METAIRIE, La. — Elliott Mealer stood in front of his locker at the Saints’ Metairie training facility Tuesday, five days before Father’s Day, and couldn’t help but recall something David Mealer always used to tell his son.
“He was like, if you don’t have good dreams, you have nightmares,” Elliott recalled. “…Who cares if it sounds crazy or who cares if people tell you you can’t do it. You might as well have a crazy dream other than the nightmares.
“That’s what I’ve always shot for and I’m living it now. I’ve been very blessed. It’s a great opportunity.”
It’s one of the good things Elliott remembers about his father, one of the memories the son carries of the man who helped push his child’s dream forward years after his tragic death.
Reaching the NFL
Mealer, 23, won’t say he thought for sure he would be drafted after his five years at the University of Michigan, but he was optimistic.
He wasn’t taken, though, and eventually found a spot with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted rookie free agent. His attitude hasn’t changed, however, and he’s working as hard as he did at Michigan, where that ethic eventually paid off in starting all 13 games in 2012 at center.
“To me, I’ve never been really in a position to think I’m entitled to anything,” Mealer said. “I’ve always had the belief that you’ll play or you’ll start or you’ll make the team when you deserve to. That’s kind of the goal I have.”
As an undrafted rookie free agent, Mealer is a long-shot but not an impossible one. The Saints have a history of keeping them on the roster, including running backs Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus among others.
Reaching the NFL would be the conclusion of a life-long dream, one born as a third-grader in small Stryker, Ohio and pushed along by his dad.
Mealer remembers lying on a pile of laundry when he was a third-grader, wondering aloud to his father about how he would play football if the sport wasn’t being played in Stryker. And 15 years later, he remembers exactly what his dad told him.
“My dad goes, ‘Oh, you’ll do it.’ I was just a little kid but at the time, my dad wanted me to play football,” Mealer said.
In fact, as fate would have it, the family moved a little more than 15 miles down the road closer to Wauseon, Ohio, where football was offered.
“We didn’t move just so I could play football but things work out in a way that have given me an opportunity to be here right now,” Mealer said.
The opportunity, though, almost wasn’t.
On Dec. 24, 2007 – Christmas Eve – Mealer was in a car leaving a holiday party. His father David was driving. His older brother Brock was in the front passenger seat. He was sitting in the middle in the back between his mother Shelly and his high-school sweetheart Hollis Richer.
Somewhere between the party and Wauseon, a 90-year-old man ran a stop sign. In doing so, the Mealer’s and Richer’s lives changed in an instant.
The father and Richer were thrown from the car and were pronounced dead at the crash. David Mealer was 50 and Richer was 17. Brock was paralyzed from the waist down. And Elliott tore his right rotator cuff while trying to free Brock by attempting to rip the window out.
Amazingly, the healing started soon after.
“Before I even met Brock, all the nurses and everybody on his floor at the hospital was saying, ‘This Brock Mealer guy is amazing,’ ” said Rich Rodriguez, who had just taken over as Michigan’s head coach when the accident happened.
“He had the whole floor in the palm of his hands. Here he was lying paralyzed and the doctors tell him he has a 99 percent chance he would never walk again and he has the most positive attitude you could ever imagine.”
Elliott Mealer, meanwhile, was as determined to make good on his commitment to Michigan as his brother was to walking again. He and his mother met with Rodriguez in the athletic training room on campus, the first time any of the Mealers had met the new coach.
Rodriguez, now the coach at the University of Arizona, remembers telling Mealer that even if he never played football again, he had a scholarship waiting for him at Michigan. He also remembers telling the then-high school student to take care of himself and his family and to not think about football.
That last point didn’t happen.
“I know it was always important to him, to get back 100 percent healthy and play,” Rodriguez said. “I think that was one of the things for himself, for his family and for his dad’s memory he wanted to get it done. I’m really, really proud to see him do that.”
Healing himself and his brother Brock
It wasn’t easy for Mealer.
“For me, it was a process where I think – there’s really no time-frame for that kind of situation on the healing process,” Mealer said. “For me it was healing to talk about it. I started sharing my testimony in churches and the other family, my girlfriend’s.”
The talking helped. Speaking with people who had been through tragedy and showing that it’s possible to move forward positively helped. And remembering the good times has helped.
“It’s one of those things early on thinking about Hollis or my dad, trying to think, like, ‘What would Dave want me to here?’ ” Mealer said. “It was hard to do that early on because they weren’t there and any memories would make you sad knowing you wouldn’t have anymore with them.
“Where I’m at now, and the years after that, I was able to have good memories of them and be able to think of them I and a good way.”
But his brother Brock was still dealing with being paralyzed.
This is where fate comes in again. Elliott’s commitment to Michigan also was good for Brock.
The strength and conditioning coaches at Michigan saw Brock watching his brother practice one day and asked him if he wanted to walk again. He said yes to then-head strength coach Mike Barwis and the relationship blossomed.
“(Barwis was) like, ‘You know, you have the attitude to want to walk again and I’m a guy who likes to experiment, not just with football players but with the human body and see what it’s capable of,’ ” Elliott said.
He added, “From there, the relationship kind of started of Brock having the attitude to walk again and Mike Barwis wanting to get him on his feet. To this day he’s walking no canes, no help and walking on his own. Still smoothing it out but he can walk a couple hundred yards on his own. He’s building the muscles. It’s pretty neat.”
And it all culminated with Brock leading the Michigan football team onto the field for one season opener.
Rodriguez, to this day, remembers it all so clearly. He had watched Brock improve on a daily basis, working and sweating his way from a couple of steps to more than a handful.
“I’d seen the daily progress through time,” Rodriguez said this week. “But it was a special moment when Brock and Elliott on one side and his other brother on another side and his mom by his side, to have him walk out there, there weren’t too many dry eyes in the Big House. I know mine weren’t. It was an emotional moment.”
Remembering David Mealer
Elliott Mealer generally participates in the David Mealer Memorial Golf Classic, held in Maumee, Ohio. Money goes to the Fulton County Health Center in Wauseon, where Brock, now 28, did some of his rehabilitation. Money also goes to a foundation created by Barwis, the former Michigan strength coach, called Athletic Angel which supports children during the Christmas season.
Though Elliott wasn’t able to attend this year’s event because of offseason workouts, Saints coach Sean Payton sent up a signed football. It fetched $300.
The son also visits his dad if he has a chance, going “to my father’s gravesite and kind of spend some time talking out loud and remembering him the best I can.”
He won’t get the chance this year to visit on Father’s Day, but he’ll return on June 20 when he goes home. His father, and Richer, are often in his thoughts.
“Being down here, I think about him every day. I think about Hollis every day,” Mealer said. “I have good memories of him. I definitely have my down times when I think about him and I think that’s healthy.”
But he won’t use it as a crutch for failure.
Instead, Mealer sees himself no different than his teammates right now. The only thing separating him is the publicity his tragedy has received.
“I’ve come to learn that every guy in any locker room has their own story,” he said, later adding, “I think every guy in this locker room has a story similar to it or some adversity he has faced.”
Still, he thinks all the time about how proud his father would be that he has made it this far.
One thing is clear – no matter what happens from here on out, Mealer has made an impression on those around him.
“Obviously he has ability as a player and all that but he has such a positivity and a strong will that I wouldn’t’ be surprised at anything Elliott does,” Rodriguez said. “And even if Elliott doesn’t play professional football at all, to me he’s already a success and no matter what he does going forward, he’ll be a great success.”