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Posted on Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 7 a.m.

From 'never' to walking: Brock Mealer will lead Michigan football team onto field Saturday

By Pete Bigelow


Brock Mealer, the brother of Michigan offensive lineman Elliott Mealer, was severely injured in a car accident in December 2007. Here, he works out with strength and conditioning coordinator Parker Whiteman in the Schembechler Hall weight room in July.

Associated Press

Doctors delivered the grim news. Brock Mealer would never walk again.

In the weeks after a car accident paralyzed him from the belly button down on Christmas Eve 2007, they said they could manage his pain. But he fractured his T-12 and L-1 vertebrae, and would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

His mother insisted her son would walk, but doctors politely told Shelly Mealer that she didn’t know anything about medicine. Don’t live in denial, they said.

That’s the line Brock remembered.

“One of the most vivid memories I have is the surgeon just giving me the news that this is the best I could hope for,” he said. “They always wanted me to accept that fact.”


Brock Mealer talks with reporters last month. He plans to lead the Wolverines onto the field at Michigan Stadium for the Wolverines' season-opener against Connecticut.

Associated Press

He did.

Pain diminished whatever resolve remained following the accident that killed his father and a brother’s girlfriend. Brock believed the doctors. His mother’s voice faded.

But in her bedside eyes, he saw something he could not see himself.

“When he got to Michigan and the hospital, he never believed me,” Shelly Mealer said. “But he said that, looking in my eyes through the pain, he knew that I believed it.”

In October 2009, nearly two years after the accident, Brock visited his brother Elliott, a survivor of the accident and football player at the University of Michigan.

An impromptu meeting with the team’s coaching staff led to an invitation. The strength and conditioning staff didn’t have experience treating paraplegics, but would Brock like to rehab with them?

This Saturday marks a milestone in that experiment.

Maybe Brock will use two canes, maybe one, maybe none. But before the season opener against Connecticut, he will walk under his own power through the Michigan Stadium tunnel and lead the Wolverines onto the football field.

Gut feelings

Shelly Mealer, 50, swears she’s possessed just two gut feelings in her entire life. She had no idea the second - that her middle son, Brock, would walk again - would directly result from the first.

As early as fourth grade, she believed her youngest, Elliott, would be a Division I-A football player.

Her husband, Dave, tempered her enthusiasm with reminders of reality, but she just knew. It was almost funny to her, Dave’s reluctance to share her confidence.

It was Dave who dressed Elliott from head to toe before every midget football practice and scrubbed his pants clean afterward. It was Dave who watched every snap from his parked truck.

Ultimately, it was Dave who pushed Elliott to separate himself from other big kids by jumping rope in the driveway, a challenge Elliott devoured.

“His dad said to him, ‘Son, you want to be an Ohio State Buckeye? You have to jump rope twice a day,’” Shelly said. “Elliott would do it four times a day. If a kid asked him to spend the night, he’d say, ‘No, I have to be a Buckeye.’”


Michigan football offensive lineman Elliott Mealer on his brother Brock's rehab at Michigan: “I look back on it, and there’ s a reason I grew up a Buckeye fan and I wind up at Michigan. I came to the conclusion there’s a reason I’m still alive.”

Melanie Maxwell |

Scarlet runs deep through the Mealer family’s northwest Ohio roots.

His grandfather carries a Buckeye in his wallet. Four uncles all cheer for the Buckeyes. His dad loved Ohio State.

Brock received an undergraduate degree in economics from Ohio State, and as a matter of fact, is still a student there, pursuing a master’s degree in public affairs.

None rooted for Ohio State more fervently than Elliott, his bedroom a de facto shrine built to honor Brutus the Buckeye.

As he grew into high school, his mom’s vision turned into reality and scholarship offers arrived - 14 in all, including one from the Buckeyes. Elliott Mealer was ready to realize his childhood dream. He took an official visit to Columbus.

“He just didn’t feel it,” his mother said.

Elliott had started attending church with his girlfriend, Hollis Richer. Unsure of what to make of the sudden doubt in his college destination, she urged him to place his trust in God.

Lloyd Carr called. He urged Elliott to consider Michigan. After an official visit, Elliott emerged from Schembechler Hall, climbed into his dad’s truck and threw his head against the headrest.

“Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” he told his stunned family. “God wants me to go to Michigan.”

December 24, 2007

Weeks after Elliott verbally committed in November 2007, the Mealers celebrated Christmas Eve at the home of a cousin in Stryker, Ohio, no more than a 15-minute drive from their home in Wauseon.

Richer had accompanied Elliott, but been sick all night. On the way home, Elliott offered her the window seat so she could have fresh air.

At approximately 9:35 p.m., a car driven by T. Edward Johnson, 90, ran a stop sign at the intersection of Fulton County Road 19 and State Road 2. He collided with the Mealer’s sport-utility vehicle, sending it spiraling into a ditch on its side.

Christmas music continued playing on the radio while chaos ensued.

Police pronounced Dave Mealer, 50, and Hollis Richer, 17, dead at the scene. Although Shelly’s rear passenger seat bore the brunt of the collision with Johnson’s Skylark, she and Elliott emerged with only bruises. Brock was trapped in the wreck.

Elliott raced to his brother’s side, trying to tip the SUV upright and free Brock so fiercely that he tore his rotator cuff.

Later that night, the family, joined by oldest brother Blake, gathered at Toledo’s St. Vincent Hospital. There, they learned from doctors that Brock suffered a spinal-cord injury and was paralyzed.

Amid their grief, the family prayed the doctors were wrong.

“The boys and I grouped together and decided if we sent Daddy and Hollis to Heaven, we just knew our prayers would be answered,” Shelly Mealer said.

Living on a prayer

After 10 days at St. Vincent’s, Brock transferred to the University of Michigan Health System, where he stayed for four months. On April 4, 2008, he moved home and began his life in a wheelchair.

On October 1, 2009, a letter from his insurance company arrived in the mail. He reached his limit of 200 outpatient medical visits. No more were covered.

Shelly Mealer was crushed.

She had endured weak moments before, hiding in her bathroom and calling Blake and Elliott for support. When Brock was in her presence, the eyes that promised so much in the hospital had never wavered.

But now, with no insurance, she felt hopeless. She wondered if her resolve hadn’t been a façade. The Mealers were out of options. “We just lived on a prayer every day,” Shelly said.

Three weeks after the letter arrived, the Mealers bumped into Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez. Oblivious to the insurance turmoil, Rodriguez ended the meeting by asking Brock to come watch a practice and meet with the Michigan strength and conditioning staff.

Their hope was restored, and the timing took their breath away. It wasn’t the first time the Mealers confronted circumstances surrounding the accident and its aftermath they could not explain.

Christmas gifts awaited survivors of the accident. Upon opening his gift from Hollis, Elliott found a brand-new Bible, with specific verses tabbed, telling him what to read should he feel scared, alone or frightened.

Shelly often joked with Dave that their Midwestern family was too perfect, that they hugged too much. She worried. “I’d say, ‘Wow, something’s going to go wrong,’” she said.

After allaying her fears, Dave would always tell her that should anything happen, he’d come back to earth as a red-tailed hawk.

She knows how it sounds. But she and her children see red-tailed hawks not just at random moments, but specifically at times when they’re hurting the most or already talking about the family patriarch.

“It’s just absurd, but we’ve had so many things like that happen,” she said. “Trust me.”

Dueling banjos


Michigan strength and conditioning coaches Parker Whiteman, left, and Mike Barwis speak about working with Brock Mealer.

Associated Press

“Hey, you want to walk again, you know? I hear you’ve been trying rehab and stuff.”

Brock Mealer isn’t sure what startled him more: The question itself or the gravel-in-your-gut voice that accompanied it.

Before Brock can answer, the man with the Brando rasp says, “Why don’t you hop on this,” stuffs a core ball underneath him and starts an abdominal exercise. By the end of the meeting arranged by Rodriguez, Mike Barwis, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach, invites Brock back for more training.

“We were looking at the things physiologically that were wrong with him, and trying to identify what type of training we were going to do to try and encourage the response we wanted from the body,” Barwis said.

Elliott warned his brother.

“I said, ‘He’s not going to take it easy on you,” he said of Barwis. “He’s on a different level in the weight room. He’s crazy. Brock said, ‘I’ll try it.’”

At first, they meet twice a week.

Then three.

Brock, 25, drives from his graduate school classes at Ohio State to Ann Arbor, so exhausted he pulls over to sleep at rest stops along the way.

Then five.

Barwis and Parker Whiteman awaken Brock. They’re unlike any of the rehabilitation specialists he worked with at hospitals who told him to accept his condition. Barwis and Whiteman not only believe he can walk, they demand it.

“They expected that and nothing less,” Brock said. “I just wanted to catch some of that attitude, I guess.”

The attitude, he caught. The determination, he already possessed. Brock earned his pilot’s license in high school, attended grad school in the winter semester right after the accident. His mother says he’s the hardest worker she’s ever seen.

Other Wolverines stopped in the weight room to watch the spectacle unfolding. They arrived for their workouts when Brock had already been lifting for three hours, already had sweat through three outfits.

They’d find him zoned into his favorite musical selection, “Dueling Banjos.” They cheered him on.

Elliott watched his teammates surround his brother, watched the Michigan family adopt him. It almost overwhelms him.

“I look back on it, and there’ s a reason I grew up a Buckeye fan and I wind up at Michigan,” he said. “I came to the conclusion there’s a reason I’m still alive.”

Although she’s not in the weight room, Shelly Mealer is equally grateful.

“You go up to Michigan, and we hate to come home, because you don’t get all that love,” Shelly Mealer said. “They have all cheered my son on every day. It is an atmosphere that will carry me all the days of my life.”

Big House debut

In the middle of spring football, Brock Mealer received a message. Rodriguez wanted to see him in his office. He thought he was in trouble. He entered the coach’s office and closed the door.

Two weeks later, on the final day of spring ball, Rodriguez huddled the team on the practice field and told the Wolverines he had a surprise.

“We look over, and Brock is over there walking toward us, unassisted,” said tight end Kevin Koger, Elliott’s college roommate and a Toledo-area native who played AAU basketball with the Mealers growing up.

Rodriguez tells the assembled Wolverines that he and Barwis have hatched a plan. Brock approved it two weeks earlier in his office.

Rodriguez tells them that before the first game of the season against UConn, Brock Mealer will walk the Wolverines through the tunnel and onto the football field.

Michigan hopes the 109,901 fans expected in the Big House will join him on his feet.

Elliott and Blake will walk beside their brother. Shelly, directly behind her son.

At some point in the march toward midfield, the Mealers will look above the crowd toward the sky and search for a glimpse of a red-tailed hawk, soaring with a perspective all its own, seeing things they cannot see.

Pete Bigelow can be reached at (734) 623-2556 or emailed at Follow him on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.



Tue, Oct 2, 2012 : 5:39 a.m.

Thrilled for Brock! Way to go Man! Now, tell those of us with incomplete spinal cord injuries what exercises/PT you did? How often? what equipment? We may not get the same results but at least we'd get stronger!

Cara Brink

Wed, Oct 6, 2010 : 8:41 a.m.

I was in a sports bar for supper last night and Sports Center was airing the whole story. Saw him walk on the field. It was amazing. The volume was down - so I couldn't hear anything, but I come home and looked it up immediately. His story, his family, and their faith is truly amazing. Thank you so much for writing an excellent article and keeping those of us who no longer live in Michigan proud to have been from a great family oriented state!


Sun, Sep 5, 2010 : 10:23 a.m.

From one journalist to another-- FANTASTIC story! Inspiring and incredibly well-written. I wish all best to the Mealer family.


Sun, Sep 5, 2010 : 10:14 a.m.

Well written article - marking important moments in lives, and in this community. Well done, Mr. Bigelow!


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 2:50 p.m.

I have not seen any pick up of this on ABC- how sad for them. I really wanted to see this happen!!


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 9:18 a.m.

Did anyone else see the giant "M" written in the sky over Ann Arbor last Friday evening at around 7:56 PM? It was very windy and therefore quite short lived. Our neighbor snapped a picture of it and sent it to us, but I don't know how to share it with Ann I thank the Mealers, Pete, Coach Rodriguez and staff and the U of M and the Ann Arbor News for sharing their message in believing. Good things can happen when you believe. I am sorry for the Mealer's loss; grateful for their faith and the faith of others. As for the "M" in the heavens last night, I said a prayer of thanks to Dave (Red-hawk) Mealer and Hollis Richer. Go Blue!


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 4:32 a.m.

great not a michigan fan but i know elliot and im gonna make sure i witness this


Fri, Sep 3, 2010 : 10:13 p.m.

What an inspiring story! Thank you for sharing this information about the Mealer family and the U of M staff. Everyone should know how those at U of M have reached out to this family....and the wonderful work they have done!

Bonnie Patel

Fri, Sep 3, 2010 : 1:40 p.m.

Thank you, Pete, for a wonderfully-written article that was really touching. What a great story. I can't wait to see him walk out on Saturday!


Fri, Sep 3, 2010 : 12:28 p.m.

Brock and Elliott are from my small hometown...Cried the first time I read this article...Met Brock personally at the Homecoming festivities and he was a very positive and upbeat person...I live in Ohio but am a Michigan fan......It is so great when a team gets together to help others out....Prayers are with the Mealer family and I will be watching this great event.


Fri, Sep 3, 2010 : 10:04 a.m.

By far, one of the best articles I've seen on, let alone nationally. I hope the AP picks this story up and others run with it. Absolutely amazing. Such an amazing story, and so beautifully and vividly written.

Elaine F. Owsley

Fri, Sep 3, 2010 : 7:58 a.m.

Wow!! And one of the best written stories you've carried in a long time. Congratulations Brock and congratulations Pete.


Fri, Sep 3, 2010 : 7:30 a.m.

Keep writing, Pete. This is the best article I've seen in a long, long time. Well told and truly inspiring.

Ryan Munson

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 8:45 p.m.

'I will be looking forward to cheering the Mealer's on to the field. Excellent story that brought a smile to my day.


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 7:56 p.m.

great story. if he can rise and walk, so can this team! What a great example for these young men to see what can happen when you commit your self to doing something great!


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 7:23 p.m.

Wonderful story, Pete! Can't wait to see the game Saturday!


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 3:49 p.m.

Pete, been following you for several years - ever since you were beat writer for the Denver Broncos. I remember many of your fantastic feature articles (including an unbelievable one on the 2001 Oklahoma State basketball team plane crash) although this ranks right up there. Glad to see A2 snagged you and your talents.

Lorain Steelmen

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 3:26 p.m.

UM Rocks.....I agree, the big house will go nuts staurday when Brock leads the Wolvwerines out! Can you imagine what this will do for the team, and the fans on saturday. My hope is that this will help Coach Rod, and the 2010 team, as they turn the page, and put UM back among the elite programs in college football! Go Blue......

UM Rocks

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 2:41 p.m.

AWESOME story and family!! Can't wait to see him walk out of the tunnel Saturday. Thank you


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 2:31 p.m.

Thanks for a great article Pete. And thanks to the coaches and the players for the overwhelming support given to the Mealer family.

Stephen Landes

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 2:15 p.m.

Pete Bigelow -- I hope that one day you will know how important this article is to the world. No trumped up "happy talk", but a solid example of what people are capable of when they refuse to give up. Thank you very much. I've put the link on my Facebook page. I hope your work gets picked up by other news services.

Stephen Landes

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 2:07 p.m.

Bo commented that it is what you do when no one is looking that indicates your character. Well, Rich Rod, Barwis, the whole staff and team, and mostly the Mealer family have demonstrated great character, mental strength, and determination. I know they will get a whole Big House standing ovation on Saturday. Now, the rest of the story is what difference this is going to make to the medical profession -- will they learn not to crush the human spirit by proclaiming that things they don't understand are impossible? We ALL need to learn that our expectations of ourselves and others have a massive impact on what we can actually accomplish. The medical profession motto of "do no harm" needs to be extended to the way they talk to patients and to the expectations they have for their patients.


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 1:04 p.m.

Great, right before the first game. Where is the article about the secondary?


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 12:46 p.m.

Pete and, what a great story and so inspiring! Anybody who questions Michigan, and its family values, really should read this story. I bleed Maize and Blue, but when the score is final, it is still just a game. Thank you for reminding me of that as the season opener comes closer. Go Blue and even more Go Mealers as you all are an inspiration and I absolutely and truly mean that. I will be cheering for both in section 14 on Saturday! Finally to the team, Rich Rod, Parker Whiteman, and Mike Barwis - We are all in for Michigan.

Mary Schlitt

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 12:39 p.m.

Congratulations to Brock and thank you Michigan Football for your extraordinary efforts to help this family. This article makes me proud to be a fan and alumni. Go Blue!


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 10:41 a.m.

I have read about this story before, but the timing of this story, coupled with the way Pete just told it, turned me upside down. The strength of this family, the confidence of the Mother, the turmoil that must have originally surrounded their family due to their sons choice of schools. WOW...what else can be said...WOW. I am proud of Elliot for following his gut feeling; I'm proud of the family for fighting through the adversity; and I'm proud of the Michigan staff for wanting to help, not even knowing of the families situation. Amazing! Thanks Pete, for a fine piece of work!

Lorain Steelmen

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 10:40 a.m.

A wonderful article. Thanks to the UM staff, Barwis and Rodriguez, in particular, for providing the support, to Brock and his family. Yes, boys and girls, 'family' is still a big part of the WOLVERINE program. Here's the unspoken part, in helping others, this entire team has gotten stonger, both as athletes, and as men. 'Congrats Brock', from a UM grad, and fellow Ohioan!

Guinea Pig in a Tophat

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 10:32 a.m.

What a fantastic and touching story.

Joel Goldberg

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 9:18 a.m.

It takes nothing away from the quality of this article to note that, for most Americans of normal means without personal connections to UM's football staff and facilities, the insurance company letter that its 200-visit limit had been reached would have marked the abandonment of any hope that the recovering person would ever leave a wheelchair.

J Thomo

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 8:48 a.m.

WOW!!!! Cant wait to see the whole family on Saturday...GO BLUE!


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 8:27 a.m.

Special kudos to the Michigan strength and conditioning staff for having the courage to take on such a potenitally risky rehab assignment and the wisdom and professionalism to handle it so well.


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 8:14 a.m.

I cried three different times while reading this. Incredible story, and leading the team out onto the field will just be an overwhelming moment. I hope us out-of-staters will see it on TV.


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 8:14 a.m.

Great family and great story. I am looking forward to him walking onto the field more than I am the game after reading this article. I have been harsh on RR in the past, but why is this story not brought up when people say he lacks family values? I have a little bit more hope for UM and RR.


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 8:14 a.m.

Great story and article. It shows there are FAR more important things in life besides winning games, who's going to be playing QB, NCAA investigations, etc. It WILL be quite an emotional moment when Brock and the Michigan team enters the stadium on Saturday. It will probably be a good idea to bring some Kleenex along! Go Mealers and Go Blue!


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 7:38 a.m.

Thanks, Pete, for the fine article. This family is an inspiration to all college football fans and we wish them the best. I wonder where Elliottis on the depth chart.


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 6:47 a.m.

What an article. (I think I got something in my eye.)


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 6:46 a.m.

Let me wipe the tears out of my eyes first. What a strong family thank God for this miracle. I will be there Saturday looking for that red-tailed hawk. GO Blue. God Bless


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 6:45 a.m.

Thanks for the story Pete. Your style is a breath of fresh air compared to the previous beat writer.

Blue Marker

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 6:40 a.m.

If this story and this family don't inspire you nothing will. Go Mealers and Go Blue!

Blue Marker

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 6:38 a.m.

If this story and this family don't inspire you nothing will. Go Mealers and Go Blue!


Thu, Sep 2, 2010 : 6:24 a.m.

What a wonderful article-how I wish I could be there to witness this! I can only imagine the familys pride. I hope a red-tail is seen that afternoon.