When the NFL Draft rolls around next year, David Vobora, the 252nd and very last pick of the 2008 draft, will be releasing his first book.
The significance of his book is that the most intriguing part won’t be about how he became a star linebacker at Idaho; or his memorable week as the NFL’s Mr. Irrelevant, a weeklong party in honor of the draft’s last pick that included a stop at the Playboy Mansion.
It won’t be about how he improbably fought his way into the St. Louis Rams’ starting lineup as a rookie; or how he sued a supplement maker after failing a drug test and won $5.4 million and cleared his name; or his escape from the numbing prison created by painkillers, the unfortunate go-to following numerous head traumas, a devastating shoulder injury and multiple surgeries that forced him out of football at age 25.
No, the most gratifying, most relevant aspect of this Mr. Irrelevant’s story began in August 2013 when he and his wife, Sarah, packed up and moved from California to Dallas, where Sarah’s parents live. An Oregon native, Vobora admitted he didn’t know what was to come next.
Little did he know the next chapter of his life would become the most relevant and fulfilling of his life. In December 2013, Vobora opened a gym called Performance Vault less than four miles north of the American Airline Center, designed for the training of elite athletes. Three months later at a party, Vobora was struck by the sight of a man standing at the other end of the room.
This man had four prosthetics attached to his impressive frame, two shiny mechanical arms and two mechanical legs. United States Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills is one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive his injuries. A New York Times best-selling author, Mills was critically injured on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan by an IED (improvised explosive device) while on patrol.
“I was just drawn to this bio-mechanical awesomeness. It was just amazing,” Vobora said. “He’s on four prosthetics and balancing and walking and moving, and I just walked up to him and I said, ‘When was the last time you worked out?’”
Mills stared back at Vobora incredulously.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Look, I don’t want you to feel like an idiot because you obviously don’t see I don’t have arms and legs.’ I kind of chuckled and I said, ‘I understand that you were wounded, but now that you’re healed, even though you look different, why can’t you compete? Why can’t we attack some things that scare you?’
“So that was the genesis.”
Vobora’s great grandfather, grandfather and uncle were all Marines. Suddenly this former football player in search of an identity beyond the football field, found it. He soon developed the Adaptive Training Foundation. It started by attracting local former soldiers who had lost limbs in the wars, and now they come from all over to train with Vobora and his staff, to heal both physically and mentally.
“It very much is, if you build it they will come,” Vobora said. “I have never had to do any strategic marketing to find more people.”
Vobora welcomes 10 new “adaptive athletes” every nine weeks, the length of a program called “Redefine.” Vobora describes an adaptive athlete as “someone who is utilizing their body as an athlete, training or competing, but they are having to adapt, modify, change the way that they train to overcome for a physical impairment or a physical disability.”
One integral staff member is media director Blake Watson. He is also a client. Watson, 28, knelt down on an IED on Dec. 14, 2010. Watson, an amputee, is proof the process works for those who are naturally skeptical when they arrive.
“Each person is suspect about the program when they first come in, you can see that,” Watson said. “The great thing about it that makes it so much different than a regular gym is David and the trainers that are here. They’re not afraid of anyone’s injuries.
“You bond here through sweat and pain.”
Watson met Vobora through a fellow amputee former soldier. They met Vobora and decided to try his program. During a workout with Watson, Vobora was juggling giving instruction while also filming the session with GoPro camera to use on social media.
Watson told Vobora he would be happy to do video production if he needed the help. Vobora told him to put something together. Watson did, the video that greets visitors to the website. After seeing the video, Vobora hired him on the spot.
The war in Afghanistan had kicked in 2009 and 2010, and on Dec. 14, 2010, Watson was the point man during a foot patrol in the town of Sangin, a rural district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. It was a drug and weapons hub for the Taliban, and one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
Watson’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines were the first Americans to step foot there. The British Royal Marines had been there the previous four years.
“Three-fourths of their guys were dead or wounded,” Watson said. “It was the wild west. Ninety percent of the population was Taliban or affiliated with them. There was just belts upon belts of IEDs laid throughout the city.”
On that day, Watson, standing in front of a locked gate his unit planned to blast open, kneeled down.
“My knee came down on top of a pressure-plate IED,” Watson said. “The IED explodes, takes my left leg above the knee, and blows the whole entire inside of my right leg wide open pretty good, and just completely blew my left elbow apart. It was kind of flopping around like a noodle.”
These are the people and their life-changing injuries Vobora works with every day. When the former soldiers arrive, they are all strangers. Most are still coming to grips with their altered realities, many of them are scared.
“Just because you can’t do something the way you did it before doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Watson said. “You just have to find a new way.”
For Vobora, a former football player once celebrated as Mr. Irrelevant, the relevancy of his work does not escape him.
“For me, I feel like I finally know my ‘why,’ Vobora said. “That’s a powerful place to be.
“I do feel that I’ve recognized this void and my gifts match the needs in front of me and I’m loving the fact that I can make an impact.”
April 28-30, Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Schedule: Round 1, 7 p.m. April 28; Rounds 2-3, 6 p.m. April 29; Rounds 4-7, 11 a.m. April 30.
TV: ESPN and NFL Network.