Around 9:35 p.m. on Christmas Eve three years ago in the small northwest Ohio town of Wauseon, David Mealer drove his family to Midnight Mass. The family had been on their way home from a holiday party and made sure to leave in time to get to the church, a long-standing tradition on Christmas Eve for the Mealers. Along with David, a 50-year-old family man, were his wife, Shelly, and his sons Brock and Elliott, athletic boys who had both found sports they loved in high school -- basketball for Brock, football for Elliott. Hollis Richer, Elliott's longtime girlfriend and a charming 17-year-old girl who knew the Bible like the back of her hand, was also with them. Hollis had fallen asleep on Elliott's shoulder. The rest of the car was quiet.
As David moved toward the intersection of Route 2 and Fulton County Road 19, the last thing he saw was 90-year-old Edward Johnson running a stop sign. Johnson's 1991 Buick Skylark smashed into the Mealers' SUV, toppling it onto its passenger side.
David and Hollis died in the accident. Elliott would require shoulder surgery and rehabilitation before he could return to football.
Brock, who was 23 at the time, ended up pinned between the SUV and the ground. He could not move his legs. He was immediately brought to nearby Fulton County Hospital, but was unable to receive surgery there. He later spent 10 days at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, where he underwent spinal surgery. There, doctors told him that his T-12 vertebra was broken and his L-1 vertebra was shattered. He had also broken his right forearm near his wrist. For days after his surgery, he couldn't sit upright without assistance. Nights were the hardest on his mother Shelly, who slept in a chair to be near her son. "At night, in the beginning, he cried for his mother every night," Shelly said. "And he just cried for his dad."
The television wasn't on in Brock hospital room on Feb. 3, 2008, but if it had been, it would have shown Super Bowl XLII. The Giants were playing the heavily favored and undefeated New England Patriots, but kickoff had come and gone and Brock wasn't watching. He had finished up his afternoon physical therapy when a visitor arrived. "I had forgotten the game was even on," Brock said. "I was been lying in bed when my mom said, 'Someone's here to see you.' She told me it was (Michigan) coach (Rich) Rodriguez."
A little more than a month earlier, Rodriguez had been named Lloyd Carr's successor in Ann Arbor. His name and face had been plastered all over newspapers, magazines and television for weeks. Brock, who had been enrolled at Ohio State since 2004, was in awe of the Wolverines' coach, who was visiting just a few days before National Signing Day. It was one of the most hectic periods of time for any coach, let alone one desperately trying to round up players who would fit his new system. Why was Rodriguez in the hospital room? Elliott, who is four years younger than Brock, had committed to play offensive lineman at Michigan in 2007, and the new coach met with Brock for more than an hour, reassuring him that his brother's scholarship was safe. Then he told Brock something that would change his life: "How great would it be if you led us out the tunnel one of the games?" Rodriguez said.
The University of Michigan's medical rehab center is located two miles down the road from Schembechler Hall, the football team's training facility named after the legendary football coach whom many refer to simply as "Bo."
It is home to the football coaching staff offices, team meeting rooms and the team weight room. Soon after Rodriguez came to Michigan, the football program spent more than $1 million on new, state-of-the-art fitness equipment and free weights.
At the medical rehab center, the weight room area is slightly different.
The facility's gym includes a set of parallel bars -- to help patients stand, turn and perfect their gait after they begin walking -- as well as mat tables, where patients practice transferring from sitting to standing.
In the back corner, there's the Lokomat, a robotic walking device. Many times during his year rehabbing at the center, Brock strapped his legs into the device and practiced walking on a treadmill surface.
Doctors and surgeons had told Brock after the accident that spinal cord injury patients typically have a one percent chance of ever walking again.
"They made it clear that I may get some muscle twitching or things like that, but as far as actual functional muscle movement, it wouldn't come," Brock said. "They always just wanted me to accept that fact instead of being in denial and thinking I was going to walk again."
But Brock and his therapists knew a few things made him special -- and a candidate to be a part of the one percent. First was the type of injury he suffered.
"With an incomplete (spinal cord injury), which is what Brock has, there are still nerve fibers that are intact," said Paula Kartje, a therapist at the rehab center. Kartje said that once the swelling initially goes down, some of those nerve fibers that are not working because of spinal shock can come back and heal themselves because they weren't completely damaged.
A second factor was Brock's health before the accident. He had been a varsity basketball player at Wauseon High who also played intramural ice hockey in college. His strong upper body helped with early inpatient rehab work, and he didn't suffer from atrophy (muscle wasting) in his leg muscles, which helped during physical therapy.
Michelle Semple, Brock's primary therapist from 2008 to 2009, said she knew from the start that he would walk again. It was just a question of assistance. Brock began his rehab with the parallel bars, and eventually worked his way up to a rolling walker, then crutches and ankle braces.
His positive outlook throughout the entire rehab process helped, too. Semple said Brock's attitude was rare. "He kind of took it as -- this is what God gave me, and I'm going to make the most of it," Semple said. "Some people you see give up and say, 'Well, this is the best I can do.' He's definitely not that type of person." By the time Brock finished his work at the rehab center, he was able to walk 250 feet with the aid of a walker and two ankle braces. "Did I believe he would walk again?," Elliott said. "Yes, I did, but I always tried to look at it in the sense that I believe in Brock. I believe if he wants to walk again, then I'm going to be behind him and I'm going to believe in him."
Last October Brock's insurance company refused to pay for any additional outpatient physical therapy. So the Mealers took Rodriguez up on his standing offer to help Brock however he could. The next month, Brock began working out with Mike Barwis, the Michigan football team's strength and conditioning coach. Barwis sat down with Brock to create a program that would encourage Brock's body to react and adapt in a way that would enable him to walk again.
"We developed a protocol based on what we were looking for as an outcome," Barwis said. "The design of the program was all new, so we kind of used what we have in the weight room and used some of the equipment kind of inversely to how we use it for athletes to assist Brock."
Brock, now 25, has reached the point where he can walk with one or two canes, but the process has been painful, frustrating and challenging. Barwis treats him just like he would any Michigan football player. "He's gotten right in his grill," said Elliott, now a sophomore offensive lineman. "When he works out in the weight room with Mike and those guys, they push him just like he's another part of the team. I warned Brock before that. I said, Mike's asking you to work out with him. He wants to help, but don't come around to me and say, 'Hey, you didn't warn me about this guy.' I told you."
Therapists at the rehab center think that Brock's surroundings have helped him during his rehab. Instead of working out with other disabled patients, Brock is around Division I athletes and hard-nosed football coaches. "When I started and I was barely even able to stand much on my own, everyone around here believed in the idea that I was going to walk," Brock said. "It wasn't a question of 'If,' it was always just a question of 'when.' 'When are you going to walk, Brock?'"
Workouts at Schembechler Hall were demanding. Brock often spent two to three hours in the weight room with Barwis and strength coach Parker Whiteman multiple times a week. Last year Brock had to split time between graduate school classes at Ohio State and workouts in Ann Arbor. This summer was easier on his schedule because he could commute from his home in Wauseon, a little more than an hour's drive southwest of Ann Arbor.
Spending time around Schembechler Hall meant he got to see Elliott more often. He'd also get to see the Michigan football team practice, while working out on the side of the field.
After the Wolverines' final spring practice last April 13, Brock and Rodriguez decided to announce their goal: Brock would walk and lead the team out of the tunnel at Michigan Stadium before the team's season opener against Connecticut on Saturday. "Having this goal set out for me has helped immensely, as much as it is a distraction," Brock said. "It's helped me recover mentally as well, especially having the right people around me."
Three years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Brock dressed in maize and blue. He grew up a diehard Buckeye fan, and is currently in the middle of graduate school at Ohio State. Brock's newfound loyalty even includes a few anti-Buckeye jokes. "I wanted to go to Michigan but with out-of-state costs, it wasn't going to happen," Brock said. "I figured if I could get two degrees from Ohio State, it might be close to Elliott's undergrad degree (at Michigan)."
Elliott laughed when he heard that joke for the first time. "He hadn't told me that one yet!" Elliott said.
The brothers often exchange digs, especially when they cross paths in the weight room or on the practice field. The entire rehabilitation process has brought them closer together. It's also given Brock a better sense of the Michigan program. Brock's one request for Rodriguez was for Elliott to be assigned No. 57 as a tribute to their father, who was born in 1957. Rodriguez honored that request. Since that day in the hospital, the coach has become close with the Mealers, and always asks Brock how he's feeling whenever he sees him around Schembechler Hall.
Saturday's game against Connecticut is the first in a make-or-break year for Rodriguez. But the Michigan coach knows that the scene before kickoff offers something more special than the game's outcome.
"It's going to be an emotional time," Rodriguez said. "Having seen Brock and his progress over the last year or so and how much work he's put in -- I see him after the workouts -- he's dedicated his life to proving he can walk again. To be able to do that in front of our fans and national TV and all that, it's going to be quite emotional. It'll be an inspiration. It already has been for our entire team."
The Mealer family will be in the stands on Saturday, as well as some of Brock's friends from Ohio State. Brock said he can't quite imagine what it's going to feel like, walking with two canes in front of 110,000 people. He said he'll look down, so he doesn't see all the people.
His mother will be nervous, just like any mom would be. But the image of Brock taking step after step won't be unfamiliar. It will be an emotional day, difficult to go through without her husband. "I see Brock walking in my sleep," Shelly said. "That's always been the dream."
"When he does lead us out, it's going to be tearful but it's going to be happy," Elliott said. "It's going to be awesome. It's an amazing thing, and it'll make me speechless -- like he always does."