ANN ARBOR -- There was a time when Elliott Mealer was only tied to tragedy.
But nearly five years later, Mealer has grown into a different identity. Not only is Mealer a survivor of a 2007 car accident that took the life of his father and his girlfriend, and nearly robbed his brother of the ability to walk. Not only is he the younger brother of Brock, a survivor who not only has learned to walk but who has surpassed the limits of his own strength.
Mealer is now a grown man, a redshirt senior, and the starting left guard for the Michigan football team. Mealer believes he's gone through a certain healing process.
"I've seen it as, my first few years here, it was kind of getting through tragedy," said Mealer, a 6-foot-5, 308-pound offensive lineman from Wauseon. "Wherever my mind was, Michigan was helping me get through it, allowing me to get on, becoming my family and my brothers here on the team. I was getting through that tragedy.
"Anybody who goes through something like that, they're always going to continue to get through that tragedy for the rest of their lives. For me, that's what it was. But in the last couple years, the focus has shifted to Elliott Mealer, the football player. Right, wrong, indifferent, I think that's kind of the approach Coach [Brady] Hoke has taken. You're not just another guy, but you're one of my sons. For me, that's helped me grow into Elliott Mealer the football player, and to kind of find myself in a different way. It's refreshing."
Furthermore, Mealer will start Saturday at left guard for the Wolverines, who open the season against Alabama at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. He found out last week from offensive line coach Darrell Funk that he'd earned the starting spot at left guard.
"I'd like to think I've always worked hard since I've been here at Michigan. Maybe my focus has been a little more on improving, part of it being that because you're a senior, you're a leader and you're being held to a higher expectation. For me, as a senior, I've got to step up, and I've got to pay back this team for what they deserve out of me. Being held accountable.
"To do my job. I'm a firm believer that if you get to start, if you get to play, then you deserve that. For whatever reason, I think I've earned that now."
Mealer has played in 37 games in the past three seasons, including seven games as a reserve offensive lineman in 2011.
"Elliott's really figured it all out, on a mental and physical standpoint," said Taylor Lewan, the starting left tackle. "He gets it. He gets his role now, and being a fifth-year senior, he's been there. He knows what's going on and I think he's going to be successful this season."
Still, football is only part of Mealer's identity.
He'll stand in his older brother's wedding in December. Brock Mealer took his first steps, unassisted, last month and plans to walk down the aisle in the same fashion. But Elliott Mealer credits his time at Michigan in helping him carve out his own identity. He's a senior and a starting left guard for the eighth-ranked team in the country. He's part of a group of individuals who have set a collective goal of winning the Big Ten Conference championship. And he is no longer just a survivor or a younger brother of one.
At 23 years old, Mealer has found personal strength and a sense of self in being a part of the Michigan football community.
"Going into my senior year here, I can look back at everything I've been through and I look at my classmates and it's kind of like, wow, we've made it, we're seniors now," Mealer said. "It's kind of an emotional feeling. You start to look back and say, wow, I'm almost done. Look at what Michigan has done for me. You can't put it in a newspaper. There's just so many things that have been great for me."