph out of tragedy
Elliott admits that his brother has served as his strongest motivator the last five years. The fifth-year senior is battling for a starting spot at left guard, and he’s never struggled to find inspiration.
“We went throughout something together — a tragedy — and he has that reminder every day,” Elliott said. “For anybody that would go through something like that they probably think about it everyday. When he wakes up that’s a daily reminder of the position he’s in.
“I try to remind myself of that too and use it as a good thing just like he has. He’s been pushing himself to improve his life and so for me I try to use it as not a tragedy or something sad but as something to motivate myself just like he has. He definitely pushes me.”
But the fight wasn’t over. The hard work hasn’t stopped.
With the help of the staff at BarwisMethods, Brock’s body has had to relearn how to walk. That means balance, loosening up tight structures, teaching both the brain and legs to fire and respond appropriately and building the leg and core strength to withstand the forces needed to walk. (Barwis said Brock was only able to squat six pounds activation when they first started training.)
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” Barwis said. “You fix one thing and you find another that isn’t doing its job. You fix that and then something else rears its ugly head.
“The pieces are almost all together now.”
From a story of true tragedy, Brock has triumphed.
“He’s gone from nothing to something, then from something to something amazing,” Barwis said.
And he only needed one percent.
“I got plenty of faith in the two people that matter: Brock and God,” Barwis said. “I never doubted either one of them.
“As far as I’m concerned, those things aren’t up to statistics, they’re up to the man and God. From day one I’ve had faith in both of them.”