Brock Mealer has been a guest of coach Jim Tressel at Ohio State practices.
He's just not welcome this week.
Someone (possibly Tressel — Brock can't remember for sure) told him in jest that he couldn't come during the preparations for the game against Michigan because he might be spying on behalf of his brother.
Brock's brother is Michigan offensive lineman Elliott Mealer. Even though Brock will be rooting for the Wolverines on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, he has a unique perspective on the rivalry: He's seen the best of both sides.
"That makes it that much greater for me that I really feel that God's just playing this all out," he said from his home in Wauseon, this week before heading up to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a physical therapy workout.
"To have just all these pieces fall in place like they have, has made it that much more incredible. It's Ohio State and Michigan that happened for our family. Since it's the greatest rivalry in sports, it just makes it that much more incredible in my mind. It makes me believe that much more that I'm supposed to be doing this, that I'm supposed to overcome this challenge."
The Mealers grew up as avid Ohio State fans, thanks to their dad, Dave, a good-natured bear of a man.
Brock Mealer is, for the most part, paralyzed from the waist down. His injuries occurred in a horrific accident on Christmas Eve of 2007. Brock was in the passenger seat and his father was driving their Mercedes-Benz SUV to midnight mass in a small town near their Northwestern Ohio home. Brock's mom, Elliott and Elliott's 17-year-old girlfriend, Hollis Richer, were in the back.
A 90-year-old man ran a stop sign, T-boning the Mealers' vehicle and flipping it on its right side. Elliott, who had just completed his senior year of high school and would start classes at Michigan in January, climbed out the broken back window with his mother. They found Hollis dead beneath the vehicle. Dave was also dead and lying on top of Brock, who was pinned by the vehicle's twisted metal.
Elliott, a 6-foot-5, 313-pounder, tore his rotator cuff attempting to free his brother.
Brock, just 13 hours short of graduating from Ohio State, was taken to a hospital and spent the better part of four months undergoing surgery and therapy. He was told he would never walk again.
Just a few months after he was released from the hospital, he returned to finish his degree in economics at Ohio State.
"Coach Tressel had invited me to a practice because he knew I still had to get back down there to get my degree," Brock said. "I called to ask about coming into a practice and one of the things I asked them was to make sure that Tyson Gentry would be around."
Gentry, a former walk-on punter and receiver for the Buckeyes, fell awkwardly while trying to make a catch during a practice in April of 2006. He suffered a broken vertebra in his neck and his spinal cord sustained damage. While continuing his education, he became a fixture at Ohio State's practices. He continues his rehab today, and still hopes to walk.
"I was amazed," said Brock, 26. "I'm always looked at as having a great attitude, but he really has a great attitude. It picks me up."
After he graduated, Brock returned home and continued his hard work to also regain the ability to walk. Four times a week, he drives himself to Ann Arbor to meet with University of Michigan trainers and strength coaches.
Just last Sept. 4, he led his brother and the rest of the Wolverines onto the field for the season-opener against Connecticut, with the help of two canes and leg braces. He was afraid he'd fall down in front of the 113,090 in attendance at The Big House.
He shouldn't have worried, with all of those people standing next to him.
"(Someone) told me that I would be the only person in the stadium that everyone was cheering for," he said. "I've been fortunate enough in life, whether Ohio State or Michigan, everybody's pulling for me."
Now Brock has become just one of the guys who goes through grueling workouts at Michigan. The players look over at him and marvel at his will, at what he's already overcome, at what lies ahead.
He is certain he'll walk, and soon. He's regaining some sensitivity in his feet. He squat-lifted a 45-pound weight this week. He can already take a few steps at a time.
It's not just his body which has changed.
Brock once said he couldn't wait to get out of college because he so disliked making presentations before a class. After the tragedy, he realized he had a story to tell. He now can't wait to get up in front of schools and church groups to tell how his life was spared, how his family soldiers on, how sometimes you have to overcome an obstacle that looks insurmountable.
"I've found," he said simply, "a calling to do that."
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez has been one of his biggest supporters.
"Whatever you need," he told Brock, "you've got it."
Tressel and Ohio State's doctors and trainers have all done what they could for Brock, too.
When the Mealers held a golf tournament to raise funds in Dave Mealer's name for spinal-cord injury research, Tressel sent a signed helmet and football. It was a big hit with the many Buckeyes fans who were his dad's friends. Rodriguez and the Wolverines also sent a few signed items.
The funds from the silent auction and the tournament? They were split between the universities, two rival schools working together to help one family.
- coach Jim Tressel
- physical therapy
- Ohio Stadium
- Ohio State practices
- midnight mass
- Christmas Eve