By Jim Fuller firstname.lastname@example.org
June 17, 2014
BOONVILLE — The teenage years — particularly the late teenage years — are a time of change.
A time when we start figuring out who we are and what we are going to do. College or work? Or both? Stay home. Move away. Stay close to home.
For those who are athletically inclined, these questions can be more complicated or less complicated. But for those who played sports year-round, the reigning thoughts are when the next game is; the next practice; the next season.
Often, only in spring of their senior year does the year-round or three-sport athlete take seriously what is next.
For Todd Wallace, a three-sport athlete in the mid- to late-’80s at Starmount High School, a magical time of being a teenage athlete ended suddenly July 17, 1987.
A mile-and-a-half from home, Todd fell asleep on the way back from an American Legion baseball game in Mocksville. As he drove along a rolling straightaway on U.S. 21, his 1985 Chevy S-10 Blazer drifted off the road and onto the right shoulder.
Todd woke up and jerked the steering wheel to the left.
Too far to the left.
Two utility poles — one the prospective replacement for the other — met him on the other side of the road. He went airborne. When the vehicle settled, he was pinned between the two poles — which now rose out from behind the driver’s seat — and the steering wheel.
Todd Wallace was unconscious. He had a collapsed lung; a broken nose; glass in his eyes; and a broken back. He sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury.
Within “a couple of minutes,” Todd became conscious again. “I felt like I had the breath knocked out of me,” he recalled. “I didn’t know the impact yet. I knew it was dark and I knew I couldn’t move.”
Rescue workers cut the roof off the vehicle to get Todd out. “I vaguely remember,” Todd said. “They asked me if anybody was with me.”
He said he could touch his leg. But he couldn’t feel it. “I knew something was messed up then,” he said.
A life changed
He was in intensive care at Baptist Hospital for three days.
“They had told my parents I had a 25 percent chance of walking,” Todd said. “They couldn’t tell with the swelling the damage I would have. I couldn’t feel anything from here,” he said indicating his collar bones, “down.”
He would remain there for six weeks before he was moved to Whitaker Rehabilitation Center for another nine weeks.
“To the day, I was in the hospital 105 days,” he said. “You have a lot of highs and lows.
“I was 17 years old and I never took a break,” he continued. “Football, basketball, baseball, summer baseball, and back to football. You don’t slow down. You don’t sit down.
“So here I am. I was naive. I’m a stinking athlete. Nobody’s told me I can’t do stuff. I had never really been injured.”
“I had a really good supportive staff with my family, my brother, my friends,” he said. “But you are alone at times and you think, ‘Where do I go from here?’
“I was going 3-for-4 in the baseball game. Less than six, eight hours later — I’m never going to walk again.
“Your world’s changed. Now, just being able to sit up is an accomplishment.
“Being able to breathe without having things attached to me.
“It starts settling in on you,” Todd said. “I remember when I [first realized] my life was going to be different. I had physical therapy two, three times a week.
“I saw this lady who had been burned from head to toe. Your life’s changed. You are never going to be back to the old Todd; playing ball and being a 17-year-old.
“You had to grow up mentally. Not too many 17-year-olds experience that.
“I kept on the happy face, but when I was alone and it was just me and God, I cried. You go through that stage of feeling sorry for yourself.
“I could let it get the best of me and wind up in a nursing home.”
Todd said he would learn to approach life the same way he approached re-learning to sit up.
‘This is different now’
His brother Jeff said the two had a father-son or big brother-little brother-like relationship. “We played together,” he said. “Hopefully, I taught him some things.”
Their father, Jerry, rode with the Outlaws — an infamous motorcycle gang.
“Once he was injured, I became involved in his everyday routines.”
Jeff said encouragement, transportation, getting Todd from car to car, or from toilet to wheelchair were all in a day’s work.
“It was a very difficult time for both of us,” Jeff said. “I vividly remember clinging to what we were a month-and-a-half before. We were both normal athletic people.
“You saw people dealing with missing limbs and burn victims. You think ‘we don’t belong here.’”
Jeff said the first time he and Todd went to physical therapy they left. “It was so alarming to both us,” he explained.
“We were dealing with the realization ‘this is different now.’ It was just a traumatic event. We were coping with the fact of him just being able to sit up and use the bathroom.
“It was both a growing time and a healing time for all of us.”
All of us included a grandmother Jeff described as “a mainstay for us growing up. We had an alcoholic family. It was just awful. Our grandmother truly exhibited unconditional love.
“It brought Todd and us back together.”
“You do a lot of thinking,” Todd said. “You start questioning things. ‘God, why’d this happen to me?’
“Later, I came to the conclusion ‘Why not me?’”
‘A Starmount boy through and through’
Wallace was an All-Conference, All-Tri-County linebacker at Starmount. As a junior, he was the Tri-County co-defensive player of the year.
“I was fortunate to play football for B.W. Holt,” he said. “He was one of the best motivators I’ve ever been around. He made us feel like we could run through a wall.”
Starmount was in the midst of a string of consecutive conference championships. “It was fun to be a part of,” Wallace said. “You got a toughness. We learned there’s nothing you can’t do.”
Wallace was being raised by his older brother, Jeff; his mother, Ann Joyner; his stepfather, Tommy Joyner; and his grandmother, Minnie Oliver. Todd described his mother as “very supportive” and his grandmother as “a rock.”
“We found a lot of father figures in our ball coaches,” he said. “Coach Holt was that for me and my brother.
“That’s why I’m involved with football. I live 35 miles away. I don’t get paid any money.
“If I can impact one life like Coach Holt and some of the others impacted mine, it’s worth more than any money.
“You’re there for the kids. You want to be a positive role model. There are too many negative things for those kids every day.
“When I see these kids — there’s a lot of Todd Wallaces walking around out there.”
It didn’t take much convincing when Starmount Middle School Coach Michael Vanhoy asked Todd to be an assistant coach on his staff. “I’m a Starmount boy through and through,” Todd said.
“At the time, I knew who Todd was,” Vanhoy said. “I didn’t really know him.”
Vanhoy knew Todd through friends and other coaches. He was at Forbush High School when Todd was at Starmount.
“The biggest thing was his reputation with the kids,” Vanhoy said. “Just the way he does with the kids; the way he talks to them; his attitude.”
Vanhoy said he was also struck when Todd spoke to a church at the request of one of the player’s mothers. “He talked about how he blamed everybody,” Vanhoy said. “Talked about alcohol and trying different things.
“It was good testimony. It had a lot of people crying.”
It has particularly impressed Vanhoy that Wallace has continued to coach at Starmount after moving to Mocksville. “He’s here every day,” he said. “He’s dedicated. Now he’s driving from Davie County. He’s picked up kids.”
But Vanhoy didn’t expect Todd to continue helping with the team once he moved. “I thought I’d lose him,” Vanhoy said. “His words to me were ‘as long as you’re here, I’m here.’”
‘It was tough’
“He’s like a son,” Holt said. “He and my son (Stu) are as close to being brothers as anyone.”
In fact, Stu has a daughter named AnnWallace Whitley Holt.
Holt coached at Starmount 19 years. He is now coaching at a private school in Rocky Mount.
“Todd was a hard worker,” Holt said. “He was a tremendous baseball player; a tremendous linebacker.
“He had a passion for the game. He still does.
“We’re just so proud to see what he’s done.”
Holt said one has to understand the Starmount community to understand the impact of Todd’s accident. “That was a great place to raise a family and still is,” he said. “Everybody knew Todd Wallace. A lot of prayers were said.”
Holt had to help his football team deal with Todd’s absence shortly after the accident. “I told them to go out and play as hard as Todd played,” he said. “It was tough. It still is.”
“The first game of my senior year we played North Iredell at home,” Todd said. “My family brought me to the game.
“That was a very tough moment. You did realize then that your ball-playing days were over.”
Todd watched the game from the back of Holt’s pickup in the end zone toward the weight room. “I was still in a body cast,” Todd said. “In a wheelchair elevated where I could see the field.
“When I went back to the hospital, that was really, really tough.”
As a freshman in baseball, he was his team’s most valuable player. His sophomore year, he was a conference honorable mention as a catcher; and then All-Conference as a catcher his junior year.
Basketball, Wallace said, was something he played to stay in shape. As a junior, he was “second or third” off the bench.
“He was a little bit better than me in most sports,” said David Oliver, a cousin who lived next door to Todd. “B.W. Holt was a big influence on him.
“He was undersized for every sport. He was 5-9, 150, and he was a middle linebacker. That will tell you something.”
Oliver, now the wrestling and track and field coach at Starmount, said he was supposed to be with Todd the night he was coming back from Mocksville. “I really believe he would have played college baseball,” Oliver said.
“It’s not always been happy times,” Todd said. “After high school, I got alcohol and drug dependent. I hit some dark times.
“I used my accident as an excuse to dabble in drugs and alcohol. I went through that for several years.
“God never gave up on me. I knew something was happening. I didn’t know what. Something was stirring in my heart.”
Finally, Todd said, “I just cried out to God and my life changed. I became a Christian.”
Todd said others have to handle their situations in ways that work for them. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution, he said.
“Every person goes through a different trial in life,” he said. “I can’t sit there and tell you how to feel. What I have told people is I can be here as support for you.
“My main thing — you got to reach down in yourself and decide how you are going to be. Do you want to sit there and let the world move on without you?
“I still get knocked down. But you got to get up and play the next play. Life is full of ups and downs. You have to decide if you’re going to take it.”
Todd now lives in Mocksville. He is a repair and services supervisor at Yadkin Valley Telecom in Mocksville, where he has been almost 20 years.
He has been married to a woman he dated in high school for more than four years.
“I was dating Dottie when I had my accident,” he said. “She was with me during my stay in the hospital.
“As life will have it, we went our separate ways,” Todd said. “We weren’t but 17 years old. At the time, I don’t know where my life’s going. I’m in a wheelchair.”
“She was there every day at Baptist,” Jeff said. “I do remember her coming and her demeanor. She wasn’t overemotional about it.
“The fact that she was there was therapeutic for him.”
Jeff said Todd told Dottie “his life was totally different now. They both showed a lot of maturity there.”
“We got reacquainted in 2005,” Todd said. “We started dating again. She was a sweetheart.”
Todd and Dottie were married Jan. 3, 2010.
“I had not talked to her in 15, 16, 17 years,” Todd said. “When we got reacquainted, I saw the qualities that attracted me when we were 17; her kind, caring heart.”
“They just reconnected,” Jeff said. “It’s all just come full circle.”
“I’m married and I have two great stepdaughters,” he said. “I’ve had a job for 27 years. This chair does not define who I am or what I am.
“Jesus Christ is a big part of my life. I give him all the credit in anything I do. I don’t take any credit.”
Todd said his life revolves around his family; going to ballgames (“We follow Kenzie everywhere”); and Peace Haven Baptist Church in Yadkinville.
He describes himself as a sports fanatic. He doesn’t just follow Kenzie, but his nephew, Caleb, as well. He even goes to games Kenzie and Caleb are not involved in. “You just never know where you might find me,” he said. “I don’t have to have anybody playing. Me and some of my fellow coaches will just load up and go.
“I get to watch that ball thrown around, hit around, and shot around.
“My wife is very supportive of it.”
This summer there is agility and conditioning for football two nights a week; a stepdaughter who plays showcase softball; and a nephew who plays American Legion baseball.
“My life’s great,” Todd said. “I’ve got such a loving family. A wonderful mom and stepdad. My real dad’s back in my life. My brother and his family. We’re all close.”
Jeff is now an assistant superintendent for Davie County Schools. Jeff’s own story includes his daughter Claire’s battle with Wilms’ tumor — a cancer of the kidneys — and his own battle with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).
“We live close to each other now,” Jeff said. “It’s just amazing how things have worked out.
“It was ugly. It was tough at times. We knew that he was doing things we didn’t like. I tried to talk to him.”
As recently as 10 years, Jeff said he was reluctant to bring his children to Todd’s house.
“A defining moment,” Jeff recalled, “was the day I was diagnosed with leukemia.” Jeff said he told Todd that if having leukemia was what it took for Todd to turn his life around, he was willing to accept that.
“From that moment on,” Jeff said, “he began to come around us more. He did stop all those things.
“I didn’t beat him over the head. God got a hold of his heart.”
“I thought I was hiding it from him,” Todd said. “But he knew all about what I was doing. It was tough.
“I never want to go back there, but I’m better for having gone through it.”
“We were replacing his idle time with something productive,” Jeff said. “And Dottie came back into his life.
“He’s giving back to my children; his stepdaughters.
“Yeah, there’s a tragedy. But he’s now a good uncle; a good stepdad.
“We’ve been very fortunate and very blessed.”
Their father, Jerry, has also changed. “He had the willpower,” Jeff said. “We were able to watch his transformation.”
Transformations come in different forms. Both his father’s and his own transformation have been profound.
“I have seen so many people I would not have met being in this chair,” Todd said. “I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.”
“Look at Todd,” Holt said. “He’s got a great job; a great wife.
“The Starmount community is a great part of that. It’s a unique situation.”
Todd drives down U.S. 21 regularly — past the houses and the utility poles; past the spot where his life changed. He said he doesn’t think about it anymore.
“I used to when I was younger,” he said. “Man, why couldn’t I make it that last mile-and-a-half?
“You can ‘what if’ the rest of your life. I don’t see the point.”
Jim Fuller may be reached at 336-835-1513 or Twitter @elkinareasports.