WAUSEON, Ohio -- They know they're not normal. A light dusting of snow falls on Christmas Eve, and Dave Mealer is bouncing around the house, cooking and entertaining and plotting surprises. He has never dropped this much money on Christmas, but hey, it's time to celebrate. His youngest boy, Elliott, is going to play college football next fall at Michigan; his family, his life, is so complete.
Twenty-five years of marriage, and Mealer is still first-date gaga. He asks Shelly to walk by his chair, just so he can stare and tell her how beautiful she is. She tells him he's full of it. They have three strapping boys, two dogs and a fine statuette collection that has somehow stayed perfectly intact. Nobody in this house, it seems, ever fights. Some people are born to be doctors, or farmers, but the Mealers believe their calling is to raise Blake, Brock and Elliott.
And what men they've become. They're best-friend tight, closer than Dave and Shelly could've hoped. Blake and Brock are helping run the family concrete business; Elliott has college ahead and a loving girlfriend he wouldn't dare leave behind. She has a Christmas present to give Elliott. It's a Bible. They climb into their Mercedes that night and head to a family party, presents waiting for them back at home. Before they leave the party later that evening, before everything changes, Dave puts his hand on Shelly's leg and looks into her eyes. "It is my pleasure to be sitting with you tonight," he says.
Sometimes, when Dave hugs his boys, it's almost as if he can't let go. Shelly worries about this, that things are too perfect.
"People don't hug and love on each other like this," she tells her husband on several occasions.
"I'm just afraid something's going to happen."
They're just lovable, Dave would tell her. Nothing's gonna happen.
Life for the Mealer family is divided into two eras. The first happens in the years, days and hours before 9:35 p.m. on Dec. 24, 2007. At roughly 9 o'clock, Hollis Richer wanted to capture the moment with a family picture. She'd been sick that night, throwing up in the bathroom while Elliott, her boyfriend of two years, waited outside with his ear pressed against the door. Richer didn't care how she looked -- it was Christmas Eve and she wanted a group shot for all of them to remember. Shelly nixed it; she wanted to get Hollis home. So they left a family party at a cousin's house in nearby Stryker, and headed back to Wauseon.
The plan was to go to midnight mass, like they always did. Fifteen minutes, and they'd be home. Brock climbed into the passenger seat of the SUV, next to his dad. Elliott, who normally got a window seat in the back, offered to cram his 6-foot-6, 280-pound body in the middle so that Richer could have fresh air.
At 9:35 p.m., as the Mercedes approached the intersection of Highway 2 and County Road 19 in northwest Ohio, a quick flash of lights cut through the pitch-black countryside. There were just nanoseconds to react. Ninety-year-old H. Edward Johnson ran a stop sign and collided with the Mercedes, which flipped and landed on the passenger side in a ditch.
Dave Mealer, 50, and Richer, 17, were killed. Brock, 23, was trapped in the front seat with his right arm lodged in the door and his dead father lying beside him while Christmas music droned on over the radio. Brock struggled for a few minutes to pull himself out, then realized he couldn't move his legs.
Elliott stumbled back and forth in the dark, holding Hollis' hand, then ran to his brother's side and desperately tried to free him. He tried to flip the SUV over. He pulled so hard that he tore his rotator cuff. And then Elliott was helpless, a strong, powerful offensive lineman who couldn't save his family or his girl.
The next few minutes were a blur of flashing lights, firefighters and the Jaws of Life. Brock had a calm about him until the paramedics asked if the man next to him was breathing. Brock didn't know his dad was lying there, motionless. He thought everybody had gotten out and was OK.
Though he stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 190 pounds, Brock was always considered the runt of the family. He spent a good part of his childhood having to line up back-to-back with his little brother so relatives could marvel over how Elliott was nearly taller than him. When the kid shot past him in the sixth grade, Brock was almost relieved. Now they could start comparing Elliott to Blake, the basketball star of the family.
Brock was the outgoing one, the middle kid who had his pilot's license when he was in high school, the worker. And when he played sports, the family says, no one was tougher. He'd shoot the 3-pointers that made the coaches cringe, then shake their heads and smile. To Brock, floor burns were just as important as field-goal percentages.
And now he had to just lie there, staring at his dad's leather jacket, wondering, almost knowing, he was dead.
Blake held Brock's hand at the hospital that night when a state trooper delivered the news about their dad.
On Christmas Day, doctors in Toledo told Brock and his family that there was a 99.9 percent chance he'd never walk again.
"There was just a lot of crying," Elliott says. "I felt like I cried for months."
How could an 18-year-old kid who'd lost so much even think about football? How could he rehab a shoulder when his heart ached so much harder? See, Elliott was always the sensitive one. He always wondered about the kid who didn't have lunch money or the boy who was being picked on at school.
Years ago, Elliott was the one being picked on. The smaller boys would gang up on him and grab him by the neck so they could show off for the girls. Elliott was too nice to fight back. Grade-school cliques didn't really matter to him. By the time he was 7, he knew exactly what he was going to do. He told his dad he was going to play college football, even though his town, Stryker, was too small to have a team. "You can do it," Dave would say. "Whatever it takes."
The Mealers moved to Wauseon, in part, so that Elliott could play football. And when Pee Wees started, Dave washed his boy's uniforms, got him dressed and sat on a hill in his car while the kid practiced.
"My dad always told me if you don't have good dreams, you have nightmares," Elliott says. "That's something I always held on to. Think positive. Shoot high."
With Richer, Elliott aimed for the moon. She was smart and sweet and led Elliott to God. They'd hang out at the movie theater, next to the Wal-Mart, and when Elliott wrapped Richer in his arms, she felt safe.
For Valentine's Day, she made him a "Love Box" full of bible passages to read when he was down or needed motivation. Though they were young, and had plans to go to different colleges hundreds of miles apart, Elliott and Hollis knew they'd stay together and get married someday.
Richer was sleeping on his shoulder when the Skylark struck their SUV.
"I don't mean to make this sound so special," Elliott says. "But the relationship we had, for a high school couple, was different than anything else. I believed that when she was still here. I'm not saying we were perfect . . . It just the relationship we had was a very deep relationship for a high school couple."
Three and a half months. That's how long Brock Mealer would lie in the hospital, clinging to that .01 percent chance. He wouldn't accept that he'd be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, wouldn't let anyone speak of it. Just after the accident, Brock lost circulation in his right leg for a week. The leg turned blue and cold, and doctors thought it was most certainly dead. Then one day, the circulation inexplicably came back. It was a miracle, Brock says. A sign he had to keep pushing.
He was transferred to a hospital at the University of Michigan, and in late January '08 moved his legs in a therapy session. Elliott started calling him "Miracle Mealer." And suddenly, the brothers started pushing each other. Elliott would call and tell Brock about his early morning training, and Brock would laugh and boast that he was up and working out an hour earlier.
"He pushes me, and I push him," Elliott says. "To this day, I can't understand him; I can't figure him out. He's always got a smile, always got the best attitude. I don't know how that couldn't inspire a person.
"When somebody would ask me how he's going to handle it, the description I would give them is that if it were going to happen to one of us, if you asked me who could actually get through it, I have no doubt that Brock is the best one to handle that situation. Not that I wish that for him . . . He's just always had the determination."
By springtime, Brock started standing with the help of braces. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez introduced him to the team during a practice. The Wolverines were kneeling with their helmets as Rodriguez told Brock's story. At the end of it, they rose to their feet and gave him an ovation.
Rodriguez was just two weeks into his new job when he got the call about the Mealers. He hadn't met Elliott or the 100 or so others on Michigan's roster. But he called Mealer to tell him that no matter what happened, even if he couldn't play, he'd always have a scholarship at Michigan.
The family -- Ohio State die-hards before Elliott committed to Michigan -- immediately fell in love with Rodriguez. For Brock, it wasn't hard to do. A few months after the wreck, the coach visited him in the hospital during the Super Bowl. They promised to someday run out of the tunnel into the Big House together.
"Having him around the team, to me, is some pretty neat motivation for all our guys," Rodriguez says. "I'm inspired every time I see him. When you see him so positive, you think, 'Geez, why should I ever feel sorry for myself?'"
Lauren Sarnacki used to have a little bit of a crush on Brock Mealer. They took a hockey class together at Ohio State, and Sarnacki used to catch herself looking at the tall guy with beautiful blue eyes who'd stand in a freezing-cold ice rink in short sleeves. The last day of class, they shared a few beers together at a bar called The Thirsty Scholar. And then Sarnacki and Mealer went their separate ways.
She was at her family's home in Florida on Christmas Day when she heard about what happened to the Mealers. She stayed up all night crying, and couldn't figure out why she was so deeply affected by a guy she hardly knew, and a family she'd never met. She vowed to visit Brock once she got back to school, because anybody who'd been through that much, she figured, could use a friend.
"I was so nervous," Sarnacki says. "And I don't know why I was so nervous. From the second I saw him, I know that was what I was supposed to be doing at that moment. I met his [family], and just instantly fell in love with all of them. I thought I'd only stay a couple of hours, if that. I stayed until 1 o'clock in the morning playing board games with Brock, just having an awesome time.
"I remember thinking that night that there is something so special about him. I'm a big believer that God sends us signals when there's something he wants us to pay attention to."
She'd come nearly every weekend, driving three hours from Columbus, Ohio, to Ann Arbor, in the snow, with gas prices well over $4 a gallon. Initially, Brock wasn't looking for a girlfriend. He was focused solely on walking again. They eventually fell in love.
Brock was released from the hospital on Easter Sunday 2008, went back to Ohio State to get his undergraduate degree, enrolled in grad-school classes and learned to drive a car with hand pedals. On Father's Day, Shelly wanted the boys to go to the cemetery with her. Brock said he couldn't.
He says he won't see his dad's grave until he can walk there on his own without braces.
On the team
Of course they worried about Elliott at Michigan. He'd asked coach Rodriguez not to treat him any differently, to ride him when he screwed up and praise him when he did well. But it was impossible not to wonder what was going on inside of No. 57's head.
He got that number, by the way, with his big brother's help. Rodriguez asked Brock if there was anything he could do for him, and Brock said sure, could you hook Elliott up with No. 57? It was the year their dad was born.
So Elliott was in a new environment, but he carried all these reminders with him. The "Love Box" sat in his dorm room at Michigan; his Facebook page still said he was in a relationship with Richer.
"At first when we became roommates, I worried sometimes," says Michigan tight end Kevin Koger, a childhood friend of Mealer's. "I'd never lived with him, and he stayed in a lot. I thought, 'Is he depressed?' After a while, I figured that's just his personality. He likes staying in, ordering a pizza and watching a movie."
Mealer sat out the 2008 season and rehabbed his shoulder. By the time the Wolverines gathered for two-a-days this past summer, it was clear that the 299-pound redshirt freshman was strong and ready. He made his collegiate debut in the season opener against Western Michigan, playing left guard on the final drive of a 31-7 victory. Every time he enters the game on special teams, during field-goal attempts and extra-point attempts, Brock, Blake and Shelly well up with pride.
It's a great diversion that brings the family together each Saturday. Shelly is convinced that the No. 57 is twice as big as every other number on the field. It's practically all she sees. And every time Elliott leans in, or moves his body so precisely, she feels as if she's looking at Dave.
There are pieces of him in each boy, and all around their house in Wauseon. Shady, the family's Shar Pei, still sits in the driveway every night waiting for him to come home. Some nights, Shelly still dresses up when she leaves, thinking she'll run into him somewhere around town. She knows that sounds crazy.
"If you're the one to [die], you don't have to say goodbye to anybody," she says. "You don't have to hurt. Here, we're aching every day. I mean, they're the lucky ones. They get to go to heaven.
"I know Hollis would've grabbed my husband's hand and said, 'Come with me, David. I know all about this place. Come follow me. We'll go find Jesus."
The dream is crazy, but so clear and real to Elliott. He's sitting in the upper deck of a large, dark, gymnasium when he spots Hollis near the court. She's basking in bright light; she's cheering like she used to for Elliott. They meet near the end of the game, and Elliott is bawling and asks if he can come with her. Hollis whispers in his ear. "Once you tell your story," she says, "you can come."
He wonders about the blur between dreams and messages. Shortly after he had that dream, Pat Williams, the senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, asked if he could include Mealer's story in a book. Since the accident, Elliott has gone to high schools and Fellowship of Christian Athletes gatherings, speaking of loss, faith and hope.
"I don't know how many people I have to tell, or what my story is," Elliott says. "I have to tell my story first, and then I'll get my dream."
At the game
It is late on Saturday afternoon, and the sun turns to rain and the clouds break again before Michigan State pulls out a wild overtime win against the Wolverines. It's Mealer's first road game, first college loss, and there's a crush of fans outside waiting for the players. A girl wearing a Michigan State jersey is looking for her boyfriend, who plays for the Spartans. Fathers wait for their sons.
Mealer walks out of the tunnel and sees Brock, who has a Michigan sticker on his wheelchair.
After every game, win or lose, the brothers could always count on one thing -- that Dave Mealer would be standing outside the locker room, ready to wrap his giant arms around them. Shelly Mealer would joke that she was jealous, that Dave was always the first one who got the hug. Sometimes, it seemed, he didn't want to let go.
"Keep your chin up," Brock says to Elliott.
It's exactly what Dave used to say. They share a quick hug, and Elliott climbs on a white bus while Brock watches them drive away, somewhere closer to where they should have been.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.