Rhys Millen is persistently fearless
(Joe Tessitore will host ESPN's "Red Bull: New Year No Limits," on Wednesday at 11 p.m. ET.)
Persistently fearless. It's what separates them from us. If you wonder why I label you as "us," just trust me, you're not one of them. Rhys Millen is one of them. He has long been fearless and never stops the persistent pursuit of his goal, even though the journey has been full of fears and tinged with near paralysis, if not death.
Last December I spent an entire day on a slab of asphalt at an abandoned Southern California airstrip. I watched as thousands of cardboard boxes were set up to break the 35-foot fall of a 2,800-pound truck.
Millen, who has spent years racing on championship levels and valuable time calculating and executing Hollywood stunts, made the whole process look easy, if not harmless. There he was, taking detailed measures to perfect every inch, every angle. From the precise acceleration to the counterweight of the engine to the ramp itself, the entire project was a year of work being put through a white-gloved inspection. He started running the truck off the ramp into the safe cradling of the cardboard boxes.
Little by little, Millen was getting closer to his goal of a full-truck backflip and drive-out. He crunched a few boxes, landing the truck front-end first. They made up new boxes. He flipped again. This time, the back end dove into the cardboard. They made a new layer of boxes.
Then he jumped, and the boxes didn't matter. He overshot them. The truck smashed upside down onto the pavement.
Seriously injured and gasping for air, Millen was trapped in mangled steel. With three broken vertebrae in his neck and two more in his back, there were moments that followed when those around him had to wonder whether he would walk again, let alone flip again.
Millen walks. And come Wednesday, he'll flip that truck again. Cardboard boxes won't be there to protect him this time, yet he'll face the same risk.
In October, before the run-up for Millen's new training, I had the chance to spend time with him.
"Yeah, all good now," the Kiwi told me when I asked how he was. It was said with the same weight as if I were asking a sniffly co-worker whether he's better.
Millen spent a day with our entire production team reviewing what he learned from the failed attempt and what he will employ for this challenge. He broke it down as if he were football analyst Ron Jaworski explaining a two-deep defense.
This is just simple planning and execution for Rhys. I don't get it. Where's the fear? Where's the concern? He was in intensive care, in a full brace across the length of his body. He is one of them. We aren't.
Backflipping a truck should generate enough interest to hold the attention of jaded spectators. What Millen went through, to me, is one of the great comeback stories in sports.
Tiger Woods will play golf again in the spring after knee surgery. He will wear well-pressed slacks, a custom-fit Nike shirt. He likely will win. We'll read about his courage, we'll be told to marvel at Tiger's comeback. That's big news. But this is the real deal. This is the sports comeback we may never see the likes of again.
Millen will go face-to-face with the beast that stomped out his dream and nearly his life. You can't get much more fearless than that.