David Moreno jolted awake as his father’s company truck began to slide on 3 inches of loose gravel.
He grabbed the overhead handle and the vehicle headed for a field with a power box. Ernie Moreno quickly threw out his arm from the driver’s seat to protect his son while overcorrecting the wheel. The truck slammed into a pole and rolled seven times.
When the truck finally came to a stop, its wheels were in the air, its roof was smashed in and David’s back was broken. The Tulare Union senior couldn’t feel anything below his waist except the feeling that everything was on fire.
His mom arrived on the scene before anyone else.
“Her lights flashed on my legs and she thought I was dead,” David said.
David, 17, can no longer walk, but he is far from dead. In fact, he’s inspiring new life into many who have heard his story.
No exit, no quit
The last steps David took were to his uncle’s house after Day 1 of the Tulare County fair on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. His dad picked him up from there to take him home. Neither put on their seatbelts, even though David insists he almost always wears one.
The ride broke normalcy again when the Morenos were forced to take an alternate route home because their usual exit was closed. Traveling down an unlit portion of I Street, the Morenos never saw the unmarked loose gravel coming.
David, of course, was also blindsided by his paralysis. But as doctors told him he would never walk again, he never lost a proverbial step in life.
His hospital stays lasted a total of only three weeks. After surprising Tulare Union students and faculty with his quick return to school, Redskin boys soccer coach Mike Shaffer invited him back onto the team.
“This is the attitude that he has. He said, ‘I’ll do my best. I’m not sure how I’m going to be,’ ” Shaffer recalled. “He’s thinking physically, like he’s going to come out and play. I told him, ‘I want you out there regardless.’ His face lit up.”
David was the only player to make the team before tryouts began. He plays a pivotal role, even from the sidelines.
After suffering his life-changing accident, he has regularly provided life-changing moments for others.
Refusing to crumble
David asked the Tulare Union principal for a chance to show the fruits of his hard work. He left the school’s staff crying and applauding after crawling 10 yards at a faculty meeting. He then repeated the performance in front of the boys and girls soccer teams.
“I got a response from [the girls] coach about how that moment has changed their way they view life — the way that they think and the way that they practice,” Shaffer said. “He doesn’t realize how powerful he is as far as the way he’s affecting others. It’s all because of his attitude and his perseverance.”
David’s next big moment came after a loss when Shaffer asked him to address the team. He spent that night and the following morning writing a heartfelt speech. When he finally spoke, his audience did more than listen — they moved to action.
“My challenges are different than yours,” David said, according to Shaffer. “I’m just trying to move my leg. Your challenge is you need to communicate more; you need to move better off the ball. It doesn’t matter what our challenges are. We all have goals and we need to work 100 percent. I’m working 100 percent every day just to try to walk. Sometimes you guys get lazy on that field. That hurts me.”
“It put them in check because they realize it. Half my team, including myself, broke down. He put us all in check.”
The Redskins vocalize their goals before every game. Most of the players regularly dedicate the contest to David. Tulare Union began the season 8-2-1 but lost the next nine contests, including seven East Yosemite League games.
The circumstances bring new meaning to the sports cliché of overcoming adversity.
“A lot of teams crumble when that happens,” Shafer said. “The surprising thing for our team is we are the tightest we’ve ever been right now. Our guys get along so well. They fight every game, win or lose. That stems from David.”
David moved his team once more Friday night as the team celebrated Senior Night during its last home game of the season.
Carrying on the tradition of starting every senior, Shaffer penciled David’s name into the starting lineup. David approved the decision ahead of time, but the rest of the team did not find out until the lineup was announced during pre-game warm-ups.
David was wheeled to midfield and lifted out of his chair onto the ground. Porterville deliberately kicked the ball out of bounds after the opening whistle and the Redskins called for a substitution. Both teams lined up facing each other to create a tunnel as the Tulare Union coaches carried their tearful captain off the field.
Once back in his wheelchair, players from both teams came over to shake his hand, give him hugs and share words of encouragement.
“It felt good to be back on that field again,” David said. “I wanted to be out here with them and still support my team and do everything I can to show them love and watch them play my sport that I loved playing and inspire them and motivate them to keep pushing forward.”
David admits it’s hard to avoid playing the “what if” game.
What if his normal exit was open?
What if he and his dad went home another way?
What if he went home with someone else — or stayed the night at a friend’s house?
What if he didn’t go to the fair at all?
One of those “what ifs” is especially frightening. What if he was wearing his seatbelt?
While seatbelts almost always improve a passenger’s safety during a collision, David feels that he was actually lucky he forgot to put it on this one time. He thinks forgetting to wear his seatbelt saved his life.
“If we would have had our seatbelts on, we would have died,” Moreno said. “The whole top of the truck is smashed. Think about it. With a seatbelt on, you’re in place and the truck is smashed in from the top and would have smooshed us.”
The Redskins refer to him as their lucky charm.
It’s this ability to look at what he has and not at what he lost that helps David push forward in life so ferociously.
One game David refuses to play is the blame game — at least not with his dad.
He does not hold Ernie, the driver who survived unharmed, responsible for the accident because he knows it was exactly that — an accident. But no matter what his son tells him, the regrettable situation is one that would weigh heavily on any father.
“To this day I still tell him when he looks at me that it’s not his fault and to not feel guilt or responsible because it was just an accident,” David said. “He knows it was an accident, but at times I feel he feels a lot of responsibility for what happened to me.”
Modern technology allows David to drive with hand controls, but he may never be able to get in a car without thinking about what happened on that road.
As such, he will never forget his first car ride after the accident during a 12-hour home visit from the hospital — a ride that took him right by the spot where his life changed forever.
“It was weird,” David said. “It kind of scared me a little bit. Passing through that road brought back the memories from that accident. I saw it all again, how it all happened. It was hard. I’m not going to lie. I got tears in my eyes. I try not to think about it, but it still pops up in my head.”
Driving is just one of many activities David can still do without the use of his legs. After Friday’s soccer game, he was off to play sled hockey, Children’s Hospital’s newest adaptive sports clinic. He also enjoys rock climbing.
Keeping active is important to keep him pushing forward.
“If I wasn’t very athletic, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now,” David said. “I’d be at home locked in my room or something. Being able to still have some athletic energy, I’m able to still go out and have fun with my friends and my family, meet new people and compete in new sports.”
No amount of activity, however, can completely erase the pain of losing the ability to walk.
“Nobody else out here [on the soccer field] can say they know what it’s like to be paralyzed or to be in a wheelchair,” David said. “They don’t know how it feels and the feelings you get inside from watching others do other things that you can’t. I’ve had times where it gets hard. I want to do something, but there is no way that I can do it. I see someone doing something and it reminds me of when I used to it.”
That feeling is what drives him to work hard at his therapy. His diagnosis tells him he will never walk again, but he still keeps that as his ultimate goal. Now that he can crawl, the next step is building enough strength to stand.
“He’s a strong person mentally and physically,” Shaffer said. “I think he sees it as a challenge. Athletes like to rise to the occasion. He has that never say die attitude. He was told he’s never going to walk and he’s out to prove them wrong.”
Shaffer may have helped carry David off the field Friday night, but it’s clear that David is helping carry Shaffer and many others to a new outlook on life.