That’s the story of Dean Otto, Will Huffman and Matt McGirt. It’s incredible, compelling and oh, so inspiring. It’s an against-all-odds narrative. Some might say it’s unbelievable. It’s real, though. Very real. As real as it gets.
Just before first-light on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, Huffman, whose wife Jeanelle works as a Junior Kindergarten counselor in Collegiate’s Cougar Quest, was leaving Charlotte, North Carolina, with a friend en route to Blacksburg for the Virginia Tech – East Carolina football game.
At about the same time, Otto, just back from a business trip to London, was pedaling along on his Scott Speedster, heading north on Providence Road in the Myers Park area of the city.
Running, actually, was Otto’s first workout choice that day, but he’d aggravated an old hamstring injury, so he reluctantly heeded his trainer Kelly Fillnow’s advice that the two-wheeled alternative would reduce the stress on his 51-year-old body.
The morning was warm and muggy. Condensation was thick in the air. Visibility was poor.
“I heard three cars go past on my left side really quickly,” recalled Otto, who wore a helmet and reflective gear and whose bicycle had flashing lights. “I was puzzled why they were going so fast.
“About that time, I heard brakes lock up. I didn’t know I was going to get hit until I actually got hit. I heard my rear tire explode. That’s the last thing I remember.”
A minute or so after impact, Otto regained consciousness. His sensed that his legs were entangled in the wreckage. He heard sirens blaring and heading his way. Huffman (the driver of the gray 2012 Ford F-150 that struck him) and his passenger were offering assistance.
Don’t move me, Otto insisted. Wait for the medics.
He knew, then and there, that he was paralyzed.
Huffman was beside himself.
“Neither of us saw Dean until we were 10 to 15 feet away,” the Virginia Episcopal School and Virginia Tech graduate recalled. “There wasn’t room to avoid him. Once I made contact, I threw the truck into park and ran over to him. It never occurred to me not to stop.”
Huffman, who since June 2017 has worked as the Richmond manager for Otis Elevator Co., grew up on the VES campus in Lynchburg where his father Billy taught and coached from 1988 through 2003.
“At VES, you learn more than academics,” said Huffman, who chaired the honor council his senior year. “You’re taught how to be a good person. You’re taught how to approach situations and do the right thing. It’s an important message.”
When medics arrived at the accident scene, they quickly stabilized Otto and transported him to the nearby Carolina Medical Center. The trauma had fractured his spine in the T11and T12 area near the base of his rib cage.
Dr. Matt McGirt, a neurosurgeon with Carolina Neurosurgery and Spine Associates, quickly went to work, but, even with the best medical care and the slight sensation he felt in his lower body, the chances that Otto would walk again were one percent. Maybe two. Maybe.
“Matt did a great job of giving me hope,” he said. “I didn’t realize until three or four days later that the odds were super stacked against me.”
Otto, though, was undaunted. He never doubted he’d return.
“Never,” he said emphatically. “Miracles happen every day. I’m competitive by nature. In the recovery room, I challenged Matt to a half marathon. He said the farthest he’d ever run was three miles. I said, ‘Well, you have your work cut out for you.’ I don’t think he thought there was a chance, but he said, ‘If you can run a half-marathon, I’ll be right there with you.’”
A week and a half later, Otto walked, albeit gingerly, without assistance.
“It was an amazing moment: a triumph of will power and gratitude and forgiveness and acceptance,” he said. “If you give things to God and let Him handle them, you’ll have a lot better life than if you try to handle them yourself.”
As Otto, who’s senior director of enterprise sales for Sailthru.com, was navigating the challenges of his recovery, Huffman was working through his own very conflicted emotions.
He knew he’d acted honorably, but he and Jeanelle struggled to make sense of this life-altering event. What does it mean? they wondered. What’s the greater purpose?
From the moment of impact, Dean did all he could to lift the cloud shrouding Will. He offered forgiveness instinctively and without reservation.
“Here’s the key,” Dean said. “About eight years ago, I got sober. I would not have reacted like that had I still been drinking. One of the things I learned in my recovery was acceptance. Deal with life on life’s terms. Resentment can eat you alive. Give it to God and move on. I just did what I was trained to do. I’m a very spiritually fit person. I live a full life. God has blessed me.”
“Guilt is a natural feeling,” Will said. “From the get-go, both Dean and his wife (Beth) said, ‘Put this behind you. You have to move on. We will. You have to too.’”
At the time of the accident, Will and Jeanelle were approaching their first wedding anniversary. They had met in 2015 at Elevation Church in Charlotte. New to the city, Jeanelle had joined a singles group. Will was the group leader. They found a common bond in their faith and spirituality.
Those powerful forces sustained them.
“Honestly, it comes down to my walk with Christ,” Jeanelle said. “We had to trust that in the end, God’s got something going even if it doesn’t feel good right now. It’s up to God to open your heart. One thing I’ve learned from the experience is that everyone’s on their own walk, and each person – although we are all very different – has something to bring to the table.”
On Day 8, Will and Jeanelle visited Dean and his family in the Carolinas Rehabilitation Center. It was like a reunion of old friends.
“When we walked in, there were instant tears in all of our eyes,” Jeanelle said. “Dean’s attitude was so positive. The first thing he said was, ‘Look, I can wiggle my toes.’ That created a level of comfort that we otherwise wouldn’t have had right away. Two hours go by, and we’re still talking. It was surreal. The relationship with Dean and Beth was instrumental in showing us a physical form of grace.”
A month to the day after the accident, Dean walked the Big South 5K in Charlotte. He’d originally hoped to run it in under 20 minutes. With his surgically repaired body, he hoped to break an hour. He covered the distance in sub-50.
Did we mention that Dean is determined, driven, goal-oriented and tough as nails? That there’s not a trace of fear or self-pity? That his glass is not just half-full? It’s cascading over the brim?
On March 11, Dean, Will, and Jeanelle competed in the RunJenRun 5K in Charlotte.
“Dean beat us both,” Will said.
Dean was registered to run the Big Sur Marathon in California in late April. He felt up to the challenge and told his doctor just that. No dice, Matt said. It’ll be too hard on you. Your back won’t be fused enough to take the beating.
“So I talked him into letting me run the first five miles of a relay,” Dean said. “Had the fastest split of my relay team. It wasn’t a picnic, but I got it done.”
This past summer, Dean organized “Finish My Ride,” an event held on July 22 and aptly named because it was all about completing the 15-mile route he had begun 10 months earlier. This time, a crew of friends cycled alongside him. Three guys on Harleys served as wingmen.
That Saturday excursion through the streets of Charlotte is just part of Dean’s story.
“My dad and I used to ride a lot of 50- to 100-mile tours together,” the Louisville, Kentucky, native said. “I remember the first 100-mile ride I did with him: the Horizontal 100 at the end of July in Findlay, Ohio. Pancake flat. Basically through cornfields. Really hot. Seventy-five miles into that race, I’d had enough. I stopped at a water stop and sat under a tree waiting for the wagon to pick me up.
“My dad thought I was right behind him and had taken off. About six miles down the road, he realized I wasn’t there, turned around, and came back. I’m still sitting under the tree. He gets off his bike and says, ‘Get your (butt) back on this bike and finish this ride.’ We got back on and finished. It was a huge life lesson for me: to finish what you start. I was 12 years old.”
Yes, finish what you start.
Remember that immediately following the accident, Dean, immobile and with a miniscule chance of full recovery, challenged his surgeon, his guardian angel, to a 13.1-mile foot race.
This past Sept. 24, Dean, Matt and Will toed the line in the Napa Half Marathon. The experience was an emotional and meaningful way station on an eventful odyssey of strength, courage and faith.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever done before,” Will said. “I knew it would be tough for me to keep up with them. I wanted them to run their race, and I’d run mine. That’s what we did. Dean had a goal: two hours. He beat it by four seconds. Matt finished with him. They came out to meet me. The three of us came in together, arm in arm.”
As they did, no doubt McGirt thought back to that day a year earlier and a continent away when he met a severely injured, bloody, but unbowed Dean Otto. Or later when he met a struggling Will Huffman.
“They had to do all the heavy lifting. Right?” he said. “Dean had to climb out of his basement. Will had to climb out of his basement. My journey was different. I needed to step outside my professional shell and develop a close and meaningful relationship with a patient, which normally you don’t do. And with Will. That was a blessing.
“I watched courtside how Dean achieved the impossible and how he was such an outlier from Day 1 with his mental, spiritual, and emotional approach. It’s not a coincidence that a one-in-a-thousand mental approach turned into a one-in-a-thousand outcome.
“I got to sit pole position and watch Will take the worst moment of his life and not run from it. He walked right into the eye of the storm and turned it into something beautiful.
“There’re life lessons, there’s spiritual reflection, and there’s growth that I experienced by watching these two gentlemen handle this with grace. It (the accident) was an event that was meant to happen for the three of us. It affected us for the better in different ways. God had us live through this for each of our own unique reasons.”
Over the past few months, Dean, Matt and Will have told their story on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, on NBC’s Sunday Today (which will actually air Oct. 15) and in numerous articles that have appeared in the print media. They’ve been integrally involved from the beginning with fundraising efforts for the LIFE Program for Spinal Cord Injury Patients at the Carolina Healthcare System.
Sound like a movie script? A 51-year-old guy with an indomitable spirit, a daughter named "Grace" and a son named “Will,” injured in an accident on “Providence Road,” paralyzed from the waist down, then walking 10 days later and running a half-marathon in goal time a year to the day later.
“I didn’t do this by myself,” Dean said. “I had an army behind me. A remarkable set of circumstances had to fall in line perfectly. I had an incredibly gifted surgeon, physical therapists, emergency response people, people in the trauma unit, nursing staff.
“My family and friends were all over it. People all over the world were praying for me. The outpouring of love and support motivated me. It was a flywheel. The more support, the more love, the more I put out.
“It was a game for me. I don’t quit. I like to win. I like to challenge myself. This was a pretty big challenge. It doesn’t get much bigger.”