Upstanders: A Warrior’s Workout

Adaptive Training Foundation founder David Vobora

In contrast to the divisiveness and cynicism currently fueling our national discourse, Starbucks created "Upstanders," its first original content series, which aims to inspire Americans to engage in acts of compassion, citizenship and civility. “Upstanders” features ten stories, each told in written, video and podcast form, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities. The series is written and produced by Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman and ceo, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Starbucks executive producer and a former senior editor of The Washington Post.

Brian Aft was rolling his wheelchair through a strip-mall parking lot in Dallas with a Styrofoam cup of juice perched on his lap when a pickup truck screeched to a stop in front of him. Out bounded a tall, muscled man with shoulder-length hair.

“Hey there!” he shouted.

Aft figured he was about to get robbed.

It would have been yet another bad turn in his life since stepping on a Taliban bomb buried in an embankment in Afghanistan in 2011 during a tour with the Marines. He had lost both of his legs. In the three years since, he had been wracked with painful pressure ulcers. When the pills dispensed by VA doctors failed to help, he turned to heroin – enough of it, every day, he told friends, “to kill a horse.” He was jobless and disheveled. And he was sleeping with a loaded gun next to his head.

But the man in the truck didn’t demand his money.

“I’m Dave Vobora,” he said, speaking with the speed of an auctioneer. “I’m a retired NFL player. What happened to you?”

“I got blown up in Afghanistan,” Aft replied.

Vobora invited Aft to a cavernous gym he had established a few months earlier to strengthen elite athletes and tone the bodies of well-heeled Dallas residents. “Let me train you,” he offered.

Aft was noncommittal. He wasn’t sure if Vobora was the real deal. But after a bit of Googling once he got home, he decided to show up at the gym the next day. That’s when Vobora learned that Aft, whose legs were amputated well above his knees, had resigned himself to never walking again. He hadn’t even sought to get prosthetic legs.

“You’re going to walk again,” Vobora promised.

For Vobora, it was a make-it-up-as-you-go endeavor. Although he knew plenty about conditioning the human body from his football days, he wasn’t a certified physical therapist. The bulk of his experience had come from training four other severely injured people in his gym, including an Army staff  sergeant who lost four limbs in Afghanistan. But Vobora possessed two essential traits to train disabled veterans: an unflagging passion to help, and the ability to make his sweaty charges smile and laugh as they performed feats that most four-limbed people would find impossible. He put Aft through a series of grueling workouts to strengthen his abdominal core and other muscles essential to people with high-leg amputations who use prosthetics.

Today, Aft no longer resembles the man Vobora encountered in the parking lot. He’s enrolled in college and has a fiancé. He no longer sleeps with a loaded gun. And he walks.

Vobora also is a man transformed. He has shifted his energy from training pro athletes and wealthy clients to focus on working with disabled veterans and civilians. Since his first session with Aft, he has helped more than three dozen seriously wounded veterans find new strength. Some, like Aft, have taken their first steps. Others have competed in triathlons and gone skiing.

“You can’t put a price on what David does,” Aft says. “He’s taking people who were told ‘no’ by doctors, people who were written off by society, and he’s giving us a new life.”

* * *

Vobora used to be “Mr. Irrelevant.”

David Vobora
Former NFL player and Adaptive Training Foundation founder David Vobora.

A linebacker at the University of Idaho, he earned the moniker in 2008, when he was the last player selected in that year’s NFL draft. He soon defied expectations by starting for the St. Louis Rams in his rookie year. After three seasons, he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. While covering a punt in a game for Seattle, he suffered a serious shoulder injury.

He was prescribed pain medication. As he realized that the severity of his injury jeopardized his entire football career, he began popping more pills – and anything else he could get his hands on. “I decided to cope by just numbing myself,” he recalls. “I couldn’t see myself without football.”

He eventually checked into a rehab center, where he suffered withdrawal seizures and lost 34 pounds. Once he kicked his addiction, bid farewell to the Seahawks, and underwent multiple shoulder surgeries, he and his wife decamped for Dallas. There, he commenced a new life as a high-end trainer, and began seeking a location for the gym he wanted to open.

His commercial real estate agent introduced him to Clint Bruce, a former Navy SEAL officer who had played football at the Naval Academy and was running a large private security firm. The two men hit it off, and Bruce offered Vobora space in his building to set up a gym in exchange for helping to train his employees, many of whom had served in elite military units.

At Bruce’s 40th birthday party, Vobora saw Travis Mills, a former Army staff sergeant who lost all four of his limbs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. He is just one of five surviving combat veteran quadruple amputees from the post-9/11 wars.

Vobora walked up to Mills, who was on prosthetic legs. “When’s the last time you worked out?” Vobora asked.

Mills shot Vobora a quizzical look. “I’m sorry. I don’t want you to feel like an idiot,” he said, “but I don’t have arms or legs.”

“I understand that you were wounded, but now you’re healed,” Vobora replied. “What are you doing to be a better version of yourself physically?”

Before Mills could answer, Vobora made an offer. “Travis, I want to train you.”

“Do you have any experience?”

“No,” acknowledged Vobora. “But why should I start with a single amputee when I can start with a quadruple amputee? Let’s take it to the top. Let’s push the envelope.”

Mills laughed, and agreed to let Vobora try.

* * *

Vobora began their first workout with a question: “What are you most afraid of?”

“Remember: No arms, no legs,” Mills said. “Gravity wins. So it’s falling.

I’m afraid to fall.”

So that’s where Vobora began. Falling became the foundation of the training regimen. Vobora sought to improve Mills’ balance, his understanding of weight transfer, and his core strength. Sometimes he used giant rubber bands to catch Mills as he tumbled. Other times, he just let him fall onto a padded mat.

“If you’d been coming through the gym and you saw me let a quadruple amputee fall, hit the ground, and refuse to help him, you’d probably have me arrested,” he said.

Mills grew stronger and more assured. Pro athletes at the gym looked on in amazement as he pulled a 100-pound sled along a 30-yard stretch of artificial turf on short prosthetics. They stopped complaining about sore muscles, and increased the intensity of their own workouts. Vobora also began to change: Instead of trying to lure more pro athletes as clients, he set out to recruit another disabled athlete.

He found his next challenge in wheelchair-bound Vanessa Cantu, a Dallas resident whose spinal cord was severed in a car accident. Her doctors told her that she’d never walk again. Vobora asked her to let him try to help.

At their first workout, he put her on a treadmill specially configured to move her legs. After a few minutes, she began to cry. Vobora grew alarmed. But Cantu smiled.

“This is the first time in six years I’ve felt my calves fire,” she told him. Vobora joined in the tears.

“She found herself. She found opportunity,” he recalls. “Suddenly, the impossible was possible.”

He met Aft in the parking lot soon after. And then he got a phone call from his sports agent. A Dallas Cowboys linebacker had been injured and they needed a replacement in short order. Was he interested?

It was a chance to return to the gridiron, his first love, with a paycheck he never thought he’d see again. He thought it over and texted his agent: Sorry, but I’m retired.

* * *

For Vobora, pulling on his uniform and running onto a field before 80,000 fans on any given Sunday yielded an indescribable emotional high. But working with injured athletes offered him a new sense of purpose. “I found my ‘why’ in life,” he says.

He established a nonprofit organization, the Adaptive Training Foundation, which offered nine-week training sessions to physically disabled veterans and civilians.

With cheers, claps, and friendly screams, he challenges the participants to push themselves beyond what they believe they can do. He doesn’t rely on sophisticated equipment designed for rehabilitation programs. Many workouts are improvised affairs that involve balancing 12-foot-long PVC pipes filled with water, flipping a giant truck tire, standing on a custom surfboard, and hauling a sled stacked with weights – all to the deafening thump of rock and rap music.

“The gym is my laboratory,” he says. “It’s my place to go out and test unorthodox ways of giving them the cues to realize that they can go out and overcome.”

He refuses to patronize his students. He doesn’t open doors for them or help them into their cars. If one of them falls out of a wheelchair, he’ll make that person clamber back in unassisted. “There are times when people are like, ‘Oh, man, you are so hard on these guys. It took that guy four minutes to climb back into his chair.’ And I say, ‘Well, if his house is on fire, what’s he going to do? He won’t survive.’”

After a week of coaching from Vobora, that once-flailing veteran could climb back into his wheelchair in under 30 seconds. “Is he going to the Paralympics? Will he have a six-pack? Probably not, but he did something he never thought he’d do,” he says. “And that’s beautiful.”

When not in the gym, Vobora and his assistants organize barbecues, picnics, and the occasional bowling night. As his athletes heave heavy bowling balls down the alley however they can – from wheelchairs, by sitting on the floor – more end up in the gutter than roll a strike, but nobody cares. It’s about laughs, pitchers of light beer, and plates of Buffalo wings.

At the end of each nine-week session, the participants have to take on a challenge of their choosing. For some, it’s competing in a race or trying out a new sport. For others, it’s committing to make a change in their lives. One veteran pledged to attend marriage counseling.

Most of Vobora’s initial students were from the Dallas area, and they often show up at lunchtime on Fridays for alumni workouts that can turn into hypercompetitive affairs. On a recent Friday, a triple amputee challenged a double amputee to a push-up contest.

The bonds they forge with Vobora are so strong that if a few days pass when he doesn’t hear from one, he’ll call – or jump in his truck. Which is what he did when Aft, during his initial weeks at the gym, would go radio silent. “I’d get in my car at midnight and I’d drive 40 minutes up to his house,” Vobora recounts. “I’d figure out a way to break in to make sure he was alive.”

Sometimes he’d take his wife and their two young daughters. “They don’t see Brian as missing legs. They don’t see any of these athletes as disabled. They see them as whole people.”

* * *

As he was walking through the terminal at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport earlier this year, Vobora spotted another amputee in the crowd. And as he did with Aft, Vobora didn’t look away or offer a pro forma “Thank you for your service.” He engaged 23-year-old Kevin Trimble in conversation. That, of course, led to an offer to join the training program.

Trimble, a former soldier who possesses Will Ferrell’s curly hair and a sense of humor to match, had been deployed to the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011. That September, while on a foot patrol, his platoon spotted an improvised explosive device buried in the ground. Trimble, a private first class, and a fellow soldier, Specialist Ryan James Cook, took cover near a mud wall. As they did, an insurgent detonated a bomb embedded in the wall. Cook was killed instantly. Trimble lost both legs and his left arm.

In the months that followed, he battled infections and underwent dozens of operations at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. His subsequent rehabilitation was focused on using prosthetics and accomplishing the prosaic tasks of daily life – bathing himself, driving a modified car, using a kitchen. But exercise for the purpose of building up his right bicep, releasing endorphins, demonstrating he was still a strong young man – that wasn’t part of the routine. Until he met Vobora.

On his second week at the gym, Trimble was in the parking lot, standing on short prosthetics, to try an exercise that would have stymied most of the four-limbed members of a boot camp class – unaffiliated with the Vobora’s foundation – who happened to be exercising nearby. He used his right arm to flip a 210-pound tire end on end as Vobora hooted in encouragement.

“There are physical limitations. It’s the nature of being an amputee,” Trimble says. “But it’s so empowering to know I possess the mental fortitude and the physical strength to perform a feat like that.”

To Trimble, what Vobora is doing is as honorable as serving in the military. “He could do whatever he wants,” Trimble says. “He’s young, fit, capable, and yet he has chosen to do this for us. That’s patriotism.”

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Photo essay: Caps off to the class of 2024