David Vobora took a beating on the NFL field and off, but he fought back every time. Now “Mr. Irrelevant” found his true path; helping civilians and combat veterans become battle buddies in their own missions to overcome their injuries. You may have seen him on Ellen, and now you can catch him again right here on American Snippets.
You are ready to get yourself into the best shape you’ve ever been. Your step is light and quick as you stride toward the gym, excited to meet your trainer and begin your first workout. The air freshener-diffused smell of sweat strikes you as you walk through the gym doors.
There’s the front desk and the smoothie bar. To the left is a room filled with people running, climbing, stretching and lifting on various pieces of equipment. You pause a moment, scanning the area in an effort to guess which of the perfectly toned athletic bodies belongs to your trainer.
A polite smile on your face is returned by everyone you make eye contact with while you wait in the designated meetup spot. One man catches your eye and holds your gaze, his smile large and his greeting loud as he waves at you, asking if you are his new athlete in training. His energy is so intense it is all you first notice about him.
It’s not until he offers a left-handed handshake that you notice his right arm isn’t there. “I’m Jeff,” he says, waiting for you to respond. You manage to return the greeting in a wave of bewilderment as you notice your trainer is moving briskly toward the weight room on two prosthetic legs.
Two months and a few buckets of sweat later you are not only a different person on the outside, but the inside too. Jeff has pushed you further than you ever thought you could be pushed both physically and mentally. You are in awe of his physical strength and his personal courage, and you take all of this back out into your own world with you.
Stories like this may be rare right now but it won’t be long before the first wave of nationally certified Adaptive Trainers appears in gyms across the country.
At first blush and whiff- the gym looks and smells like any other gym where dedicated athletes come to train. But look again and you will realize this is no ordinary gym.
The people pushing themselves at the Performance Vault Gym are no ordinary people.
They are a melting pot of professional athletes, combat veterans, and civilians lifting weights, running, walking, or even crawling their way out of a painful past and into new lives.
Some have played in the NFL. Some have fought for our country, and some have simply had their lives upended by a traumatic illness or injury. Their backgrounds may vary but their battles have become the same; reassemble lives and bodies that have been disassembled by traumatic experiences.
Leading the charge is a man who knows firsthand what it’s like to crash and burn. Once dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant” by the NFL and, in, turn, the entire country of NFL fans, David Vobora turned that title upside down by pushing himself harder than ever to become a valuable asset to his team.
His NFL career became his whole purpose. He knew he’d play football until he had to be carried off the field. He just didn’t realize it would happen so soon.
Which hurt more is hard to say- the snap of his shoulder as he fell to the ground, or the realization that his NFL days were over? David Vobora is candid about the path he chose immediately after that injury.
David Vobora speaks to large audiences and small crowds, or just one-on-one with someone who needs to talk, about how he became addicted to opioids. He tells a heartbreaking story of wanting to quit life entirely, of how he turned his focus from football to getting that next dose, until he decided he wasn’t going to go down without one more fight, and checked himself into a detox program.
He was done falling. He was ready to stand.
Refocused on football, David Vobora grew physically strong again. Eventually he was offered a chance back at the NFL. It was the call he’d hoped for and he turned it down. There was a new whisper in his head, soft but persistent, telling him he was meant to do something else.
“I found my WHY as a result of my injury,” he pronounces, the words pouring out at breakneck speed as he tells his story.
Once he made the decision to move beyond football, everything else fell into place. He and his wife Sarah moved to Dallas, where Sarah’s family lives.
He and Sarah relaxed into their new lives. They started a family. Things were good again and getting better. But he would soon realize his story was not done writing itself, when a chance encounter changed his trajectory again.
The man with no arms or legs immediately caught David’s eye.
Something fired in his brain and he just knew, instantly, that their paths were meant to cross. With absolute conviction in his new purpose, David strode right up to Staff Sergeant Travis Mills and asked the man when the last time he’d worked out was. Travis, having not had the same epiphany as David, balked.
Couldn’t David see that he had no arms or legs? Didn’t he know going to the gym wasn’t exactly an option for him? Yes and No were the answers.
So what if you have no arms and legs, David countered. Why can’t you train like my NFL guys? So what if David Vobora had never trained anyone like that before?
He promised the combat veteran, who’d lost his limbs in an IED explosion, that he would study and train and figure it out right alongside him. And the civilian and the combat veteran became new Battle Buddies.
Together, the two men learned how best to approach strengthening and training athletes with amputated limbs. Travis’s biggest fear was the same most of us harbor- he was afraid to fall. David worked with him to adapt training techniques suitable for building strength and balance where Travis needed it.
His instinct was to help, not hurt, so David jumped in often, easing the burden and catching Travis when he’d fall. He didn’t understand the importance to warriors of fighting their own battles until Travis finally made it clear that if he needed help, he’d ask for it.
It was then that David started to let Travis fall, and Travis started to learn how to master his greatest fear. “I watched him come alive,” David remembers, and something in him was born, too.
Through grit, pain, triumph, setbacks, and uncertainty, David and Travis pushed themselves and each other to create and execute a program that ultimately resulted in Travis outshining the professional athletes he worked out alongside.
They were hard-pressed to complain about a sore toe or aching limbs when the man with no arms or legs blasted past them. This “sweat psychology looking for pressure points so we can take leaps and bounds- is a force multiplier,” David says. By targeting a person’s biggest fears or pressure points, that person learns how to overcome those things that once defined his limitations.
Success begets success and misery loves company. These truths, matched with David’s almost inhuman energy and his belief that challenge and trauma are more of an opportunity to grow rather than a reason to quit, led to the creation of the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF).
Well, those truths and his wife’s wisdom. Sarah supports her husband’s work but she also knew they needed to support themselves and their family. David was working long hours and sometimes even sleeping at the gym while she was caring for their daughters.
Rather than choose between one and the other, Sarah suggested they combine their two passions by creating a non-profit. That’s when the Adaptive Training Foundation was born.
“Don’t do it,” he was told by some. “It’s so much work” to create and run a non-profit. “Limit it to veterans,” others said. “That’s where the funding is.” Fortunately, David ignored all of the doubters and did what he believed was best.
There are over ten million Americans with a physical disability. While he maintains enormous respect for those who serve including those within his own family he thought, “I will not allow this to be just about one group.”
Restore. Reignite. Redeploy.
Those are the three phases of the 9 week program at David Vobora’s Adaptive Training Foundation. Civilians and veterans struggle alongside each other, some grudgingly at first, wary of the other. Combat veterans may feel a civilian couldn’t possibly understand where they’ve been or what they have experienced.
Civilians may bristle at the veteran’s guarded approach to them, or worry over fallacies reported about the mental state of combat veterans. This divide between civilian and veterans is a national chasm, wider in some places and narrower in others, but nevertheless open, and many veterans fall through it.
Once their insurance is expended and physical rehabilitation or mental health counseling is exhausted, the chasm widens. Often, prescription pills are relied upon where medical assistance failed. Addictions are formed and fed and empowered until they consume the veteran, and the chasm claims another victim.
But while in the Adaptive Training Foundation program, healing and strengthening wounded bodies and souls, another wound is healed the gaping wound of misunderstanding between civilians and combat veterans.
“When you sweat together, and suffer together in the gym, it’s pain with a purpose,” David Vobora explains.
The veteran realizes he or she is not that far from reintegrating back into the civilian world. Civilians realize the sheer grit, no-quit mindset of the veterans, and both sides recognize the overlap, no matter how different they perceived themselves to be. Conversations are non-existent or slow at first, until the participants grow from strangers into a tribe of sorts. While a team has a roster and rules and a hierarchy,
David notes that the “tribes” formed at Adaptive Training Foundation understand it is the weakest member that is the most integral part. Coming from Mr. Irrelevant, this holds special meaning.
For him, seeing friendships form and relationships build, closing that dangerous gap between civilians and combat veterans, is priceless. Trust is rebuilt. Confidence is restored. Now it is time to recalibrate.
“What is your priority, and what is the story you want to write?” the athletes are asked. Things most of us take for granted, like standing, or walking, or reaching a door, are no longer easy for someone recovering from a traumatic injury.
Once-simple acts are now common goals for Adaptive Training Foundation athletes, but some of them have even higher goals and reach them.
They are learning to adjust to their new bodies, how to make them stronger and more balanced. They are recalibrating themselves mentally as well as physically, for as their bodies grow strong so does their hope and their confidence.
Some of ATF’s alumni are moving beyond their inner circle at home to achieve athletic accomplishments few people achieve- period, let alone those with any type of physical disability.
They are competing in Ironman competitions and climbing mountains. They are skiing and swimming and running with an edge over their competitors that only a true survivor can know.
They are redeploying into their communities as stronger versions of themselves. They are no longer apologetic or ashamed of their bodies, no longer crushed with the burden of making others feel comfortable in the presence of their physical appearance.
They are instead role models in how they attack their challenge and make it work for them instead of against them. They become leaders at work and at home, and they turn around to help the next person entering the arena they just conquered.
But even they cannot personally train and teach and reach the ten million people impacted by a physical disability. Just take a peek at his waiting list for a glimpse of that truth. So David devised a plan to change that. Because that’s how he rolls.
“I am training trainers,” he says. He wants the alumni to provide for themselves and their family through the craft they learned at ATF. Some of them already are, like Blake Watson. Blake is an ATF alumnus who now works there, promoting the program and reaching out to the athletes coming through it.
Beyond Blake, David is working toward the establishment of a national certification for adaptive trainers, so ATF athletes can reach people across this country like ATF reached them; success begetting success.
He’s come a long way since his “irrelevant” days. He has overcome and been defeated and bought into that whisper of doubt and insecurity. “It’s human nature” to give that whisper a voice, he says. Once he learned to tune that whisper out, he was open for changing his life.
By using his own story to help others, his own paradigm shifted. This is what he now passes on to his athletes, so they can redeploy into the world and help others like them find the same success.
He is a man who takes nothing for granted, who goes all in on life and inspires others to do the same.
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