Michigan football team's Jon Bills recovering well, feeling 'very lucky' after serious car accident
Jon Bills had been looking forward to this day for months.
It’s a rite of passage in the Bills family. Turn 21 and get invited to the Tony Thrubis Greek Open, a guy’s weekend of golf and cards and relaxing and fun.
A couple dozen friends and relatives had already gathered at the family cottage up north when Bills, who celebrated his birthday last month, and his cousin, Michigan football teammate Mark Moundros, left Ann Arbor on June 4 after their regular Friday morning workout.
About 6:45 p.m., as they traveled though an unrelenting rainstorm down the two-lane highway that connects Lincoln to the rest of Alcona County, Kirk hit a rut in the road filled with 2 inches of water and hydroplaned into oncoming traffic. The truck struck a Dodge Caravan heading southbound on F-41, with the back seat and truck bed on the passenger side taking the brunt of the impact.
Kirk suffered a concussion, and as paramedics tended to him, he kept asking where he was and what happened and was everyone all right in the other car. Mark was badly bruised but conscious enough to pick up a cell phone lying on the ground - his brother’s - and call his dad and tell him about the accident.
The 16-year-old driver of the van suffered a broken wrist, and her 59-year-old passenger grandmother a broken hip. And when the Lincoln Fire Department’s First Responders team pried apart four tons of twisted steel, they found Bills fading in and out of consciousness in the back seat, the most seriously injured of all.
Emergency workers called for the Jaws of Life, but were able to reach the backseat through the driver’s side door before tools arrived. They back-boarded Bills, removed him from the wreck, and seven hours later he was airlifted from Alpena Regional Medical Center to the University of Michigan Hospital.
Bills broke his neck and his pelvis, is in a halo for 12 weeks and needs a walker to get around. And while he doesn’t remember a thing about the accident, or for that matter most of the next week, he told AnnArbor.com he’s healing fine and “very lucky.”
“I was about a half inch away on so many different parts from being paralyzed or possibly even dead,” Bills said. “I’m real lucky. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me.”
Rallying together Mike Barwis was at the hospital Saturday morning when he got a call from assistant strength coach Dennis Murray telling him Bills was seriously injured in a car accident.
Barwis’ wife, Autumn, delivered the couple’s third baby a day earlier - a boy, Charlie Rhoads - and with wife and son resting comfortably, Barwis decided to head downstairs and pay Bills a visit.
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez already had been by, and when Barwis walked in he was greeted with hugs from Bills’ parents, George and Harriett, appreciative that Barwis’ training techniques might have helped saved their son’s life.
“Every one of the doctors from Alpena to Michigan has said that the reason he’s in the condition that he is right now is because of his conditioning,” George Bills said. “A normal person would not have made this, even anywhere near. Probably would have been paralyzed.”
Jon was heavily sedated, barely cognizant of what was going on, when his father told him Barwis was in the room.
He reached out to shake Barwis’ hand, and Barwis asked Bills how he was feeling.
“He said, ‘I’m doing all right, but my back hurts. I have to stretch my hamstrings,’” Barwis said. “He’s still thinking about training when he’s out. And he’s right. A lot of times if you don’t stretch your hamstrings your back will get tight.
“I said this kid’s something. Heavily sedated, broken neck, broken back, broken pelvis and he’s telling me his back hurts because he hasn’t been stretching.”
Over the next five days, Bills welcomed a steady stream of visitors.
His brothers and cousins were by his side three days after the accident when he underwent 4 Â½ hours of surgery to fuse the third and fourth vertebrae in his neck. Rodriguez stopped in three or four times. Offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, Bills’ tight ends coach, was there just as often. The coaching staff, strength staff, family friend Rick Leach, Michigan broadcaster Jim Brandstatter, Fab Fiver Jimmy King and former Michigan running back Anthony Thomas (at the hospital for a fundraiser, along with King), made appearances, too.
And of course Bills’ teammates kept an almost round-the-clock vigil. Outside linebacker Craig Roh led a prayer on one occasion, and Bills said, “I can’t think of a teammate who wasn’t at the hospital.”
On Wednesday morning, less than five days after the accident and right on his surgeon’s schedule, Bills climbed out of his hospital bed and walked for the first time. He walked again that evening, took a lap around the hospital Thursday morning, and was discharged later that day after being cleared by occupational and speech therapists.
Last week, Bills, who temporarily moved back in to his family’s Farmington Hills home, stopped by the Michigan football building after a doctor’s visit. When Barwis heard Bills was on campus, he stopped a workout and 50 or 60 Wolverines rushed to see their teammate.
The same night, Magee sent Bills a text message telling him “it was awesome to see you up on your feet” and “we love you.”
“It felt good to get that. It was sincere,” Bills said. “You can tell that these guys are all sincere with what they do and they really do wish the best of you, both on and off the field.”
Plenty to look forward to Bills was scheduled to take the LSAT the Monday after the accident, about the time he was undergoing surgery on his broken neck.
He plans to attend law school next fall, hopefully at Michigan, and will seek a waiver so he can take the next test - scheduled for Oct. 9, the day of the Michigan-Michigan State game - on an alternate date.
Bills hasn’t ruled out returning to football either, though that appears a long shot. His younger brother, Steven, will be a walk-on linebacker at Michigan this fall.
“I really didn’t even think it was an option to be done playing, or that I was even supposed to consider being done until I looked online and saw what people posted on message boards,” Bills said. “I started reading those and all of them pretty much said there was a serious accident, Mark Moundros, Jon Bills, Moundros should be fine but unfortunately Bills’ career is done.
“I talked to doctors and my coaches, and no one even mentioned anything about career over, so I was just taken aback by that. Now, it’s something that I obviously have to consider when that time comes. If there’s an increased risk of possibly being paralyzed, that sort of thing, I’ll have to think about it. But as of right now I have nothing but plans of coming back and playing.”
Even if he doesn’t, Bills, who appeared in two games last year, will have a place somewhere around the team this fall. It’s a family he can’t see himself leaving after all the support they provided.
As for his own family, Bills’ father, his older brother, Matthew, and Moundros’ father, Andy, drove to the scene of accident that night. What they saw was horrific.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there is angels watching over these three guys with this accident,” George Bills said.
Already, Mark Moundros is back taking part in Michigan’s off-season conditioning program. Kirk Moundros is “getting better every day,” George Bills said. And Jon Bills is six weeks away from ditching his walker and still looking forward to his first Tony Thrubis Greek Open.
“He’ll make it next year,” George Bills said. “He’ll make it next year for sure.”
Dave Birkett covers University of Michigan football for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached by phone at 734-623-2552 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.