"Training on Hope" | ESPN.com
They form a loose circle, some sitting in wheelchairs, others in folding chairs, with their prosthetic legs or arms stretched out in front. A few, with their prosthetics removed, rest on their stumps on the floor. Others stand, holding crutches or leaning on gym equipment. A quadruple amputee sits next to a triple amputee. A car crash survivor with no legs sits beside a veteran with one arm and one leg. Two quadriplegics confer with a single-leg amputee.
They're all here, at OakFit gym on a rundown street outside of Dallas' downtown, to work with the man in the center of the circle. David Vobora stands on a wooden block, bouncing up and down to the beat of his constant energy, and addresses the group. It's the start of Week 3 for Class 7 of the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF), a nonprofit Vobora founded in September 2014 that works with adaptive athletes -- amputees, paraplegics, quadriplegics, physically impaired. It's a nine-week training program designed to empower each athlete, restore confidence and redefine his or her body's capabilities.
"You tell me what you want to do, what's the one thing you want to aim for at the end of these nine weeks, and we'll put it on the wall," Vobora says. "We will find a way."
He addresses the group with the confidence of a man who survived four grueling NFL seasons -- and an opiate addiction that almost destroyed him. He has seen the bottom and crawled his way out, an experience many in the ATF group relate to in a deeply personal way.
The former "Mr. Irrelevant" -- drafted by the Rams with the 252nd and final pick of the 2008 NFL draft -- was a rookie starter at linebacker in St. Louis before eventually landing in Seattle. To cope with a series of devastating shoulder injuries and head trauma, he turned to painkillers.
His story is all too common: The drugs transformed him from a typically level-headed person to someone who snapped at a waitress for forgetting to deliver a drink he hadn't ordered. They left him helpless, standing on the balcony of a Hawaiian hotel while on vacation, threatening to jump as his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Sarah, looked on. And they eventually led him to rehab, where Vobora was throwing up, crapping the bed and suffering seizures. By the third night, he prayed, asking God to send an angel. Later that evening, a nurse named Tina came in and prayed with him, calming his nerves.
Vobora checked out of the facility three weeks later. He thought about returning to the NFL, but he knew he was ready to find a new passion. He officially retired after the 2012 season; in August 2013, he and Sarah moved to Dallas, where David eventually opened a for-profit gym for elite athletes, Performance Vault. He began training offseason NFL players, NFL combine hopefuls and Olympians.
In January 2014, Vobora met U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, one of five surviving quadruple amputees from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As soon as he saw Mills, Vobora walked up to him and asked, "When is the last time you worked out?" He challenged Mills to come to the gym with him. Soon, Vobora was spending hours researching ways to strengthen Mills' body and give him confidence. Vobora knew that Mills, with no limbs, needed to focus on weight transfer, core strength and stability, all while overcoming his fear of falling, a fear that is common with amputees.
Mills invited a fellow injured veteran to the gym, and the group soon grew to more than a dozen adaptive athletes, which left little time for Vobora to train his professional clients. David and Sarah, parents to two little girls, lived 45 minutes from the gym. Sometimes, Vobora slept at the gym on a yoga mat, going to bed at 1 a.m. and waking up four hours later to start training again.
Sarah asked Vobora to find a way to turn his passion into a profession. By September 2014, he had founded the Adaptive Training Foundation, which now has an extensive waiting list and selects 10 athletes for each class through an application process. For nine weeks, the group trains for free; each athlete is assigned a volunteer trainer who helps design workouts specific to that athlete's body.
"I thought they would literally have to drag me off of a football field when my body had failed," Vobora says, "but it turned out that I found something that had such a profound impact on my life that I couldn't stop giving."
Inside and outside of the gym, Vobora's energy is palpable: He fidgets, and his brain moves so quickly that sometimes his words can't keep up. He's part trainer, part preacher, part counselor, part motivator. When he says, "We will find a way," he means it.
"You trust him immediately because you can see how his mind works," says Vanessa Cantu, a 33-year-old who suffered a spinal cord injury in a car crash as a teenager. "He takes you to the most uncomfortable place first and builds your confidence from there. He's so committed to the training. He'll call me at 4 a.m. saying, 'I just thought of this training method we can try.'"
If he hadn't played football, Vobora says he would've been a Marine. His great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle were all Marines; his grandfather served 31 years in the Marine Corps and fought in three wars. Vobora has always respected the bonds formed by those in the military, and now he's helping civilians and injured veterans re-create that bond in a setting in which they feel like they belong.
"The thing that makes this place so different is the tribe mentality," says former Marine Corps infantryman and single-leg amputee Blake Watson. "It's something that reminded me of the Marine Corps -- the camaraderie part. You're all different people who've come together for a similar mission."
When asked of ATF's impact, Vobora paused. "I think the best thing that I've given these groups is hope. Hope is a priceless currency. It's like water. You'll die without hope."
These are the stories of four veterans who say ATF hasn't just given them hope -- it has given them life.
Blake Watson Corporal, USMC, Retired
Looking back, Blake Watson wondered what life would've been like if he had taken the scholarship. During his junior year of high school, a Division II college in Oklahoma offered the Dallas native a basketball scholarship. He had always been an athlete, competing in the typical Texas lineup: football, basketball, baseball. But the 5-foot-10 guy with blond hair, a wide smile and a lean, muscular build turned the scholarship down and worked odd jobs instead. He stopped working out, too, and ballooned from "155 soaking wet" to more than 200 pounds.
After quitting his job as a Sprint store manager, Watson pondered his next career step. He kept coming back to the moment when, as a young boy, he stood in front of his family's TV, watching a commercial: A Marine stood above a pit of fire, slaying a beast with his sword.
"I remember thinking it was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to be like that," Watson says.
In 2009, the 21-year-old Watson enlisted. He chose infantry because he loved shooting guns and firing missiles, following his life's philosophy of "go big or go home."
He assumed the role of point man for the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. His "Dark Horse" battalion logged more than 100 firefights in its first 21 days in Afghanistan. It lost 25 soldiers in the first seven months; in one four-day stretch, nine of the men died. On Nov. 10, the Marine Corps' birthday, Watson's close friend, Lance Cpl. James Stack, died after being shot in the face by a sniper. Stack's initials are tattooed on the inside of Watson's right arm, embedded in a larger tattoo of a battlefield cross.
In late November 2009, Watson's battalion conducted a foot patrol in a town where Taliban activity had been reported the day before. As Watson moved to strap C-4 to a doorway, he knelt down. Almost immediately, he heard a loud boom.
When he opened his eyes seconds later, he was lying on his left side.
Watson's left leg was gone, and his right leg was torn open from flesh to bone. His left elbow was destroyed, with bits of tissue, muscle fiber and skin flopping around at the joint socket. At one point, the medics set Watson's stretcher down on top of what remained of his arm to hold it steady.
Watson was flown to Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. There, he had a journal to write down his thoughts, emotions and, hopefully, progress. He recorded several idealistic goals, determined to heal quickly. But three weeks later, amid atrophy, weight loss and heavy narcotic usage, reality set in.
"I went from being in the best shape of my life to where I can't even move to the edge of my bed," Watson says. "I had to have grown men wipe my ass and women help me sit up. That's where the mental breakdown started. All the anxiety medication with depression medication with narcotics plays with your emotions. You can't sleep at night, you sleep all day, and you can't stop your mind from racing."
After more than 30 surgeries, he was released to outpatient therapy. His left leg had been amputated above the knee; his right leg, while significantly scarred, was intact. He had lost all the nerve endings and muscle in his left arm, which is permanently fused at a 45-degree angle.
For almost three years, he was in outpatient therapy. Watson took pills to sleep, pills when he woke up, pills to numb his pain, pills to quiet his mind's conviction that he was a failure. He ate them, snorted them, maxed out his prescription and begged doctors for more.
Dilaudid is hydromorphone, an intensive opioid pain medication that can be fatal when taken in large doses. Often, Watson swallowed 25 Dilaudid a day. He tried to kill himself with the pills two or three times. Celebrating Christmas with his family, he passed out in the middle of dinner. If his then-wife tried to slow his pill popping, he yelled at her.
At 5:30 a.m., he would go to bed. Around 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, he'd wake up, lying on an air mattress on the floor. He'd pop four pills, then swallow more until he was so high he almost passed out. A pistol sat on the mattress beside him. He'd lie there for hours, staring at the ceiling and wondering whether today was the day he'd kill himself.
When he was close to pulling the trigger, he'd remember a voice he swears he heard in the seconds after the IED blast: someone telling him to stay. He knew he had a purpose -- he just didn't know how to find it.
On Dec. 20, 2013, Watson medically retired from the Marine Corps. He separated from his wife a month later. Severely out of shape, he and a friend, Brian, also a former Marine, joined a private gym in Frisco, Texas.
Almost immediately, Watson was uncomfortable. People often walked up to him, asking about his injury and thanking him for his service. He wasn't sure how to work out with his new body and didn't know whom to ask for help.
"I didn't want to push myself in case I busted my ass," Watson says. "And I couldn't push myself because I was still an addict."
The two former Marines worked out at the gym off and on for several months before Brian met Vobora. Brian trained with Vobora a few times and kept bugging Watson to join them. Initially, Watson said no. He didn't trust a trainer who geared his workouts toward adaptive athletes. But after weeks of Brian's nagging, Watson agreed to try.
After three workout sessions with Vobora, Watson was hooked. He joined ATF's Class 2 in late summer 2014. He went home on a Thursday afternoon and flushed all but 15 or 20 of his Dilaudid down the toilet. He spent the next three days in bed, rationing the pills, shaking violently, throwing up, crapping the bed and trying to avoid an ambulance ride to the hospital. He passed out several times and thought he might die, but by Monday morning, he was still alive -- and, for the first time in years, he was sober. He got up and drove to the gym.
"This complete stranger who doesn't even know me wanted me to be at his gym, where he showed up early, went home late and stayed up even later to come up with more ways to train us," Watson says. "That really motivated me. For the first time in a long time, someone actually wanted me to be somewhere, someone was counting on me. That mattered."
Now, during Tuesday and Thursday workouts, Watson speeds through the gym in his wheelchair, with a backward hat holding back his blond hair and a video camera in his hand. In 2015, Watson became ATF's first official media director, digitally recording each class' progress.
"It's not about your injury -- that was the catalyst that got you here," Watson says. "It's about what you do at this point that'll define your legacy."
Kevin Trimble Specialist, U.S. Army, Retired
In September 2011, 19-year-old U.S. Army Spc. Kevin Trimble walked over the gravel of an unpaved road through a small Afghan village. Minutes after his squad started moving, a soldier announced over the radio that he'd found an IED. Immediately, the group pulled back and set up a security perimeter as the bomb was disassembled. Trimble stood 11 feet from Army Spc. Ryan Cook, waiting. Seconds later, he fell over, stunned from a force that felt like he'd been knocked over by a moving train.
A remote-detonated IED had exploded on the wall above Cook, killing him instantly. Trimble lay on the ground on his side. In shock, he focused on the sequence of actions he'd learned in training. Step 1: Find your weapon. He looked around, but he couldn't see his gun. Step 2: Immediate medicine. He grabbed a tourniquet from his right shoulder pocket, opened it and slid it over what remained of his left arm. He yanked as hard as he could, cutting off circulation. The tourniquet reached his shoulder, the only remaining piece of his left arm. He tried to sit up, but he couldn't balance himself. He looked down -- his legs were gone.
Don't fall asleep, Trimble told himself. You don't want to die here.
Trimble awoke two days later at an Army hospital in Germany, where surgeons worked to save his life. That life became months of surgery, a rotation of hospitals, visits from friends and family and attempts to distract his mind.
"The mentality that sets in," he says, "[is] some cross between boredom and sadness. It was a s---ty time."
Trimble tried to kill himself several times. He took as many pain meds as he could find, but he lacked the solitude needed to succeed. His body systems would crash, then nurses would rush in and stabilize him.
He had joined the Army after watching the film "Black Hawk Down" as a 10-year-old and deciding the military "looked cool." One of his older sisters, Deborah, had enlisted in the Air Force, and his oldest brother, Ben, had enlisted at 18. Trimble signed his papers shortly after turning 18.
Two years and 47 surgeries later, he was done.
In October 2015, Trimble wheeled through the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, heading for a flight to Las Vegas. He and a group of friends were leaving on a three-day vacation when a stranger ran up to him. Did Trimble work out, he asked? When had he gotten hurt? How? Did he want to come work out with a group of adaptive athletes?
"Honestly, I thought he was just weird," Trimble says, laughing, of the initial encounter.
A month later, while in Dallas on a work trip, Trimble visited a good friend who knew that stranger, David Vobora. Again, Vobora gave Trimble his pitch: Come work out with us.
"I didn't think I'd be any good in the gym," Trimble says. "I just didn't think I'd be able to do it."
But he decided it was worth trying. Early in 2016, he did, and he officially became a member of ATF's Class 6.
Typically, on the first day, participants go through range-of-motion tests for trainers to understand and analyze their bodies' mobility and strength. But Trimble, who had taken a large dose of pre-workout supplements, wanted to move. Vobora recognized Trimble's adrenaline-induced shakes and embarked on an improvised, two-hour workout for the two of them. Trimble tried tire flips; the tire fell on him several times. He swapped core exercises with Vobora, with the two men lying on the ground next to each other and rotating up and down, side to side.
The next day, Trimble was very, very sore. And he couldn't wait to go back.
"At ATF, everyone is motivated by the people around them, and the military is exactly like that," Trimble says.
Trimble, 24, is a part-time student at SMU working toward a degree in nanotechnology. He works as a contract employee for Rackspace, a cloud-space data storage provider that he found through an internship with the Wounded Warrior Project. He hopes to compete in the Paralympics in several track and field events, and he frequently goes rock climbing with a group of friends from ATF. He races his Land Rover at the track any chance he gets, even competing in a local auto racing circuit.
"I don't know where ATF will put me because I'm not done with it yet," Trimble says. "But it's given me a new outlook on life."
Chris Wolff Technical Sergeant, Air Force, Retired
Chris Wolff enlisted in the military at age 18, keeping a promise he'd made to his grandfather, who served in the Navy and the Marine Corps. Wolff was in the Air Force for 11 years and completed three tours in Iraq and three in Afghanistan. He worked as an aircraft mechanic, and though he fixed planes, he also transported caskets. During one 100-day stretch while he was deployed in Afghanistan, Wolff helped bring home 172 bodies.
On one Middle East trip, he met a soldier who wanted to fly his brother's body home. Per official protocol, the soldier wasn't allowed on the transport plane, so Wolff switched uniforms and IDs and waited at the base while the soldier took one last flight with his brother.
"I wanted their mother to get to see both of her sons together one more time," Wolff says.
Sometimes Wolff -- then a sturdy, 5-foot-6 runner with a buzz cut of dark hair -- carried the caskets. At other times, he served as part of the brigade that stood guard during the ceremony. One day, he flew home the body of a high school friend. On the flights, he sometimes thought about how he should've been one of the bodies. During one of his Afghanistan missions, a rocket-propelled grenade hit his plane's onboard motor. Typically, when a grenade hits, a plane explodes on impact. This grenade didn't detonate.
Wolff came home to Tacoma, Washington, for a break after his sixth tour, and, on Oct. 30, 2008, he went to the local Army hospital for a flu shot. He felt fine until 19 days later, when he awoke feeling achy and feverish. He drove to the Army hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with nausea and sent him home. The next morning, when Wolff tried to get out of bed, his legs collapsed. He Army crawled into the living room, where his then-wife found him on the floor. She dialed 911, and an ambulance arrived to take them to Tacoma General.
Doctors placed Wolff into a medically induced coma as they tried to figure out what had happened. They tested him for bubonic plague and Guillain-Barre syndrome as the virus attacked his spinal cord, nervous system and brain. Finally, they reached a diagnosis: acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.
Doctors told his family that Wolff was paralyzed from the neck down, a C4 quadriplegic. He would need 24-hour care for the rest of his life and would be unable to eat, breathe or move independently. He was 25 years old.
"The afternoon prior to being paralyzed, I ran 2.5 miles," Wolff says. "Every day, I ran. I woke up [the next] morning not being able to move any part of my body. I didn't know what to do, who I would be or what the future would look like."
Once he awoke from his coma, on Christmas Eve 2008, the days blurred together. Every two hours, therapists came into his hospital room to stretch him. They lifted him out of the bed, strapped him into a holder and ran his body through a range of motions. Nurses fed him. Three weeks into his hospital stay, he regained his ability to speak. His spinal cord was still intact, so, unlike with other C4 quadriplegics, there was a small chance that Wolff would regain movement. Still, he lay in bed each day, trying to figure out a way to pull the PIC line from his neck and kill himself. If only I could reach it, he thought.
Seven months into his hospital stay, Wolff lay on an electrolysis therapy table. As the current fired the muscles in his hand, he felt a flash of pain, "like a knife stabbing as hard as it could into the flesh," Wolff says. He almost blacked out; as the electrolysis continued, so did the pain. Doctors prescribed him methadone to help him cope.
"It would go on for hours, moving across my hands, my chest, my other arms, down my body," Wolff says. "The doctor is telling me this is good, that I'm getting feeling. And I'm like, 'No, this isn't good. This isn't the positive side of life.'"
He lay in bed all day, binge-watching Netflix. His dad visited him every other day, and his commander came by at least once a week. He went to therapy, a group counseling session taught by a fellow C4 quadriplegic. His weight dropped to 120 pounds. His expression was like that of a ventriloquist: no emotion, no smile, lips held flat in a straight line.
"I'd always been very outgoing, someone who made people laugh if the day was bad," Wolff says. "Even if we weren't having a good day because we were bringing home bodies, I'd figure out a way to find the positive. But in the hospital, I honestly didn't know where it was anymore."
During physical therapy, Wolff's arms were often strapped onto a fly press machine. Two years into his hospital stay, after returning from therapy one afternoon, Wolff lifted his hand a quarter of an inch off his bed. He stared at his hand in disbelief. At the fly press machine the next morning, he pushed the machine a centimeter, then two. Soon, he was pushing several inches a day, regaining mobility in his hands.
In 2011, Wolff was released from the hospital, but he still couldn't move his legs or feed himself. Over time, he had become addicted to opiates, methadone and depressants. He was taking at least a dozen pills a day.
Wolff separated from his wife in 2012 and leaned on support from his family, particularly his father. The next year, he began training to compete in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. During a competition in June 2015 in Dallas, a friend from the Wounded Warrior Project told Wolff that he wanted him to meet a former NFL player who ran an adaptive training program.
"You look at [David], and you're like, 'OK, I'm never going to be where you're at because I have this function that I have to live with,'" Wolff says. "But he doesn't look at you like that. When I rolled into this gym, it felt different. No one is 'different' here."
Wolff's stint at ATF started Jan. 18, 2016, as part of Class 5. Two months later, he stood independently.
"The tempo of this gym forces you to push yourself," Wolff says. "To get back something in our life that we're missing -- the ability to walk, the ability to lift your arm over your head, put a shirt on -- we're all trying to reach one goal."
Each ATF class is rewarded with a graduation gift. Vobora told Class 5 that its goal was to go skiing at Lake Tahoe. He catered each workout toward that concept and focused on enabling every adaptive athlete to ski.
"I rolled into the gym having the ability to stand up for maybe a few seconds," Wolff says. "So the thought of getting to ski? I would've told you no way."
The group arrived in Tahoe on March 27, 2016, for a trip sponsored in part by the High Five Organization. For four days, Wolff four-tracked down the slopes for hours.
Today, Wolff lives with his wife and their two daughters in an adaptive house built for him by another nonprofit. He has reduced the number of medications he takes from 12 to two. Three months ago -- almost eight years after his paralysis -- Wolff took 15 independent steps. No crutches, no wheelchair. His father had arrived the week before for a visit. As he stood watching his son walk, tears fell.
"What I saw on my dad's face, him knowing he was once told I'd never live and then to see that ... I see that face every day now," Wolff says. "My goal is to walk -- and we're one step closer."
Ryan Zimmerer Lance Corporal, USMC, Retired
In February 2009, Ryan Zimmerer, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, was in the middle of the Pacific when he fell 50 feet from a helicopter. During a fast-roping exercise as part of a hostile ship takeover drill, Zimmerer stepped out of an open helicopter doorway, but the lack of room on his left forced him to turn right. As he turned, his left foot caught in the helicopter's framework, and he lost hold of the rope with his feet.
As he realized what was happening, his arms flew up to grab the rope above his head. But his arms couldn't hold him, and without his feet around the rope, he hurtled downward, slowed only slightly by his hands, his flesh ripping with the grip of the rope. Zimmerer said a quick prayer, asking God to protect him, then braced his body for impact. He slammed onto the deck of the aircraft carrier below, feet-first in a half-squat position. He shattered both ankles, broke his tailbone and compressed his lower back. His body crumpled, and his head slammed onto the deck. He stood up, reflexively, and tried to run, but the pain in his right foot was so excruciating that he blacked out. He fell again, knocking his head on the deck and slipping into unconsciousness.
It took four days for Zimmerer to reach a hospital on land, where doctors told him he would probably never walk independently again; at the very least, he'd need a cane. On his first day with Wounded Warriors, a fellow Marine greeted him.
"Are you hurting?" the Marine asked.
"Yes, I am," Zimmerer replied.
"Follow me," the Marine said. They walked into his room, where the Marine crushed up 500 mg of Vicodin and 10 mg of OxyContin. Zimmerer snorted all of it and instantly felt relief.
He snorted pain pills daily for six months after his accident; sometimes, he drank them in liquid form. He would wake up, snort meds, go to physical therapy, work out for a few hours and then sleep away the afternoon. He'd wake up and start drinking: Bud Light and whiskey.
On Feb. 28, 2010, 12 months after his accident, Zimmerer was medically retired. He bought a house in Valley View, Texas, 3 miles from his parents' home. For four years, he balanced farm work and classes at a local community college. Every six weeks, he visited the VA hospital, begging for reprieve from the pain and lost functionality. Doctors recommended a brace or a wrap or increased his pain meds. He repeatedly asked them to amputate his left leg below the knee. They always said no.
In March 2014, Zimmerer met Vobora through a mutual friend. By that point, though he'd quit abusing pain meds, the former Marine had stopped working out, and his drinking -- a 24-pack just about every night -- had pushed his weight to 315 pounds. Zimmerer wanted to start exercising again, to try to alleviate some of the pressure on his ankle by losing weight, and his friend suggested talking to Vobora.
"I gave David a call, and I thought it was a joke," Zimmerer says. "I was like, 'There's no way that this dude who has no medical training can help me.' But then I figured, what does it hurt to try?"
Zimmerer worked out with Vobora once a week for six months, losing weight and gaining confidence. But an October 2014 surgery to fuse his subtalar joint sidelined him for months. He never fully healed, and the pain worsened. He couldn't bear weight on his foot at all, so he sat in his recliner at home all day, every day. By January 2015, he started to consider suicide. He was 27 years old.
"I was beyond depressed," Zimmerer says. "I was lost, and I hurt nonstop. I couldn't be a normal guy in his mid-20s. I really didn't know what to do with my life."
For five months, he woke up each day thinking about killing himself. But then he remembered his six nephews and two nieces, most of whom lived within a 5-mile radius. He loved being with them, and he didn't want them growing up knowing their uncle had taken his own life.
A turning point came in May 2015, when Zimmerer received the IDEO device, which allowed him to walk with minimal pain for the first time since his accident. Soon, he was jogging.
In October 2015, Zimmerer enrolled as a Class 5 member of the Adaptive Training Foundation (he also participated in Class 4).
"Words can't really describe how much [ATF has] helped me," Zimmerer says. "We all have a disability, and maybe mine is different from the next guy's, but we all understand how to adapt and overcome, to keep pushing. Mentally, it was huge. It helped me start going uphill. Now today, almost a year later, I can look at you and tell you that I'm truly happy with my life."
Zimmerer lost more than 60 pounds while enrolled with ATF and decided he wanted to become a personal trainer specializing in training adaptive athletes. He plans to enroll at Texas Woman's University next fall to work toward a bachelor's degree in adaptive kinesiology.
With pain still lingering, Zimmerer also finally won his plea to have his left leg amputated. On Oct. 28, right before what ended up being a successful surgery, Zimmerer scrawled a message in black pen on his left arm: "You can take my foot, but you will never take my freedom."