Alton Meeks was two days away from basic training and set on spending time with family before heading off to join the military. The former high school wrestler and Division I football player at Iowa State and Northern Illinois was going to join the U.S. Army wrestling team and had designs on making his way up the Olympic ladder as part of the Army's World Class Athlete Program.
Last Oct. 2, Meeks and his father, Sanford, had just taken cows to market near their home in central Florida and were on their way to see relatives. Driving on East Memorial Boulevard in Lakeland, their Chevrolet pickup was struck in a head-on collision.
A sedan driving in the opposite direction came across the roadway and crashed into the Meekses' vehicle at a high rate of speed, according to The Ledger. Their truck caromed into another car. Four were killed in the violent crash. Meeks was able to walk on his own to an ambulance, while his father was taken away on a stretcher, Meeks told ESPN.
At the hospital after tests, Meeks said he was speaking with police when a nurse came into his room, citing a medical emergency. She put a neck brace on him, and that's when he knew it would be impossible for him to make it to basic training and continue toward his ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics.
"Pretty much at that point I knew my dream -- the only goal I ever had -- was going to be taken away from me," Meeks said. "I started crying in the room. Not because of any physical pain that I was in, but because all these thousands of hours of work and all this time I put into it, what I wanted was mostly likely going to be just taken away."
His father was shaken up but sustained no long-term injuries. Meeks, on the other hand, had an avulsion fracture in his C5 vertebra; a part of the bone had ripped off on impact.
Eight months later, Meeks will be fighting for a chance to make the UFC roster on this season's first episode of Dana White's Contender Series in Las Vegas. He fights Yorgan De Castro.
This was not where Meeks expected to be in June 2019.
After graduating college in December 2016, he turned his focus back toward wrestling and making the Olympics. Despite putting wrestling on hold while playing college football, which earned him a scholarship, wrestling had been a part of his life since he was 5 years old, and he always intended to return to that path after finishing school. He competed within the World Class Athlete Program, which he got into through the National Guard.
That was supposed to be his future, but those plans were abruptly ended in the wreck.
Meeks didn't need surgery, but he had to be in a neck brace for eight weeks. During that time, he applied for a medical discharge from the Army and sought a different path.
Meeks turned to mixed martial arts.
Meeks, 25, started training in MMA in 2017 when he was brought in as a training partner for current Professional Fighters League heavyweight Alex Nicholson, though he has long been a fan of the sport. A week into working with Nicholson, a local promoter asked Meeks if he wanted to fight, and he said yes. Meeks won his amateur debut by unanimous decision in October 2017.
In 2018, Meeks (3-0) fought twice as a pro prior to the crash, winning both times in less than two minutes. He has fought once since the accident, beating Baraq Hunter by 25-second TKO at Combat Night Pro in March.
The Contender Series opportunity will be just his fourth professional bout, but Meeks believes his size -- 6-foot-3, 263 pounds -- and athleticism make him a top prospect. Meeks also has trained at Hard Knocks 365 in Lantana, Florida, under coach Henri Hooft. And Meeks was Volkan Oezdemir's main wrestling training partner ahead of Oezdemir's UFC light heavyweight title fight against Daniel Cormier in January 2018.
"I think what I bring to the table is impressive," Meeks said. "I'm gonna go out there and do what I do. I don't focus on wins and losses. I don't go out there and fight not to lose. I attack and put pressure on my opponent the entire time, and as long as I do that, good things are going to happen."
Meeks had to give up his dream of pursuing the Olympics via the Army, which was shattering. But he also knows walking away from that devastating crash, let alone being able to seek success elsewhere in MMA, is a miracle in itself. Things could have been way worse.
"When the wreck happened, people kept telling me everything happens for a reason," Meeks said. "Everyone kept saying that. When I got this opportunity, all those people that kept telling me that, they said, hey, we were right. Everything happens for a reason. One door closes, another one opens. And this is such an awesome opportunity."
Dana White's Contender Series 2019, Week 1
Heavyweight: Alton Meeks (3-0, 25 years old) vs. Yorgan De Castro (4-0, 31 years old)