The steps still come awkwardly for Brock Mealer, who, like anyone else, walks by putting one foot in front of the other.
At times, the steps come faster, propelling him forward, forcing the rest of his body to keep up.
But still, the steps come.
These days, Mealer is bothered by how his arms flail almost uncontrollably, serving as the safety net a nearby wall once offered. But the arms, regardless of their motion, have never been the issue.
The fact that Mealer's legs can step at all is what this story is all about. It's a story about miracles and belief. About faith and friendship. About taking life and everything that goes along with it when you're paralyzed from the waist down -- one day at a time.
One step at a time.
But for Brock Mealer, whose life story has, in the past five years, become about believing, it's also been defined by the fact that he wouldn't believe. It's a contradiction, but to a 28-year-old man, it was simple to understand.
To believe or not to believe.
The piece of paper hangs in a hallway in Mike Barwis' suburban Detroit training center.
The statement printed on the 8 ½ x 11 sheet is a matter of fact. But like with anything else in life, the only thing that changes on the posted sign is time.
On this day, a smaller block of hot pink paper with a ‘90' written in black magic marker, begins the sentence.
Below it, other numbers have been crossed out, reminding Mealer that he's running out of time.
On Dec. 22, two days before the five-year anniversary of the night the lives of Brock Mealer and his entire family changed, he will get married.
He met Haley Frank less than two years ago after escorting her to a fundraiser at a Fricker's restaurant for a young cancer patient. At that point, Mealer was invited to attend all sorts of events to tell his story or to just be there as a source of inspiration.
But this one, he didn't want to attend alone. So he picked Haley up at her house, entering into a relationship that has led him to this point.
In the weeks leading up to the wedding, there will be details to attend to, final plans to be made. For Mealer, that means more steps.
By now, he is polishing how he walks rather than wondering how he'll get his 220-pound body to navigate the 23 yards dividing the back of the church from the front.
But these days, 23 yards is nothing. Once, it was an eternity.
Haley jokes that she's worried Brock walking down the aisle will steal the spotlight from her on a day, as all men come to learn, that is all about the bride.
Haley sees how Brock walks with his arms thrusting from side to side and kids him that his movements must improve before their wedding day arrives.
Yet, considering how far Brock has come, now to a point when his future wife can give him a hard time about the way he walks on his own is, still at times, still hard to believe.
But like with everything else, Brock believes.
"Even with the walking, it doesn't seem like that's something I could accomplish or that I could have put in the amount of work and time I've put into it," Mealer says. "The wedding -- at least on the good side of things -- is something I never could have imagined for myself happening."
But in a five-year journey that Mealer can only describe as surreal -- part nightmare, part dreamlike smattered with a wealth of blessings -- there have been a host of things Mealer can't believe has happened.
On days, this doesn't even seem like his life, but instead, the manuscript of a story with a fairy-tale ending.
Mealer always kept the faith that walking was possible, and connected with Mike Barwis, the trainer who refused to hear the doubters –- even with others trying to convince them otherwise.
"He had this attitude that success was inevitable -- it was just a matter of time," Barwis says. "When you've got that in your heart and you're willing to invest everything you have to make something happen, you'll achieve it. That's life.
"It's the ability to sacrifice oneself to achieve the impossible -- and that's when the impossible happens. That's Brock."
To believe or not to believe.
Nearly five years ago, that was the question when Mealer lay in a hospital bed in Ann Arbor, Mich., unable to feel anything below his waist.
The fact he was in Ann Arbor at all remains, to this day, part of the miracle. But that part of the story comes later.
A harrowing Christmas Eve night car accident at a rural intersection in Ohio 76 miles away brought him to Ann Arbor. Then Mealer forced to decide whether he would believe or if he wouldn't.
Somehow, Mealer had survived the crash that occurred when a 90-year-old retired minister ran a stop sign just after 9:30 p.m. and plowed into the SUV that Mealer, along with his parents, his younger brother and his brother's girlfriend were riding in. They were going to a Christmas Eve church service.
The accident claimed the lives of his 50-year-old father, Dave, and his younger brother's girlfriend. The collision caused the SUV to roll over into a ditch, pinning Mealer in the wreckage, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Now, it was a doctor's duty to break the news to Mealer, who had fractured his T-12 and L-1 vertebrae. Mealer, who had been transferred to University of Michigan Health Systems after spending the first 10 days after the accident at a Toledo hospital, knew what was coming.
And this much was sure: He wasn't in the mood to hear it.
"With the way (the doctor) said it, I knew it was a gesture of something they do," Mealer says. "She knew there wasn't a chance, but (it was) just to throw something out there."
Then and there, the doctor told Mealer and his family that she had seen cases like this before and this, she said, was the worst of the worst. Walking again, she continued, wasn't likely.
"Obviously, they can't know that it's 100 percent sure," Mealer said.
So just to provide Mealer with hope -- a glimmer at best -- the doctor looked Mealer in the eye and told him what she believed to be the God's honest truth.
"There's not really a chance you'll walk again," she said. "Maybe a 1 percent chance."
Now, Mealer had a choice.
To believe or not to believe.
To believe in himself or to not believe a physician who, as Mealer says, "knows their stuff the way a doctor knows their stuff."
And in that instant, Brock Mealer made his decision.
He'd bet on himself and that 1 percent.
Even before meeting Brock Mealer, Rich Rodriguez had heard there was a patient at the nearby hospital he just had to meet.
Rodriguez had been hired as Michigan's new football coach only weeks before, taking over college football's all-time winningest program after Lloyd Carr had retired.
Elliott Mealer, Brock's younger brother, had always planned on playing football at Ohio State, which only made sense considering the Mealers' roots and the way that Dave had always taught his boys to love the Buckeyes.
To this day, Elliott Mealer, who is in his first year as the Wolverines starting center, says he probably knows more about Ohio State and its football history than most Buckeyes loyalists who bleed scarlet and gray.
Now, Elliott Mealer can't imagine life without Michigan, a school that allowed not only allowed his dreams of playing Division I football to become a reality, but that changed the lives of those he loves most.
"Michigan has just been incredible to my family," Elliott says. "And if I hadn't been here, the story wouldn't have gone the way it's gone for Brock or myself."
In 2007, when Carr started recruiting Elliott -- a strapping high school offensive lineman from Wauseon, Ohio -- the younger Mealer decided to visit Michigan, even if it went against everything he and his family believed in.
Michigan had always been the enemy, "that school up north" that became vilified during the 10-year war fought between legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and his nemesis in Ann Arbor, Bo Schembechler.
Still, Elliott chose to visit.
And Elliott, who like the rest of his family lives by faith, sensed a higher calling.
"God wants me to go to Michigan," Mealer told his father upon completion of his official visit to Ann Arbor.
Elliott verbally committed to Michigan in November, 2007 –- a month before the accident that catapulted the Mealers into a dizzying and emotional journey.
Now, two months later, here was Rodriguez -- who had replaced the man that convinced Elliott to come to Michigan -- sitting in Brock's hospital room on Super Bowl Sunday, telling the family of an incoming freshman that if he had anything to say about it, they'd be taken care of.
That included Brock, whose positive attitude was the talk of hospital personnel after choosing not to believe the prognosis his doctor had left him with.
"I could tell right away –- this guy is different," Rodriguez, now in his first year at Arizona, says in a phone interview. "There's a certain spark about him. There's a certain infectious personality that the whole hospital floor has already seen. I could see that look in his eye and I knew he was going to make this happen."
That brought Mike Barwis into the picture.
Barwis, a hard-nosed, raspy-voiced strength and conditioning coach from Philadelphia, had followed Rodriguez to Ann Arbor from West Virginia. He had developed his own methods of training athletes that combines athletic training with scientific methods such as physiology and kinesiology.
The always energetic Barwis met Brock for the first time, planning to use simple words of encouragement as a way of not only breaking the ice but as a way of gauging if this positive attitude he had heard so much about was legitimate.
"We're going to get you up and walking -- don't you worry about that," Barwis told Mealer.
Even before his initial consultation with Barwis, Mealer had an impression of what he was in for. Through Elliott and through other Michigan football players, Mealer realized Barwis wasn't anyone to take lightly.
Known for his vomit-inducing workouts and with the brand of tough love he exhibits by hugging players one moment and pushing them to what seemed to be within an inch of their lives the next, Barwis had the reputation of getting the most of the athletes he trains.
Brock would be no different.
Brock describes Barwis as a blend between Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee, someone he wondered, at first, if had any traits of being a normal human being.
"One hundred percent of the time, he's just this driven person," Mealer says. "Whether he was working with one of the college guys (at Michigan) or whether he was working with the superstar athlete who was already where he wanted to be, he was always in their face, pushing them."
Now, he was going to start pushing Mealer to walk again, believing that the 1 percent chance of walking doctors had given Mealer was nothing more than a number.
Best of all, he knew Mealer felt the same and that he wouldn't have to convince him to believe.
"When I went in there, I was like, ‘Ah, you can do this, just keep working hard' -- I was talking positive to him about his future -- 'You're going to walk again' and you could see he believed it," Barwis says.
"In his heart, he didn't need to be told. He knew he was going to walk. You could see the fire and the determination."
During his rehabilitation sessions at the hospital, Mealer heard physical therapists voice what many others chose to keep inside.
Barwis was crazy for taking on this challenge, they'd say.
All Barwis was doing, Mealer would hear the therapists repeat in conversations among themselves, was giving false hope to someone who needed to focus on his recovery not on a fairy tale of walking on his own again.
Barwis, who now trains everyone from elite professional athletes to everyday people trying to stay in shape, had never dealt with paralysis before. But deep down, he knew this was something he had to do.
Even with Mealer being an Ohio State graduate and even after his insurance ran out in the fall of 2009, Barwis couldn't –- and wouldn't turn his back on the Mealers.
He would, however, turn his back on the doubters.
"People would come and say he's not going to walk," Barwis says. "People know me well enough to know that if you say it once, I don't listen the first time. I don't listen to you the second time and they really don't come back to me."
Mealer became an honorary member of Michigan's football program, working out in the Wolverines' weight room up to five days a week. He'd make the long commute from Columbus, where he was taking graduate classes at Ohio State just to take Barwis up on his offer.
Barwis refused to take it easy on Mealer, treating him just like he would any other player.
Early on, the doctor's 1 percent prognosis stuck in Mealer's head. He figured doctors tended to know what they're talking about and that even as passionate as Barwis was, he couldn't know all the challenges that would go into overcoming the 1 percent chance of walking doctors were giving him.
But the more he worked with Barwis, the more Mealer came to realize that Barwis wasn't giving up. He pushed Mealer to do more than he thought was possible even on the days when Mealer didn't sense he was making any progress.
"At times, I was thinking -- at least in my head -- 'this guy does not get it -- I'm dying here,'" Mealer says. "I had days when I'd be going home and I'd think, 'I don't think I can handle this and do all this'."
On those days, Barwis knew Mealer was starting to break down and so in his own way, in the genuine fashion Mealer came to love him for, Barwis would build Mealer back up, always keeping his eye on the goal.
Not that Mealer needed motivation, but Rodriguez figured giving Mealer a concrete goal to shoot for couldn't hurt.
During the spring of 2010, Rodriguez called Mealer into his office and made an offer to allow Mealer to led the Wolverines onto the field against Connecticut.
Mealer was speechless, but accepted.
For the next several months, Mealer continued to work with Barwis and his staff, taking the initial steps toward using two canes to make his way out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel and to the banner that the Wolverines leap to touch before every game.
The process was slow and painful. Yet, on a daily basis, Barwis saw progress, which came in small, bite-size pieces. But with every step forward -- from Mealer starting to regain sensation in his lower body to being able to stand with braces on his knees to being able to start to take steps with the assistance of the two canes -- Barwis knew Mealer's body was healing.
As much as it hurt, it was healing.
"I've never seen someone so excited to hurt," Barwis says. "To me, that was awesome -- to see his expressions, to see his body change and desire pain. He wanted the pain."
Rodriguez routinely checked in on Mealer, reminding him on each of his visits to the weight room how many days remained before the Connecticut game.
When that September day came, Mealer found himself in the tunnel more nervous than he had ever been before in his life. He couldn't imagine walking into the sunlight in front of 113,090 fans.
He started to pray, asking God for strength.
Before he knew it, he was balancing his body on the canes, taking one wobbly step after another with his mother, Shelly, and brothers Elliott and Blake behind him. As a thunderous ovation continued, Mealer -- wearing a maize and blue T-shirt that read, "Glory to God 1%" printed on the front and "Never settle for what others tell you is possible. Strive for the impossible" on the back -- made it to the 50-yard line, reached up and touched the banner.
Back in the tunnel, tears welled up in Rodriguez's eyes. The coach did everything he could to hold it in.
"Here he is when 99 percent (of the people) said he couldn't walk and now he's doing it," Rodriguez says. "But that's just the start -- if he can do that, what else can he accomplish in life?"
The two years since have given Rodriguez and everyone else the answer.
As much progress as Mealer had made in walking to the 50-yard line in 2010, he knew it was just the beginning. He knew there were probably people who figured that his accomplishment in Ann Arbor was as good as it would ever get and that anything else would be too much to ask for.
But Mealer kept pushing for more.
After Rodriguez was fired at Michigan following the 2010 season, Barwis opened a training facility, where Mealer continues to work out. He drives 90 minutes each way from his home in Wauseon, committed to finishing what he started.
Again, progress has been slow, but steady.
The milestones have been remarkable. Mealer looks back to the day when he first walked without the use of his canes, moving slowly along a wall for stability, putting one step in front of the other.
He'd walk a few steps before having to stop and rest. Soon, steps became yards.
First five and then six. After another month, he'd be at 10 yards. At times, Mealer's progress amazed even himself.
"I remember getting 10 yards and falling and looking back and saying, "Wow, that's crazy -- 10 yards'," Mealer says.
Then came the big test -- the day Barwis told him it was time to leave the wall and walk in the open with nothing in front of him or behind him.
Nothing to hold on to.
"What if I fall?" Mealer asked.
"Then you get up like everyone else," Barwis replied.
Before long, Mealer worked his way up to 30 yards and then 50. He'd lumber down the middle the open space of Barwis' training facility with Barwis walking ahead of him every step of the way.
"C'mon big dog," Barwis barks out.
Occasionally, Mealer falls after losing his balance. But without assistance, he pulls his body up off the floor and resumes his forward motion. Earlier this fall, Mealer walked the entire length of the room, covering the 60 yards wall-to-wall.
He can now walk up to 200 yards on his own and recently left the confines of the facility where he learned to stand on his own feet and making the half-mile trek around the perimeter of the building.
The piece of paper counting down the days to his wedding now serve as the motivation. But it also serves as a reminder of just how much he and his family have healed.
During the same fall season when Brock is preparing to walk on his own down the aisle, Elliott is helping anchor Michigan's offensive line.
Like Brock, Elliott looks back at the past five years and struggles to believe everything that has happened since the Christmas Eve night accident when he tore his rotator cuff trying to free his family members from the wreckage.
After redshirting his freshman year while he healed, both physically and spiritually, Elliott Mealer has used Brock's journey to inspire his own. Even in the times when Elliott was buried on Michigan's depth chart, he kept working, keeping everything in perspective.
"There have been times after I've worked out that Brock has called me or I've called him and I've realized Brock has a real-life battle every morning when he wakes up that he has to face and he does it gladly with a smile," says Elliott, who is now a fifth-year senior at Michigan. "I'm more faced with an opportunity -- something that I love to do, I (think) I've got to do that with a smile, too.
"That's the neat part of it -- we've been pushing each other through our different battles and we've always been there for each other -- Brock with his walking and me with pushing on and trying to play football."
Brock's wedding will be the culmination of a season of healing not only for himself, but also for his entire family.
Shelly Mealer recently got remarried. Elliott is starting on a team he hopes can clinch a Big Ten championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl a year after the Wolverines finished 11-2 and won a BCS game with its Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
The timing makes the story that has become Mealer's life during the past five years even more remarkable. Shelly Mealer can't help but see the way faith has played a role in the entire five-year journey that has brought her and her family to this point.
"I pick and choose my times to look back at where we were and where we've come," Shelly Mealer told the Associated Press last month. "It's been a long road.
"There's only two things in life I knew for sure: I knew Elliott would play D-I football. And, I knew that Brock would walk again no matter how much doubt they told us or fed us."
Brock's wedding will provide the Mealers a chance to celebrate -- not only as Brock begins a new chapter of life as a married man -- but one who can walk into a room, as Elliott says, "and not have anyone really notice anything about him."
To Mealer, the slip of paper counting down the days to his wedding is similar to the one Rodriguez had two years ago for his walk to the 50-yard line.
Mealer said come Dec. 22, he'll have the same level of confidence walking the 23 yards down the center of the church as he did when he made his way to the center of Michigan Stadium.
The biggest difference is, this time, he'll do it on his own.
Rodriguez and Barwis both marvel at the progress Mealer has made since that September afternoon in 2010. But both are convinced this doesn't spell the end of the story for Mealer.
Barwis refers to the healing he's seen the Mealers experience as uplifting. He said for the family to finally enjoy some goodness after all the turmoil they endured is inspiring, making him glad he was able to be part of the journey.
Mealer has hard time putting the past five years into words. But in a story that forced him to believe more in himself than in the doctors who said he likely wouldn't walk again, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I can look back at moments when I felt angry or felt bitter but in every one of those moments, I decided I wasn't going to give in to that and that we, as a family, wasn't going to give into that" Mealer says. "We just had to keep fighting and get through all these things we had to get through.
"But I really believe if I hadn't chose that path, I clearly wouldn't have been walking. I do believe the point we've come to now has come from just keeping the faith."
All he had to do was believe.
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