If this story weren’t true, even the people involved might not believe it.
There’s Dean Otto, avid runner and triathlete, hit by a pickup truck while riding his bike last September. The trauma to his spine was so severe that when he arrived at the hospital, he was paralyzed from the waist down.
There’s Matt McGirt, the neurosurgeon, who put Otto’s spine together with a foot of titanium and tried to let him know his plans to run again might be overly optimistic.
And there’s Will Huffman, the driver of the pickup truck, who was found at fault. He worried he might never find forgiveness – from Otto, or himself.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Sunday, their story will come to a climax: On the one-year anniversary of the accident, Otto will join the man who broke him and the surgeon who put him back together in Napa, Calif., to run a half marathon (that’s 13.1 miles).
Side by side by side.
“Look at this friendship that you all have,” Ellen DeGeneres told Otto, 52, McGirt, 42, and Huffman, 27, on her daytime talk show earlier this month. “This is amazing.”
But there’s one aspect of the story that was overlooked by Ellen, and by others who have chronicled their relationship, and that’s this: If Dean Otto had been in this crash before he got sober, it probably wouldn’t have had a happy ending.
Here’s what happened on Sept. 24, 2016:
Otto, who was nursing a minor but nagging hamstring injury left over from marathon training, decided to go easy on it that Saturday morning by getting on the bike instead of running. Since he was heading out before sunrise – around 6 a.m. – he pulled on reflective socks, put a reflective vest with flashing LED lights over his jersey, and powered up a light that was mounted under the seat of his Scott road bike.
As he set out, something just felt ... off. It was extra-dark because of the new moon, and it was so humid there was condensation on the handlebars. In fact, he felt uneasy enough that he turned back toward home after reaching the top of Arbor Way at Sharon Lane. But he changed his mind again, made another U-turn, and set out onto Sharon, then Providence, toward uptown.
Meanwhile, Will Huffman was making the turn off Old Providence Road onto Providence as he and an old college friend set out on the 175-mile drive from Charlotte to Virginia Tech, armed with tickets for their alma mater’s noon game against East Carolina.
Huffman had his 2012 Ford F-150 in the right lane of the two northbound lanes on Providence. He says he was traveling below the speed limit, both hands on the wheel, and had the wipers on, because of condensation on the windshield. The wipers had just made a clearing pass when Otto’s figure popped into view, Huffman says, less than 15 feet in front of his pickup. He slammed on the brakes but didn’t have time to steer clear.
“I heard brakes, I felt the impact, and immediately, I was just pissed,” Otto recalls. “I was like, ‘Are you f------ kidding me? I’ve got lights all over my bike, I’m in the middle of the lane, there’s a whole ’nother lane over here. How the hell are you hitting me right now?’
“And then it was lights out.”
If this had happened nine or 10 years ago, Otto says, he would have still been furious upon regaining consciousness – and may have stayed angry for a very long time.
“I would have harbored a ton of resentment over what happened to me. And I could have easily spiraled downward. I could have gotten addicted to painkillers. I would have been like, ‘Hell, I’ve got a free pass, man.’ I would have been a mess, frankly. Drinking, popping pain pills, isolating, withdrawing. Self-centered fear is the alcoholic’s lair.”
That’s where Otto lived for a good chunk of his adult life.
He swears he never touched a drop until after he was done coaching his son’s Pop Warner football games or his daughter’s soccer practices, and limited his indulgences to the weekends, but otherwise, “from Friday at 5 o’clock till Sunday (night), I was gettin’ after it.
“I had convinced myself that, look, if you’re only drinking during the weekend, you don’t have a problem,” says Otto, a software salesman. “You’re a successful guy, you’re doing great. ... But I was just a total d--- all week, because I wasn’t drinking, and I was really hard to live with.”
On Aug. 22, 2009, he passed out alone by the fire pit on his patio while watching Kyle Busch win the televised Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The next morning, he went for a run, then swung back by his house in the Foxcroft neighborhood near SouthPark to grab the family dog, Blue, to take her for a walk.
When they got back, the circle driveway was filled with cars belonging to his parents, his in-laws, his friends.
“My wife had had enough,” Otto recalls of the intervention. “She basically said, ‘You’ve got Door No. 1 and Door No. 2. Door No. 1’s go to treatment and get help. Door No. 2 is get out.’ ”
He chose Door No. 1, entering a 16-week outpatient program at the Dilworth Center.
As he progressed through recovery, people around him spent a lot of time talking about God, and how a strong faith could benefit him. Otto – who wasn’t religious at all at the time – says he initially played along to appease them. Conversations about spirituality persisted, though, and he began to listen more actively. Eventually, he took to prayer.
“I started to have faith,” he says, “then I started to see the results. I was being a nicer guy. My life was getting better. Pretty soon, I didn’t think about drinking anymore.”
The old Dean Otto, he says, would have responded to being hit by Huffman by hitting him with as big a lawsuit as possible.
But when the new Dean Otto regained consciousness on the side of Providence Road, he responded with a prayer.
God, he prayed, I don’t know what you’ve got planned for me, but whatever it is is larger than I can process. It’s all yours. I’m gonna give it to you, and trust that this plan is gonna work out.
“I knew, through my recovery, that resentment is awful. It sends more alcoholics back out to drink than anything else. I knew I had to get rid of that resentment immediately. So even though I was pissed when I was flying through the air, I woke up and pretty much forgave Will right on the spot.”
The accident occurred 2.5 miles from the area’s only Level I trauma center – Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte – so Medic got him to the emergency room within minutes.
The surgeon on call that morning? Matt McGirt, of Carolina NeuroSurgery & Spine Associates’ Charlotte office, who just so happens to specialize in complex spinal surgery.
McGirt was alerted of Otto’s situation and quickly called up the ER’s CT scan on a computer. One look, and he thought to himself: “Wow, that’s a severe injury.”
Otto’s spine was fractured and dislocated due to the combination of broken bone and torn ligaments, and the two vertebrae that had been knocked out of whack were pinching his spinal cord, preventing blood from getting to it. So when he arrived in the emergency room, Otto – who also had dislocated his back, and broken his pelvis, tailbone, fibula and multiple ribs – had no sensation in the lower half of his body and couldn’t move a muscle below the waist.
With the clock ticking to save Otto’s body from irreparable damage (his spinal cord was in danger, literally, of dying), McGirt went in and un-pinched and cleaned up the spinal cord, re-aligned the spinal column, locked everything in place with titanium rods and screws, and closed him up. It took 90 minutes, which a CHS spokesperson said, is more than twice as fast as normal.
But while the complicated procedure went smoothly, McGirt knew it could be days, weeks, months before they knew if it had saved Otto’s lower half. In fact, after scrubbing out of the operating room, McGirt met with Otto’s wife, Beth, and other family members and friends to explain that the goal for Otto to focus on was to get his toes wiggling. Just that. And he told them that the long-term outlook could be bleak. Only 2 to 3 percent of people with this type of injury, McGirt told them, can expect to ever walk independently again.
Their response: If there’s a chance, Dean will find a way.
“The next morning,” McGirt says, “I walk into the ICU, and he’s gracious, he’s upbeat, he’s so appreciative. ... Most people would sit there overnight, unable to move their legs, staring at the ceiling, thinking, ‘What just happened to my life?’ Massively depressed. And you have a really tough conversation the next morning. I’ve had that many, many times. But Dean, he smiles at me and says, ‘Look, I’ve been working all night at it.’ ”
Otto pointed at his feet. He was wiggling his toes.
Will Huffman never made it to the football game that day of the accident.
He was too shaken up to think about anything except the man he’d put in the hospital, and became determined to track him down. Huffman had been warned to leave it be, but this was a guy who was chairman of the honor committee at Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Va.; as a senior there, 10 years ago, he founded Honor and Integrity Week, during which guest speakers discuss how living within an honor code impacts their professional lives.
Apologizing in person wasn’t just something he wanted to do – he needed to do it.
“There were definitely those who said, ‘You need to just let the insurance people deal with it, and the lawyers,’ but I never really considered those things,” Huffman says. “I just knew that I needed to tell him that I was sorry, even though it was an accident. ... I just felt it was the right thing to try to make an attempt, at least, to reach out.”
So, with nothing more to go on than Dean’s first name (which Otto had told him) and his age (which he’d heard Otto tell Medic), he dug through the Internet till he found a Facebook update about Otto’s accident posted by Otto’s running and triathlon coach, Kelly Fillnow.
Huffman’s wife, Jeanelle, contacted Fillnow. Fillnow contacted Otto’s wife, Beth. Nine days after the accident, Will and Jeanelle Huffman walked into the Carolinas Rehabilitation center, where Will Huffman met Dean Otto for the second time.
“When they got there,” Otto says, “you could tell that they were a little freaked out. They were a little bit uncomfortable. But we just tried to treat them like we would anybody else ... and welcomed them with open arms and asked them to sit down and just talked to them, just like we’re talking right now.”
Will Huffman kept saying how sorry he was. Dean Otto kept saying how OK it was.
You have to get past this, he told Will.
This could have happened to anyone.
We know you didn’t intend to do this.
We forgive you.
“All those things,” Huffman says now, “really helped me start my recovery.”
By then, Otto – who McGirt still thought might never walk without assistance – was already thinking about running.
Prior to the accident, he’d completed his first marathon (New York City, in November 2015) and his first triathlon in 34 years (in Huntersville, the next May). These came up in conversation between doctor and patient a few days after the surgery, at which point Otto was already dragging himself around with a walker.
“Dean says to me, ‘I bet you could do a half (marathon),’ ” McGirt recalls. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, in a year, when I beat this damn thing, if I run one, will you run it with me?’ And I thought, ‘Man, there’s no way that’s happening,’ so I said, ‘Dean, look, if you ever run a half marathon, I’m the first guy running with you.’ ”
He didn’t think much about it again until, a couple weeks later, Otto walked into his clinic with virtually no assistance.
McGirt started training the next day.
Exactly four weeks after Otto’s spine was nearly irreparably damaged, Otto showed up at the starting line of a race he registered for prior to the accident – the Big South 5K near Ballantyne – and fought through tears as he completed the 3.1 miles in just under 50 minutes.
By winter, he was running again (slowly but happily, without pain), spurred on by his coach, and the deal he intended to make McGirt keep.
McGirt completed his first 13.1-mile race last Jan. 14 in Charleston, he says, “because of Dean.”
The victory lap
Will and Jeanelle Huffman woke up one morning in late February of this year and were struck by the urge to go for a run – something they only did sporadically – so they headed out to the McAlpine Creek Greenway in south Charlotte.
As they jogged along the path, another runner headed toward them, but they were lost in conversation, perhaps, and didn’t think anything of the person until just as he was passing.
“Will!” the guy said.
Standing there, panting and smiling, was Dean Otto.
He was out training for his comeback race, and just minutes before had decided spontaneously to make a turn on the trail that led him right into the Huffmans’ path. A coincidence? Otto thinks not.
“To me, it’s just another part of the plan,” he says. “Not my plan. It’s just another one of those things that, how else can you explain it? Why did I decide to take a left right there? Was it breezy? What was it? I mean, something moved me to go that way.”
He invited them to join him for the race he was training for. They signed up two days later.
On March 11, the three of them crossed the starting line together at the Run Jen Run 5K at Symphony Park in SouthPark, as assorted members of the Huffman and Otto families held up signs and cheered together from the sidelines. (But they didn’t finish together: Otto beat his friends by nearly five minutes.)
Not long after that, Otto and McGirt let Huffman in on the half marathon idea. It was an easy sell.
In June, the Huffmans relocated to Richmond, Va., but Will returned in July to attend a group ride/fundraiser for spinal cord injury patients that Otto hosted at his home. McGirt was there, too, and it marked the first time the three men were in the same place at once.
The second time all three were together was when they appeared on the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” earlier this month. The third time will be at the half-marathon in Napa on Sunday.
“I’ve had a lot of miracles,” Otto says.
“It’s a miracle that I’m here sober. It’s a miracle that my wife stayed with me when I was being a jackass. ... It’s a miracle that I’m friends with the guy who hit me, and with my doctor – who never has a relationship with any of his patients, because 99 times out of a hundred, he’s delivering bad news.”
“The thing that’s the most startling and humbling about the whole experience, though, and the reason why I wouldn’t change anything, is I’ve gotten to see how many people love me, and how many people came to my aid and my family’s aid,” he says. “Generally, you see that at people’s funerals. I’ve gotten to see it while I’m alive.”
While training for the race, Dean Otto – with help from Will Huffman and Matt McGirt – raised $16,000 for spinal cord injury patients. After her Sept. 8 chat with the three men, Ellen DeGeneres kicked in another 20 grand. For details on his fundraising efforts: www.deanosback.com.