The tree that changed my life.
Life can move along so smoothly that you don’t realize how easy you have it. Then, one choice, one reaction, one instant, and upheaval occurs. It’s like the magician who yanks a tablecloth from beneath the china placed on top of it, and the settings magically don’t move. But then another person tries, and all of those fragile items that seemed so unobtrusive shatter.
For me, it was a tree that yanked everything from underneath me. A tree changed my life.
At the age of 16, I did something totally normal, but it turned out to be a defining moment. In the summer of 1987 in Tomball, Texas, just before I entered my senior year in high school, I was hanging out for a bit after finishing football practice. I got in the back seat of my teammate’s car, along with two other friends.
On the drive home, my teammate, the driver, became impatient and decided to pass the slow-moving car in front of us on a two-lane road. He saw instantly that there was an oncoming car in that lane. The passenger next to him in the front seat reacted by grabbing the steering wheel. My teammate lost control and the car smashed into a tree with such force that the vehicle actually launched upward and hung in the tree, about five feet off the ground. The force of the impact propelled me under the driver’s seat. A large branch came loose and smashed the roof of the car, right above where I was stuffed.
Surprisingly, the three others in the car emerged with only minor injuries. The first responders, however, had to use the jaws of life to extract me from the car. Unconscious, I was rushed to the hospital.
My body was beaten, severely bruised, with a number of deep lacerations as a result of the trauma, but my youth and athletic physical condition helped me move along the road to recovery. However, I had remained unconscious for what the doctors called “an undetermined amount of time.” When I awoke, my mother was there, bawling her eyes out but holding but holding firmly to my hand as the doctor stitched up a gash on my arm.
But I didn’t recognize her. In fact, it took two weeks before my brain finally emerged from that cloud and recognized my mom.
I was lucky, very lucky, in the eyes of the people around me. I survived a horrific crash with no lingering effects. Well, almost none.
A plan unravels
That summer, I was pursuing a dream beyond high school football. And if you know anything about Texas, you know that high school football isn’t merely a game. It’s the shining beacon of Friday night lights, where a local kid becomes a hero, a name that is forever etched in the annals of the town’s proud heritage. I loved football, and it was part of my forthcoming plans, but just a part.
I had applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Unlike college admissions, West Point requires an accepted application and a nomination by a member of Congress. I planned to play football there and to then serve my country as an officer in the U.S. Army.
But then there was that tree. More specifically, there was the fact that no one knew how long I was unconscious. Here’s a tidbit you probably didn’t know about West Point admissions—and one that I learned all too soon. The Department of Defense Medical Review Board must approve all admissions to West Point. When my medical record was submitted and included the notation that I had been knocked “unconscious for an undetermined amount of time”, I received a mandatory medical disqualification. I was advised I had to wait two years from the incident before I could re-apply.
Two years is a lifetime to an active, driven teenager. I was derailed. I read and reread the letter that dashed my dreams, desperate to find hope.
I had planned to complete my senior year in high school with the crystal clear view of my future at West Point. But that was no longer an option. Sure, I could attend a college or university, but that didn’t appeal to me in the least. That alternative was an “out” that I wasn’t willing to explore.
I searched for options that would somehow bring me back around to my goal of attending West Point. I contacted their admissions counselor and said, “What would you do if you were me?”
He sensed both my determination and heartache. He told me I could attend a military junior college during my two-year wait. Ok, that’s a positive step. I drove with my parents to Marion Military Institute, a small junior college with only a few hundred cadets enrolled, just outside of Selma, Alabama. I was accepted and felt exuberant—and relieved—that I was making headway.
Paying my way
While I was a cadet at Marion, I had the opportunity to undertake training for the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps—ROTC. I showed up at boot camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky, ready to work. I reported for my medical exam and traditional buzz cut. Then, while I stood in the line at attention, the drill sergeant pulled me from the ranks. He looked at me curiously and commanded, “Why are you here? You have a medical disqualification.”
He explained that I would not be eligible for a ROTC scholarship, which meant I would have to pay the cost for the training. I also had to sign a waiver that the military would carry no risk for me. As I was not yet 18 at the time, I also had to have my parents’ signatures on the waiver.
Heartbroken once again, I called home and explained the latest obstacle.
My mother urged me to pack up and come home. My father barked through the receiver,
“Hang up the phone right now. Go back there and sign it. You made your decision to do this. Don’t you dare come home!”
I’ll be honest. I wanted to run away. I wanted to be back home and let my mother smother me with sympathy. But I also knew Dad was right.
So, I completed ROTC, with honors, and then returned to Marion Military Institute. My Professor of Military Science there told me that I could file for a waiver by the DoD Medical Review Board. If granted, the waiver would grant the ROTC scholarship, even though I had already completed the training. Another good omen!
In the fall of my second and final year there, I received another letter from the Department of Defense. My heart pounded when I saw the return address and I paused, fearing to see what was inside.
The letter advised me that the DoD approved my waiver. I was granted the ROTC scholarship and they back-dated it to cover my entire ROTC training expense. Soon after, I also received the nomination from both Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Congressman Joe Barton for appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
I was accepted, but had one more hurdle. West Point is a four-year institution. My Professor of Military Science (PMS) told me that, in spite of the fact that I would complete two years at the junior military academy, I would enter West Point as a freshman. Starting over this way also meant that I would have to resign my commission as 2nd Lieutenant that I had earned at Marion. With the commission, I could begin earning an income in the Reserve.
This decision prompted another call to my parents. Once again, Dad took the tough approach. “Son, didn’t you do all this to get into the military academy?”
He was right. I couldn’t back down. In truth, it wasn’t a hard decision. I told my PMS, “With all due respect, I’m going to elect to go to the U.S. Military Academy. I will resign my officer’s commission.”
Here’s the thing. I could have made other choices. I could have enrolled in a public or private college right after high school. I could have gone into the U.S. Army Reserve and major university after graduating from Marion. But, in my heart, those were compromises. And I also realized what I gained by my two-year detour from West Point.
I matured. Without the experience that boosted both my physical and mental toughness, I likely would have been among the many cadets who “step left”, failing at West Point.
Colliding with that tree in 1987 was an accident. But it started me on a path filled with purpose.