HOUSTON - The lives of two young men from Houston were changed forever almost two decades apart because of car crashes.
They met through TIRR Memorial Hermann. Now, they've joined forces to build one of the strongest wheelchair rugby teams in the world.
Daniel Ortiz is a powerhouse on the USA Wheelchair Rugby Team, recently getting to play in the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama.
We first met up with Daniel when he was trying out for the team. At first, he didn't want to learn how to play rugby in a wheelchair.
"I was like, you’re crazy, I'm not doing that. They brought the chair and everything, and I was like, I'm not doing it. Then later on, I was eventually at the gym working out and our head coach at the time saw me working out and he was like, 'You should come try it'. I was like, I've already heard this before," reflects Daniel.
Daniel's dad, as well as Coach Steve Kearley, kept encouraging him! He was still healing from a horrific accident in 2015. He witnessed a wreck. He was a good Samaritan who quickly pulled over to help but got rear-ended by another vehicle.
"I broke my neck on my quadriplegic C5 - C6 incomplete. So that's like the medical term for it," explains Daniel.
Daniel and Coach Kearley have a lot in common. He also broke his neck in a devastating car crash.
"I was injured in 1988, my senior year of high school, out joyriding with some friends. We ended up flipping a car into a big bayou and I broke my neck. I have a complete C6 spinal cord injury," states Steve.
He says he went to the best rehab in the country at TIRR Memorial Hermann, where they introduced him to the world of adaptive sports.
"I worked really hard! I ended up making the US national team. I was in the documentary ‘Murderball’ as part of the US team competing overseas, and it's been a real honor. I got two medals, and I'm proud of it. This is the next part of this journey called life," says a smiling Steve. Plus, he has a full-time job and a loving family.
Now as the head coach of the team, he's an incredible mentor for Daniel. The rugby team is meaningful for both.
"Thinking about being injured - all that went away! I've played sports my whole life, so it gave me something to work towards to be better. Because anything I want to do, I want to be good at it. So, it gave me a reason to get into the gym and start working. And then being around the guys, they're all much older than me, but they taught me so much more, like independence-wise," says Daniel.
His coach loves working with him.
"He's strong. He's determined. He works hard. He's got a great team attitude, and I see a bright future for him," exclaims Steve.
The tie that binds them is TIRR Memorial Hermann. They both re-gained serious life skills at TIRR. Peggy Turner is the Adapted Sports Coordinator and has gotten to witness it. She helps transition patients from their darkest days to finding joy again.
"Neither one of these guys knew on the day of their injury that when they woke up that morning, that was the day their life would change forever. And thank goodness they're in Houston and had someplace like TIRR Memorial Hermann - top rehabilitation in the country and then to go on in the commitment to say, we believe it's important not just to get you back home, but to keep you living and then invest in the community adapted sports and recreation programs," says Peggy. Those programs tend to help entire families, since injuries affect loved ones, as well.