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Published: Tuesday, 6/1/2010

UM rehab program sets paralyzed OSU student on his feet

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

ANN ARBOR - Not a day passes that Brock Mealer doesn't reflect on that horrific Christmas Eve of 2007, when he was one of the fortunate ones in a car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

And not a night passes that Mr. Mealer, 25, doesn't dream of life before that crash, when he enjoyed his favorite physical activities without wheelchair or crutches.

When he wakes up, however, Mr. Mealer's reality returns.

He can't stand up without assistance.

But some day, against considerable odds, he says he will.

Keep dreaming? Not for Brock Mealer.

The Wauseon High School graduate is preparing to lead the Wolverines onto the field at the Big House on Sept. 4 for their season opener against Connecticut.

With the encouragement of hard-charging UM strength coaches who have begun dabbling in spinal cord research, he just might do it.

Brock Mealer, 25, works on his rehabilitation at the University of Michigan's football weight training facility inside Schembechler Hall in Ann Arbor.
<br>
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/graphics/icons/photo.gif> <font color=red><b>PHOTO GALLERY</b></font>: <a href=" /apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Avis=TO&Dato=20100601&Kategori=NEWS16&Lopenr=601009997&Ref=PH"_blank"> <b> Brock Mealer, a Wauseon grad, works on his rehabilitation at the University of Michigan</b></a> Brock Mealer, 25, works on his rehabilitation at the University of Michigan's football weight training facility inside Schembechler Hall in Ann Arbor. <br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/graphics/icons/photo.gif> <font color=red><b>PHOTO GALLERY</b></font>: <a href=" /apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Avis=TO&Dato=20100601&Kategori=NEWS16&Lopenr=601009997&Ref=PH"_blank"> <b> Brock Mealer, a Wauseon grad, works on his rehabilitation at the University of Michigan</b></a>
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The 99 percent chance doctors gave Mr. Mealer of never walking again is becoming more tenuous with each passing day.

"I can tell that I'm getting really close," Mr. Mealer said.

It might make a more heartwarming story to say this has changed Mr. Mealer for the better, that somehow, not being able to move up and down a basketball court, or on a flight of steps, has improved his outlook.

Mr. Mealer has always been filled with joy and faith. In fact, he was on his way to a Christmas service when the accident turned his life upside down.

"A lot of time, I feel like I'm living off borrowed time," he said.

The story has been well-documented.

In October, ESPN's investigative series E:60 aired his story: A 90-year-old Wauseon man ran a stop sign on State Rt. 2 at Fulton County Road 16 and collided with a sport utility vehicle driven by Brock's father, David Mealer.

Mr. Mealer and a passenger, Hollis Richer, his brother Elliott's girlfriend, were killed.

Elliott and his mother, Shelly Mealer, were treated for minor injuries at Fulton County Health Center. The elderly driver was charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter.

Brock Mealer received a metal plate in his wrist and 17 screws in his spinal column. And an invitation that may change his life.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Mealer wheeled his way into the University of Michigan football weight facility wearing a blue Adidas T-shirt with the inscription, "Impossible is Nothing."

Mr. Mealer is out to destroy the word "impossible."

And his most significant step toward that goal was to accept an offer from a few highly energized University of Michigan coaches who enjoy a challenge.

Rich Rodriguez, who was named Michigan's new football coach a week before the accident, brought along his strength and conditioning staff headed by Mike Barwis.

Rodriguez assured Elliott, then a senior at Wauseon, that his scholarship offer would be honored despite the shoulder injury he suffered in the accident.

With Brock Mealer, Barwis sensed an opportunity to heal a crippled man.

"Some of the people Brock has worked with have told him, 'You're not going to walk'," said Elliott, a sophomore University of Michigan offensive lineman. "Mike doesn't tell him that. He says, 'You will walk. It's not going to be easy. We're going to make it rough on you.'•"

In November, when Brock Mealer felt that his hospital physical therapy had stagnated, he finally accepted Barwis' invitation.

Inside UM's weight room, Parker Whiteman's deafening voice easily drowns out the vocals of Metallica frontman James Hetfield.

"Weighing 240 pounds and standing 6 feet, 2 inches - when he does stand - Brooooock Meeeaaaleer," Whiteman announced.

Whiteman, 27, is the coordinator for strength and conditioning on Barwis' staff, and like his boss, Whiteman is a ball of energy, incredibly passionate about his job and the lives of the athletes he trains.

Whiteman, flanked by assistant strength coach Dan Mozes, put Mr. Mealer through a series of exercises that would make even the meatiest of the meatheads at your local gym cringe.

Mr. Mealer quips that he's going to create a motivational soundboard of Whiteman's and Mozes' musings, which range from playful insults to inspirational tones.

"We don't treat him differently than anyone else who comes in here," Whiteman said. "I think that's one of the things he likes. He's not being babied. He knows if he can't get something, he's going to have to find a way to get it," the UM strength coach said.

Determining just how close Mr. Mealer is to walking is not precise, but Whiteman believes the squat rack is a good indicator.

When Mr. Mealer began training at UM six months ago, he needed 200 pounds of squat assistance from an accompanying machine - as well as the guidance of his arms - to complete a repetition.

He has since reduced the assistance to 80 pounds, and his arms never leave his side.

The hope is that once Mr. Mealer needs zero pounds of help, he'll remove his harness and be able to walk again.

In Whiteman's view, though, Mr. Mealer is already walking. In six months, Mr. Mealer has progressed from not being able to use crutches, to walking with the assistance of crutches and ankle braces.

He can walk 60 continuous yards at UM's practice facility with only the help of arm braces.

"Now it's about, are we going to get him to the point where he's walking completely unassisted?" Whiteman said. "I've never had more confidence in someone that I've ever worked with that he's going to walk."

Absent of Whiteman's demands, Mr. Mealer's life is a grind.

A graduate student in public policy at Ohio State - yes, Mr. Mealer is enrolled at the rival school to the south - he typically makes two trips from Columbus to Ann Arbor a week.

A hand control was installed in his Pontiac G6, allowing him to operate the accelerator and brake. Audio tapes of his textbooks are the usual soundtrack during his trips.

And, of course, there's the wheelchair broken down in the back seat. Attached to it is a UM sticker, which predictably receives a lot of attention in Columbus.

"It's not anything I like to flaunt, but it's cool to have people ask about that," Mr. Mealer said. "I always tell them it's a long story. Once they get to know me, they're quite receptive to everything and say, 'I can see why you'd like Michigan.'•"

Mr. Mealer's social life is no different from other 25-year-old students - it's limited.

When he's not exhausted from following Whiteman's orders, Mr. Mealer enjoys watching sports with his friends, and while out on the town, the man in the wheelchair is often approached by curious individuals eager to buy him a drink.

He tells his story, not to receive sympathy, but because he enjoys encouraging others to persevere in the face of hardship.

Mr. Mealer has shared his experiences recently with students at Maumee Valley Country Day School and in front of about 700 at Ohio Northern University in Ada.

"It's cool to be able to share my story," he said.

On Sept. 4, at the Big House, he just might share it with more than 100,000 people.

Impossible is nothing.

Contact Ryan Autullo at:

rautullo@theblade.com

or 419-724-6160.



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