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Brooks: Ten Years Later, Hessler’s Strides Remarkable

Oct 17, 2013

BOULDER – It has been 10 often excruciating and uncertain years since he could bring himself to utter these words, but John Hessler now believes he can say them with more certainty than he might ever have dreamed:

“I am back in control of things . . . I’m feeling like my old self.”

There are, of course, caveats. A person does not endure the physical, mental and emotional trauma that Hessler experienced 10 years ago Saturday and breeze back into normalcy. But Hessler, with lots and lots of help and equal amounts of determination, has battled – certainly with more bouts to come.

On Oct. 19, 2003, the former Colorado quarterback was driving on Interstate 76 when a Chevy Blazer sideswiped his Honda Accord, sending it across the median and into the path of an oncoming pickup truck.

John Hessler (7) came off the bench to lead Colorado to a 29-21 upset over No. 3 Texas A&M in 1995.

The Blazer’s driver and his passenger fled and were never identified. Hessler was left severely injured, slumped over and unable to breath until a passer-by crawled into the wreckage and lifted Hessler’s head, opening his air passage and allowing Hessler to resume breathing.

Hessler, then 29, was teaching seventh-grade social studies at a Brighton middle school (Vikan) and assisting the football team at Regis High School. With the accident, his world went haywire. He was in coma for 33 days. A titanium plate was implanted in his skull. His playing weight of nearly 200 pounds eventually dropped to 143.

Hessler had to learn how to walk again, how to prepare himself for daily chores. He fought depression. Things are better now, he said: “The last couple of years have been good for me. But just after accident, it was as slow as can be . . . there were rough patches – lots of them.”

Like anyone, Hessler says he “loves getting compliments.” Last month, I saw him for the first time in a year or more at a CU football practice where several dozen former players attended. He was markedly improved, and when I told him so, he beamed.

“It’s so good to hear people say that,” he said. “And I hear it all the time, so there must be something to it.”

There is, but his journey has been difficult and complicated. Initial help from his family and the CU family helped him cope. Former Buffs skier Gary Gisle introduced Hessler to hippotherapy, which features horseback riding as a tool for physical and emotional therapy.   

“I believe it was instrumental,” Hessler said. “People were working with me week in and out, and it instilled confidence in me. Helped with my footwork and gait, things like that. I wasn’t well at being in a street by myself . . . so they would take me into a field and have me walk to a fence – just to get me used to being in an open space, like an intersection.

“At first, I would sit down and cry my ass off. I was afraid of falling or whatever might have happened. It took a few months to get past that and now I don’t remember being that way.”

Hessler feels “really lucky and blessed to have people step into my life that have.” Former Buffs coach Bill McCartney, who recruited Hessler from Brighton; Dave Plati, CU’s director of athletic media relations; and numerous others looked in on Hessler and provided for him. He said his last CU coach, Rick Neuheisel, “has been a super blessing . . . he took time out of his schedule to come see me and he flew me to wherever he was coaching (Washington, Baltimore/NFL, UCLA). He’s done a lot of things for me and allowed me to meet a lot of cool people.”

John Hessler credits many in helping his healing process, including his former head coach at CU, Rick Neuheisel.

Hessler now gets around without the assistance of a walker, a step he now calls the roughest stage of his rehabilitation. His wife of 31/2 years, Sarah, was his physical therapist and “when she got me as patient,” Hessler recalled, “she used to ask me if I was using (the walker). I said, ‘Of course not.’

“Then she’d leave, I’d go and get it. When she found out, she took it to her car and I never used it again. When I first started walking, I’d hold on to her. She was my walker, she guided me. Slowly and surely, we ended that. She’d just hold my hand (for stability). Now we hold hands as lovers.”

On Aug. 7, the Hesslers had a daughter, Leah Katherine, who will be baptized Saturday, forcing him to miss CU’s noon game against Charleston Southern. Hessler also has a son, Devin, 15.

Hessler plans to attend the Buffs’ Pac-12 bout with Arizona the following Saturday (Oct. 26). He was at CU’s game against Central Arkansas on Sept. 7, even making an on-field appearance and throwing (and completing) a pass to a fan at halftime.

“That was amazing to me – that I completed it,” he said. “I couldn’t do that when I was healthy.”

Ah, not entirely true. As a CU quarterback, Hessler – a professional baseball and football prospect – enjoyed more than one Saturday in the spotlight. A snapshot from his 1995 season:

  • Hessler replaces injured starter Koy Detmer during the first quarter against No. 3 Texas A&M and runs for two touchdowns and throws for 177 yards and one touchdown in CU’s 29-21 home win;
  • Then next weekend, in what most Buffs fans recall as the “asterisk” game against No. 10 Oklahoma and then-coach Howard Schnellenberger, Hessler threw a school-record five TD passes in a 38-17 win. Schnellenger had said with CU’s starting QB injured, he didn’t want an asterisk placed beside the ‘W’ if/when the Sooners won. “One of my favorite moments, without a doubt,” said Hessler;
  • He tied his school mark by throwing for five touchdowns in a 45-32 win at Oklahoma State;
  • In CU’s lopsided Cotton Bowl win (38-6) against Oregon, Hessler passed for two touchdowns;
  • Hessler finished the 1995 season with a school-record 20 TD passes and ranked second in the Big 12 Conference in total offense (204.2 yards a game). He was Division I-A’s No. 14-rated QB.

Hessler’s resume suggests he has something to share – and he’s doing that. He’s working with the quarterbacks and receivers as volunteer assistant at Mountain Range High School in Westminster. “I think some of them (players) know that I played quarterback at Colorado, but I don’t believe they know what kind of quarterback I was,” he said. “Were they even born then? Probably, but they were young, young kids.

 “I do think I’m helping them; I think they know what I’m talking about. I think they like me; they’ll come up to me just to chat. I’ll suggest something to the coaches and I think I’m appreciated by other coaches . . . I’m not as athletic as I used to be, but they know who I was.”

I asked him his long-term goals, and he answered, “I want to continue to get better. I want to be a good role model for kids through coaching. And one day I’d like to have a job where I earn money rather than getting it every month.”

He has fought supremely, overcome more than any of us can imagine, and is intent on carrying on. Don’t doubt his paycheck arriving.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU