ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Brock Mealer is going to lead Michigan's football team onto the field before its opener against Connecticut in a way few thought was possible.
He'll be walking.
The brother of Wolverines offensive lineman Elliott Mealer was severely injured in a car accident that killed his father and his brother's girlfriend. Elliott and their mother were also hurt in the accident, but neither as badly as Brock.
"My surgeon, less than a day after my surgery, gave me the news that the best we could hope for is that eventually the pain sensations would go away with time and medication," Brock Mealer recalled recently. "They always just wanted me to accept it, rather than fight it, and be in denial."
He had other plans.
Mealer has endured relentless rehabilitation with the football program's strength and conditioning coaches in a quest to become mobile on his own two feet.
"Everyone around here believed in the idea that I was going to walk," he said. "It was never a question of if, but a question of when."
Mealer's friends and family have seen him walk — sometimes on his own, or with a cane — but he is days away from doing it on perhaps the grandest stage in football.
"I tried to warn him, it's a different feeling when you have 110,000 people watching you," Elliott Mealer said. "It's kind of sinking in for him, the closer it gets."
Their father, David, and Elliott's girlfriend, Hollis Richer, were killed when a 90-year-old man ran a stop sign near Toledo, Ohio, on Christmas Eve in 2007. Their mother, Shelly, who escaped with bruises even though she was the one most directly hit by the other car. Elliott tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder and redshirted his first season at Michigan.
"I questioned why I missed my opportunity to go to heaven," Shelly Mealer said Sunday night in a telephone interview as her voice cracked with emotion. "Still, I have my moments wondering if I can do this. But I know I'm here to take care of the boys because my husband always was the one who led us in his positive and optimistic way."
The Mealer brothers both acknowledge thinking, "Why me?" daily — wondering why they survived — and regularly replay the nightmare in their minds.
Elliott Mealer still feels a sense of regret and guilt for offering his girlfriend the outside seat in the back the car because she was feeling ill.
"It could've been prevented, I guess, and it could've been me," he said softly. "It's kind of a difficult thing to think about."
Elliott Mealer hasn't been able to date since he lost his high school sweetheart and often wears three rings he gave her — along with a cross she planned to give him — on a chain around his neck.
"I've come to a conclusion that there's a reason I'm still alive," he said. "I'm trying to find those reasons, why I'm the one who is still here and to do whatever I can with this life that I've been given."
The Mealers grew up rooting for Ohio State, where Brock has earned an undergraduate degree and is enrolled in graduate school.
Brock Mealer splits his time between Ann Arbor and Columbus, Ohio, where a decal on his wheelchair leads to a lot of conversations.
"I get asked about the Michigan sticker on my wheelchair more often than I get asked about the wheelchair," he said with a grin.
Brock Mealer said it was Rodriguez's idea to have him walk the team onto the field — asking last spring if it was something he wanted to do — and the coach can't wait to witness the moment.
"It's going to be an emotional time," Rodriguez said. "He's dedicated his life to prove he can walk again."