Wolverine Elliott Mealer and his brother, Brock, bounce back from 2007 tragedy
Michigan's season opener against Connecticut is highly anticipated because college football's winningest team desperately needs a win after losing a school-record nine games and flopping to a 5-7 finish in two years under coach Rich Rodriguez.
What is expected to happen before kickoff might keep who wins and loses in perspective.
Brock Mealer, whose brother, Elliott, plays for the Wolverines, plans to do what doctors didn't think was possible when he was involved in a tragic car accident two-plus years ago.
The 25-year-old Mealer is aiming to lead Michigan onto the Big House turf with a miraculous walk Saturday afternoon, showing the world how far he has bounced back from a spinal-cord injury that was supposed to keep him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
"My surgeon, less than a day after my surgery, gave me the news that the best we could hope for is that eventually the pain sensations would go away with time and medication," Brock Mealer recalled recently. "They always just wanted me to accept it rather than fight it and be in denial."
He had other plans.
Mealer has endured relentless rehabilitation with the football program's strength and conditioning coaches in a quest to become mobile on his own two feet.
"Everyone around here believed in the idea that I was going to walk," he said. "It was never a question of if, but a question of when."
Mealer's friends and family have seen him walk — sometimes on his own, or with a cane — but he is days away from doing it on perhaps the grandest stage in football.
"I tried to warn him, it's a different feeling when you have 110,000 people watching you," Elliott Mealer said. "It's kind of sinking in for him, the closer it gets."
Their father, David, and Elliott's girlfriend, Hollis Richer, were killed when a 90-year-old man ran a stop sign near Toledo, Ohio, on Christmas Eve in 2007. Brock and Elliott were also in the car, as was their mother, Shelly, who escaped with bruises even though she was the one most directly hit by the other car. Elliott tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder and redshirted his first season at Michigan.
"I've come to a conclusion that there's a reason I'm still alive," he said. "I'm trying to find those reasons, why I'm the one who is still here and to do whatever I can with this life that I've been given."
Brock Mealer splits his time between Ann Arbor and Columbus, Ohio, where a decal on his wheelchair leads to a lot of conversations.
"I get asked about the Michigan sticker on my wheelchair more often than I get asked about the wheelchair," he said with a grin.
Brock Mealer said it was Rodriguez's idea to have him walk the team onto the field — asking last spring if it was something he wanted to do — and the coach can't wait to witness the moment.
"It's going to be an emotional time," Rodriguez said. "He's dedicated his life to prove he can walk again."