The Mealer family is walking tall after tragedy

Updated: October 1, 2012, 6:45 AM ET
Associated Press

Updates. With AP Photos. AP Video.

By LARRY LAGE

AP Sports Writer

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There isn't a memorial anymore at the quiet intersection near a vast cornfield and a family restaurant, the site of an accident that forever changed Shelly Mealer's life.

It's been nearly five years since that awful night near Wauseon, Ohio, little more than an hour's drive south of the Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. The accident killed Mealer's husband, Dave, and Hollis Richer, the 17-year-old girlfriend of her son, Elliott. He was hurt but he's doing well, starting for the Wolverines and clearing the way for Denard Robinson.

Her other son, Brock?

He is walking again against all odds after that accident on Christmas Eve 2007.

"I pick and choose my times to look back at where we were and where we've come," Shelly Mealer said trying to hold back tears. "It's been a long road. There's only two things in life I knew for sure: I knew Elliott would play D-I football. And, I knew that Brock would walk again no matter how much doubt they told us or fed us."

Two years ago, Elliott and Brock were on the field at Michigan Stadium as 113,090 people stood and cheered as Brock -- with the help of two canes -- walked from the sideline to midfield and reached up to touch the Go Blue banner players slap before every home game. It was a goosebump-inducing feat because Brock was told he wasn't likely to ever walk again after the accident left him paralyzed from the waist down with two shattered vertebra.

These days, Brock can walk without any assistance -- more than 50 yards at a time.

"Not that the story is finished, but you kind of see a lot of these things all come together," Elliott said, sitting at his locker stall at Michigan Stadium last week while the Wolverines were idle. "Brock is walking without canes. I'm getting to start for Michigan. My mom is happily married. Things are kind of shaping up for us. It's just been amazing with all the support we've had, especially for Brock, to see things really pay off.

"It's really a good feeling to see good come from tragedy."

The Mealers and Richer were on their way to a midnight church service when a 90-year-old retired minister sped through a stop sign and smashed into their car. Dave Mealer, 50, was killed along with Richer. The brothers were hurt, Brock the worst.

Elliott was recruited to Michigan by former coach Lloyd Carr and planned to enroll to take classes and work out with the Wolverines in the winter of 2008. Instead, he ended up staying in Ohio for several months -- sleeping at his late girlfriend's house -- and recovering from surgery to repair his right rotator cuff that was torn when he tried to lift the crumpled SUV off his mangled brother.

Elliott redshirted his first season and played sparingly the next three years, mostly on special teams. Soon after Rich Rodriguez was fired and Brady Hoke was hired, Elliott said the new coach told him his brother was welcome to come around anytime. Elliott earned a starting spot this season, his fifth and final shot to truly live a dream he's had since the third grade. Elliott won't ever forget the day he was sprawled out on a pile of clothes and told his father, David, what his goal was in life.

"He was doing the laundry and I told him `Dad, I'm going to play college football someday," Elliott recalled. "And he kind of looked at me and said, `Go for it, you have my support.' That was his outlook: `If you don't have good dreams, you have nightmares.' So whatever you want to do, you might as well chase it."

Brock refused to let the nightmares overtake his dream of walking, even when doctors and therapists told him he might as well get used to life in a wheelchair.

He and his mother always believed in the improbable, that he would in fact walk again, and she credits Rodriguez, who asked, "Brock, do you want to get out of that chair?" and his strength and conditioning coach, Mike Barwis.

"No one else believed anything that we believed until Rich Rodriguez said those words when he spent the Super Bowl with us at the hospital," Shelly said.

When the insurance for Brock's physical therapy ran out in the fall of 2009, Barwis and his assistant, Parker Whiteman, who is now with Rodriguez at Arizona, took over and started working with him in the Schembechler Hall weight room.

"We made him crawl around the weight room like a baby because you've got to learn how to crawl before you can walk," Barwis said.

Three years later, Brock makes a 3-hour roundtrip commute from his home in Wauseon three days a week to Barwis' training facility in Plymouth, between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

"I've never asked or gotten a dime from Brock and I never will," Barwis said.

Brock starts off each session by doing squats without weights, trying to get into a crouch and to stand up without wobbling, and works up to doing the same squat with 45 pounds of weights in a vest.

He then walks behind Barwis, putting his hands on Barwis' shoulders, and plops onto the artificial turf to get stretched out. It looks and sounds painful.

"When I started doing this, he had no feeling below his waist and he'd joke, `Is that all you got?" Barwis recalled as he contorted Brock's legs. "Now, he can feel everything."

Brock grunts, groans and grimaces as Barwis uses his hands to stretch Brock's legs and hips in an array of angles.

"I should get one of those mouth guards so I can just bite down," Mealer said as he lay on his back.

Barwis helps Brock up, then leads him to a wall that is 66 yards away from the other wall and coaches him to do what was once deemed nearly impossible. When Brock takes a step with his right leg, his right arm goes from parallel to the ground to above his shoulders and same happens when he steps with his left leg and uses his left arm to maintain his balance.

Brock can walk so well his fiancee jokes that he's going to overshadow her moment when she walks down the aisle to marry him this December.

"I feel like I'll get to that point where standing won't be a problem and walking for the wedding in a way that doesn't look as scary as it does sometimes when I flap my arms out," he said after a workout on Sept. 21, his 28th birthday.

While Brock has done something he was told he couldn't do -- a feat that leads to speaking engagements and strangers asking to take a picture with him -- he has a long-term goal of ditching his wheelchair and simply blending in with the crowd.

"My ultimate goal is to be able to walk in somewhere and not have anyone notice anything different about me," he said softly.

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Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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