The Breakthrough

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“I’m not going home — you’re taking me to a hospital. I need help.”

I said those words to my wife at the end of my 2011 season with the Seattle Seahawks. The day I left the NFL is the same day I checked into rehab. A catastrophic shoulder injury cut my year short a few months earlier. For years, like many other guys, I played through the pain. You needed to show that you were tough — that you could handle it.

But I also developed a significant pain pill problem. At one point, I was spending $2,000 a week. The thing is, I wasn’t taking the pills for the pain or because I was addicted. I just didn’t want to be sick from the withdrawal.

So I went through a seven-day drug detox. I lost 34 pounds. I had two seizures. I couldn’t even hold a cup. I couldn’t stand.

The craziest part? After getting clean, I then went on to spend the majority of that year training to get back into the NFL. It was all I knew.

But when calls came from teams to come and work out for them, something just felt different. For the first time in 27 years, it wasn’t saying, “Football. Football. Football.”

I’d never been so scared in my whole life.

St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora leaves the field after the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009, in St. Louis. The Packers won 36-17.(AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

I had been working out in Southern California, and I remember standing outside of my home to call my agent. It felt like I was breaking up with a girlfriend. But as I did it, I felt this immense weight lifted and I knew I was making the right decision. I wouldn’t be returning to the NFL.

I just didn’t know exactly where that decision was taking me. Or who “me” even was. Suddenly, I would look at myself in the mirror and I didn’t see David, the football player.

So I sent up a prayer: “Alright, God. Just make it laughably clear what I should be doing.”

And soon enough, some pieces fell together.

My wife, who was pregnant at the time, had some family in Dallas. So we packed up and we moved to Texas. Originally, I thought I’d just go into coaching. I’d sent my resume around and met with a few teams. Meanwhile, I continuously felt this tug in my heart that who I’d been in the league could launch me into who I could become.

And who I was, was Mr. Irrelevant.

That’s right. When I was drafted in 2008, I was the very last guy picked. When you’re picked last, you have all that much more to prove. Things don’t look great for Mr. Irrelevants, as past examples have shown. So training and hard work would have to put me over the top. And they did. I became the first rookie Mr. Irrelevant to start in a game in over a decade.

When you’re picked last, you have all that much more to prove.

Because of this, I became a very big believer in the way I train my body and how that gives you opportunity on the field. I developed a knack for the mechanics of human performance. I wanted to know the how and the why of what I was doing at these state of the art performance centers. I wanted to know that what I was doing was going to be the equalizer when facing more talented opponents.

So when I got to Dallas, I started training a bunch of athletes on the side and decided to open a gym. I drew up the business plan for Performance Vault, and what it was going to be. I was kind of already doing it, just needed to put brick and mortar around it.

Blake Watson & DV Super Catbb

That’s when I met a guy named Clint Bruce. He’s a former SEAL Team 5 officer, who’d also spent some time in the NFL, and now owns this risk management firm that employs a bunch of former military and special intelligence guys. We had this linebacker bond going on, and Clint said to me, “Well, brother, instead of you incurring all this overhead, why don’t you open it here? You’ll have the brotherhood of a lot of these guys who served, and there are a lot of parallels between the veteran and athlete.”

So we did just that. I trained mostly NFL guys, some Olympic athletes and college guys getting ready for the pros.

And then I met Travis.

Travis Mills is one of five living quadruple amputees. He was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan, and lost all four of his limbs. Having this mind for biomechanics, and seeing everything he was doing and the way he was moving, I was just drawn to him. So I walked right up to Travis — kind of like picking someone up in a bar, except my pick up line wasn’t as smooth.

“Hey, when was the last time you worked out?”

“Um, I don’t want to be an asshole here, but I don’t have any arms or legs.”

“So? You’re a living, breathing human. Why can’t I train you like I train my NFL guys?”

And with that, Travis became my flagship guinea pig for what is now the Adaptive Training Foundation. A year since its launch, we now train both civilians and veteran adaptive athletes — spinal cord injuries, amputees, people born without limbs — in our nine-week programs.

But I learned everything first through Travis. When we first met, I asked him what his biggest fear was. He told me: falling.

“No arms and legs — gravity wins.”

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So that’s exactly where we started. While training, sometimes I’d catch him with bands, other times with my hands. And at other times, I just let him fall. If you had been passing through the gym, not knowing my intentions, and you watched me let a quadruple amputee fall, hit the ground, and then refuse to help him up, you’d probably have me arrested, or worse.

But what I was doing was twofold. One, we needed to go to his most vulnerable place and desensitize him of that fear — not necessarily by removing the danger, but just by reframing his mind. He was no longer afraid to fall. Instead, he became like a martial artist who knows how to use his momentum. Two, he developed core strength and with that, came better balance. That led to trust in both me and himself. He was empowered.

My scariest moment was not knowing who I was without football.

Soon, Travis was doing 100-pound sled pulls on short legs and talking trash to my NFL guys, who could no longer complain about their pinky toe being sore. It really put things in perspective. The breakthroughs he was having blew my mind, and he raised the bar for what everyone else was doing in the gym.

We’d create these innovative and adaptive methodologies to test what we could get out of him, and how we could get his heart rate up with the most limited of physical capability.

And that’s the biggest part of this whole thing. Sure, getting them strong and fit is important, but it’s treating these veterans and adaptive athletes just like any other person.

It offered perspective: my scariest moment was not knowing who I was without football. And these warriors, they go from running toward battle, giving and taking orders, to suddenly being ripped from that and their entire physical identity.

There’s also a void. They get left behind or forgotten. After rehabilitation ends and insurance stops covering it or money runs out  — where do these people go to test themselves? Either one of two things happen. Usually, regular gyms just don’t have the specialized equipment and methodologies. And then if they do, people are constantly coming up and saying, “You’re such an inspiration.” Obviously that’s awesome, but they can feel patronized. On top of that, they’re getting interrupted constantly, so it’s hard to finish workouts.

angela on skateboard

So I train them here and I train them like pro athletes. What’s the difference if the guy has a leg or not? If a linebacker comes in with a knee scoped, we would create training around that knee as it heals. So what is the difference?

And they come alive through that. What Travis didn’t want was an easier, softer way, which is something even I needed to learn. Every time I offered to help Travis or do something for him, he felt like less of a soldier. It literally took one day of us training together before Travis looked at me and said, “Dude, if I want your help, I’m going to friggin’ ask for it.”

The veteran will always be the heart of this mission, but having a mix of veterans and civilians in these groups is crucial. The veterans need to be around civilians to understand they’re not far from reintegrating with society. And the civilians need to be around the veterans to understand what grit looks like, and what it means to have discipline and to be a part of the team.

I eventually realized that losing football was necessary to recognize I had something to offer others.

We have them set a goal, which could be as high profile as an Ironman, or as straightforward as pushing up a wheelchair ramp, which one of our guys, who is an incomplete quadriplegic, wanted to be able to do. He can do that now.

It all sounds amazing and heartwarming, and don’t get me wrong — it is. But to be honest, there was no “feel-good” plan for this. It just fell into my lap, but once it did, it made perfect sense. I have three generations of Marines in my family, and would like to think that if I didn’t play football, I would have served.

A year after I got to Dallas, and got the gym started, I got a call from my agent that the Cowboys were asking if I was interested in coming back. With all the work I was doing, I had been training myself and was in great shape.

I didn’t think twice about it. I know what bottom looked like and little by little, working with these men and women has fostered a growth inside of me that wasn’t there before and never came with the success of playing in the NFL.

ATF Class 3 group

What I’m doing now has a purpose. I know who David is without football. And he’s a guy who gets to help train our first double-amputee to summit Antarctica. I had no idea when I first stopped him in a parking lot that he was a heroin addict, that he would go home every night with a pistol in his mouth, wondering why he just didn’t cut the lights.

It didn’t happen right away, but I eventually realized that losing football was necessary to recognize I had something to offer others. And these men and women are reaching that breakthrough themselves at our gym.

Working with them keeps me on the right path, too. From the football field and the battlefield, we were on separate roads running parallel and they’ve intersected at ATF. They recognize they’re doing something for themselves, but they also realize they’re worth something to others.

We’re all getting back in the fight.

David Vobora is a retired NFL linebacker who founded the Adaptive Training Foundation in 2014. To learn more, visit http://www.adaptivetrainingfoundation.org.

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