PLYMOUTH, Mich. (AP) — There is tough love. Then there’s Mike Barwis love. “God puts people in your life for reasons,” Barwis said recently at his Barwis Methods training facility. “Brock (Mealer) was definitely the one. He’s the greatest human being. They don’t make ‘em better. That guy’s blood to me.”
Ask Mealer, and he’ll tell you the same thing.
He knows that without Barwis’ tough love, he likely would not be walking.
“In terms of my progress, Mike always gives that glory to God and gives it to me and my hard work,” Mealer told The Detroit News ( http://bit.ly/1r2Dt2m ). “But I’ve always realized as hard as I may have worked, and as hard as I may have tried, I know I never would have gotten there, and I certainly wouldn’t have worked that hard on my own, unless I knew if I didn’t show up here it was going to be a lot worse for me because of Mike.”
Mealer was paralyzed in a Christmas Eve car accident in 2007 near Toledo that took the lives of his father, David, and brother Elliott’s girlfriend, Hollis Richer. At the time, Elliott Mealer had a football commitment to Michigan, where he eventually became the starting center.
Barwis was new to Michigan as its strength coach, and he immediately took to Brock Mealer — who had gone to Ohio State but became part of the UM community — and his gentle spirit and determined soul. Together, they believed he would walk again, despite paltry odds given by his physician.
Now, twice a week, Mealer, without the use of braces or crutches or a cane, takes a .32-mile walk around the training facility Barwis opened after leaving UM in 2010.
“I’ve got 24 rings and I’ve worked with 44 sporting events and 500 Olympic and pro athletes,” said Barwis, whose facility is the focus of a Discovery Channel sports docu-series, “American Muscle,” that debuted Wednesday. “I will tell you this, I don’t have one moment in my life in athletics that ever even remotely approached the moment of glory I felt when that kid walked.”
When Mealer attempted to walk for the first time after the accident, he was wearing ankle braces and took about 90 minutes — including eight stops. He eventually shaved an hour off the time. Then he walked without braces — and faced a whole new assortment of challenges — and saw the time jump to 50 minutes.
On a recent attempt with Garek Henry, an assistant strength and conditioning coach at the facility, Mealer, with his red T-shirt soaked with sweat and Henry barking the elapsed time and urging him, “Come on! Let’s go!” finished in about 12 minutes.
And he did it without stopping.
“That was one of my goals,” Mealer, 29, said. “But before I could do that, I had to make it all the way around without falling. I have a solid goal, here’s what I have to do, and I go do it.”
The walks used to be a full workout, but now they serve as a warm-up for Mealer’s grueling twice-weekly, three-hour sessions. He does weight and balance-ball work and takes a second walk.
It’s gut-wrenching to watch, but the results are evident.
There is still much for his body to learn, but sensation in the legs has returned gradually. He frequently does acupuncture and, after not being able to feel a thing, he can now accurately describe where the needles are being placed.
“Right now, the biggest hurdle I have is not being able to stand still on my own,” Mealer said. “That’s something I know I will figure out eventually, because I realize if I’m able to stand, I’m able to stop midwalk and basically not need the cane. Then I know I will be able to do all the things I want to do.”
Typically when Mealer is standing, he is stepping side to side or forward and back. Balancing in an upright position is difficult for the muscles. But since sitting for long periods of time causes him to stiffen, a stand-up desk was built for him at his grandfather’s concrete company he helps manage.
He uses a cane to assist him at times, and said it’s freeing to no longer have plastic braces on his ankles. At Barwis’ training center, however, Mealer doesn’t use a cane.
“When I’m in here, I don’t care if I fall,” Mealer said. “Because of that fact, I don’t fall very much. I’ve found I’m just tripping over my own thoughts and my own doubts. I’ve realized the hard part for me is over.”
Mealer likes to joke he has been Barwis’ guinea pig. In simple terms, Barwis has worked Mealer’s muscle groups until he gets a response — any response.
“It’s a complex method that now he’s starting to perfect,” Mealer said. “He gets a response, and he knows exactly how my body responded, and has gotten that experience through my process.”
Barwis also has founded the First Step Foundation this year, an organization that hopes to raise money to help disabled individuals go through similar training. He has close to 50 people working at his facility. Many have taken their first steps there.
During a recent visit to the gym, Mealer saw a 19-year-old woman, who has never moved her legs, lying on her stomach. During training, her foot twitched and the hamstring engaged to move the leg.
“She’s thanking Mike, and Mike says, ‘Don’t thank me, thank Brock. If he didn’t go through the hell he went through we never would have seen the result and we would never have continued this,‘ “ Mealer said. “It’s pretty awesome to think of that after all I wanted was to walk and do my own thing, my own selfish thing.
“It’s become way more than I ever anticipated or planned or imagined it to become.”
Mealer’s story, however, has become more than he imagined, too. It’s become inspirational when he talks to others with spinal cord injuries.
“I have always had the honest thought that if I could go back and change things, I would in a heartbeat because it’s too much,” Mealer said. “But at the same time, I have accepted it. You can’t change it, so you have to do what you can going forward with it.
“I’m really glad my eyes are opened to all those sorts of things I didn’t think about that could change someone else’s life.”