Houston man overcomes traumatic brain injury, relearned to walk, talk to become bodybuilder

At Level One Fitness Center in Third Ward, it's not hard to find people pushing themselves far past their comfort zone.

At least none perhaps more resilient and ready than Kel Mabatah.

More than seven years ago, 36-year-old Mabatah was left in a coma after suffering a traumatic brain injury. "They said I'd never walk again, talk again," Mabatah says.

While visiting his family home in Nigeria, a group of gunmen stormed inside, attacked, and beat him, leaving him for dead.

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"They fractured my skull by hitting me in the head several times with the brunt of the rifle," Mabatah recalls. "They stabbed me, knocked out some of my teeth. "

Doctors told his family he was lucky to have survived.

Mabatah says, "That basically I’d be a vegetable at best. But I wasn’t about to accept that." Before his injury, Mabatah was a standout tennis player who played at the pro level.

He'd undergone four risky brain surgeries, followed by years of rigorous therapy at Tirr Memorial Hermann, learning how to walk and talk all over again.

"I shouldn’t be here. I should be recovering the way I am," Mabatah said.

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A couple of years ago, his doctors proposed to him a new challenge. "They convinced me that I could do bodybuilding because they knew how competitive I was. They knew I was still taking care of my body," Mabatah says.

After that, he started working with pro bodybuilder Ken Jones to train six days a week while following a strict diet.

"He works very hard and if he can’t do it he’s going to push and find a way. Different grips that we have to alter due to his injury," Jones said.

The fact he's competing in a premier bodybuilding show might be nothing short of a miracle. His remarkable progress surprised everyone. He's an inspiration, even to his trainer.

"He motivates me. He calls me, ‘Hey you coming today?' It'd be days where I have things going on, and I'd just have to drop it and say ‘Yeah, let’s go’, because I know how serious he takes it and what he did to get there," says Jones


Mabatah has already had success in previous bodybuilding shows. On Saturday, he'll compete in his biggest show yet, the Natural Atlas Championship in Stafford.

When he's not training his body or competing, he stays busy with his "Kel Strong" Foundation, providing financial assistance to others recovering from traumatic injuries who don't have no insurance.

Stepping back on the stage this weekend, it's not all about the trophy for Mabatah. He knows he's already won by beating the odds, standing tall, and inspiring just about everyone who hears his story.

You can watch the Natural Atlas Championship live stream here.

For more information on the ‘Kel Strong’ Foundation, click here.