Mealer has forged ahead

Five years after tragic Christmas Eve car accident, senior prepares for final game

Updated: December 24, 2012, 10:07 AM ET
By Chantel Jennings | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Elliott Mealer's father, David, had a saying: If you don't have good dreams, you'll have nightmares.

The quote was adapted from the film "Diner," one of the family's favorites. David used it mainly with sports -- to pick Elliott up after a loss or push him on to the next thing following an injury. It's something Elliott rested on heavily during these past five seasons at Michigan: during coaching changes, years as a backup, position shuffles. And it's something he will use once more as he heads into his final game for Michigan, the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1.

[+] EnlargeThe Mealer Family
Courtesy of the Mealer familyThe Mealers were going to midnight mass the night their lives changed. Posing in an earlier picture are Blake, Dave, Brock, Shelly and Elliott.
Five years ago he found himself clinging to that quote more than ever. It was on a drive from a party to Christmas Eve mass that Elliott's nightmare began. At an intersection outside of Wauseon, Ohio, a vehicle driven by a 90-year-old man slid through a stop sign and t-boned the Mealers' SUV. The SUV toppled into an icy ditch, landing on the passengers' side.

David, who was driving, and Elliott's girlfriend, Hollis Richer, were both killed. Elliott's older brother, Brock, laid paralyzed and trapped beneath the vehicle. Elliott made his way out of what was once the back window and tried to lift the vehicle, to little avail.

Ambulances came, and from there it was a blur. Christmas. New Year's. Wakes. Two funerals. Doctors. Phone calls. Emails. More doctors. Meetings.

At that point, good dreams seemed hard to come by, as he was living in a nightmare.

Elliott was already committed to play at Michigan, and, despite the accident, he enrolled the following fall. Brock, having been given a 1-percent chance to walk again, met with Michigan strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis. Brock decided he, too, would travel to Ann Arbor. Barwis believed he could help Brock stare down the 99 percent, so Brock went to work out with him.

"They're strong," Barwis said of the Mealers. "They are people who are always positive. Elliott never went into a hole, he never shied away from working. & He worked exceptionally hard to achieve his goals. To see a young man of that age with that character, commitment and faith is tremendous.

Elliott's first season with Michigan was far from normal. He was an offensive lineman for the Wolverines, and that's exactly what he wanted to be. But no other player had his mom, grandparents, or aunts and uncles walking the hallways of the building.

With Brock working out with Barwis, Elliott did.

But it kept Elliott grounded. With his older brother around he had a constant source of support and guidance. And Brock was able to witness the program and grow an appreciation for what his younger brother worked for every day, while also drawing inspiration from Elliott.

But it was different. And so was he.

"I think his big thing was that he was a part of the team and he didn't want to be singled out for anything other than the way he worked as a part of the team and the way he performed as a player," said Blake, Elliott's eldest brother. "He didn't want any special attention for what he had been through."

But there always seemed to be an asterisk following Elliott around Schembechler Hall. He was never just Elliott. He was Elliott Mealer, brother of Brock. And the question, "How was practice?" always implied more, "Did you see Brock today? How was he doing?"

"When I was on campus or going to classes it was just me," Elliott said. "But when I came into the football building it wasn't. It was one of those things when even though I wasn't home it was like home."

So when Rich Rodriguez left and Brady Hoke came in, it left somewhat of a clean slate. Hoke knew the story, like so many others, but didn't feel the need to have a sit-down conversation with Elliott.

"It was: You're Elliott Mealer. You're a football player to us," Elliott said.

And the move also meant that Brock would now work out with Barwis in Plymouth, Mich.

They continued being supports for one another, but from a distance. Brock no longer visited Schembechler Hall, and Elliott made the trip to Barwis Methods only once. They each had their own space for the first time since the accident.

"When it first happened, they all needed each other to be right there," Barwis said. "They all needed to be together, for the love of their family to be very close. And I think that was very important and they had that. I also think at some point they needed to re-attain their own identities and heal individually. & They were able to do that because of circumstances."

At Michigan, Elliott made strides on the field, pushing for a starting spot in his final season.

During spring football it looked probable. That was also when Hoke lost his father, John. During his spring meeting, Elliott and Hoke spoke about the accident, funeral and emotions for the first time.

"We just had a really good talk, a really good heart-to-heart," Elliott said. "It helped me talking to him about that. As long ago as losing my father was, talking to him about his loss and kind of helping each other in those situations was really neat."

Hoke asked Mealer what he wanted out of his final season, and Mealer told him he just wanted to give back to the program what it had given to him. His dream had been to come to Michigan, to be a part of the team and to contribute.

Now, he told Hoke, he wanted to contribute on Saturdays.

It meant one more position change, to center. He would step in for Rimington Award winner David Molk. And after starting every game in his final season, he can say he accomplished his final dream -- to contribute to Michigan.

Brock can say the same thing. He isn't walking perfectly. But on Saturday, he walked to the altar with his groomsmen, stood during his service and walked out of the chapel after his wedding.

Walked out of the chapel. Didn't even use a cane.

"To watch boys develop into strong, young men who are achieving goals and attaining success, it's emotional," Barwis said. "To watch Elliott play his last game and be a starter, it'll be moving. And equally moving will be to watch Brock walk down the aisle.& Both are miraculous accomplishments and no two people are more deserving."

Elliott will play his final football game on New Year's Day. He can leave this program knowing he accomplished his dream.

Already, Elliott has other dreams in line. He'd like to become a high school teacher, maybe through Teach For America. He wants to do standup comedy, after having done impressions of coaches and players through the years. He could see himself going into coaching as well, basketball or football.

"I've accomplished football, in a sense, or at least the dreams I had in football," Elliott said. "Now, I'd like to chase some other dreams. That's what life is all about."

After all, if you don't have good dreams, you'll have nightmares.

Chantel Jennings | email

Oregon/Pac-12 reporter