By Chris O'Brien | March 18, 2021
OCALA, Fla. — Nick Stilwell was never supposed to be an adaptive athlete, but fate would see it differently.
The 37-year-old from Ocala was an avid athlete. Well over 6 feet tall, football and softball came naturally to him. He started golfing when he was about seven years old.
But his entire way of life changed on July 11, 2008, when he was 25 years old. He and a group of friends rented out a party bus to celebrate one of their birthdays in Orlando. While on State Road 408, the bus driver missed the exit. As Stilwell went to the front to let him know, the driver was creeping close to the edge of the road and swerved back to re-center the bus. Stilwell went flying.
“I lost my footing, stepped down on the first step to catch myself, fell down the steps and hit the door,” Stilwell said. “And before I could even think about getting up, I felt the door opening up behind me.”
Going about 80 miles per hour, the bus’ back wheels ran over Stilwell’s legs.
“I looked down on my legs, and the right one is literally ripped off,” he said. “The left one is crushed.”
A hospital nurse called Susan and John Stilwell, Nick Stilwell’s parents, not long after midnight.
“She said, ‘Your son’s been in a very serious accident, you need to get to the hospital right away. He will probably be losing a leg,’” Susan Stilwell said.
His leg was hanging by threads. I could see all the insides, the bones and everything,” Groeber said. “It was really horrific.
The pair wasn’t sure what to expect, but what awaited them in the hospital was more devastating than they could comprehend.
“When we saw him on the gurney with his bloody clothes on the floor . . . we didn’t know what to think,” Susan Stilwell said.
I looked down on my legs, and the right one is literally ripped off,” he said. “The left one is crushed.
Doctors had to amputate Nick Stilwell’s right leg.They kept his left leg for a year until chronic ankle pain forced him to make the difficult decision to have it amputated, too. But he said it was actually more relieving than it was difficult.
“It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
A double-leg amputee at 25 years old, Nick Stilwell thought his life was essentially over. He slipped into a deep depression and struggled to find his way back throughout rehab.
“I remember one day I woke up and I was just like, my mom was in the room as well, kind of like seeing how I was doing,” Nick Stilwell said. “And I picked up the brace and just just chucked it across the room and it almost hit her because I didn’t even know she was even over there.”
Susan Stilwell remembered the scene vividly.
“I went down there, and I said, ‘Nick, either you’re going to rehab or you and your dog are gonna have to find another place to live,’ and he threw a boot at me,” Susan Stilwell said. “Missed me by like that much (roughly an inch), but he got up and went.”
As the rehab process continued, Nick Stilwell began to try to find ways to play sports again, but he wasn’t sure it was even possible.
“I looked over and told him, ‘You will play again.’ It wasn’t a question,” John Stilwell said.
And eventually, he did play again. But he didn’t just play— he competed at an extremely high level. Over the last few years, Nick Stilwell has competed in the U.S. ParaLong Drive Cup, a national competition to see who can hit a golf ball the furthest.
He’s finished in the top three all three years he’s entered and won the event in 2019.
But as Nick Stilwell found his way all the way back to full health, he still felt like something was missing. He wanted to use his experience to help other people, not just himself. So, he and a Paralympian named Regas Woods created the Never Say Never Foundation to empower kids who have lost limbs and make sports more accessible to them.
“We want the kids to really come out of it feeling better about themselves,” Nick Stilwell said. “I severely care about these kids because I see myself in all of them; we’ve been through a lot.”
Insurance doesn’t deem athletic prosthetics, like running or golfing blades, “medically necessary.”
“If you have a walking leg they think that’s all you need, which it’s not true especially for amputees,” Nick Stilwell said. “You almost need a different leg for every different activity.”
So if an amputee wants to be an athlete, they have to pay out of pocket for a blade.
Nick Stilwell created his foundation to remove that obstacle, buying prosthetics and giving them to families for free.
“When you see a kid actually put on the blade for the first time and kind of realize, like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ they don’t want to take it off,” he said.
The foundation has now given out more than 100 running blades and even hosts a piratecamp every year for kids with limb differences.
Without Never Say Never, the family isn’t sure Nick Stilwell would have been able to emotionally recover.
“He basically has about 150 kids, and if they’re in a race for the first time, he gets there. He’s at the finish line, waiting for them,” Susan Stilwell said. “He’s happier now than before the accident, we can truly say that.”
As Nick Stilwell continues helping others, one question about his accident remained. When it happened, a man pulled off on the side of State Road 408 to help apply pressure to Nick Stilwell’s legs and then disappeared before the family could get his name.
“He was on the other side and saw it happen,” John Stilwell said.
“He ran over and tied his jacket around his leg,” Susan Stilwell said. “We don’t even know who he is. I wish we could find the guy.”
After digging through Florida Highway Patrol records and talking with law enforcement officers who were on the scene the night of the accident, WUFT wanted to grant Susan Stilwell’s wish.
The man’s name is Ric Groeber, a project manager living in Orlando who still remembers that fateful night vividly.
“His leg was hanging by threads. I could see all the insides, the bones and everything. It was really horrific,” Groeber said.
With Susan and John Stilwell wanting to meet Groeber, WUFT decided to stage a surprise. We posed him as a member of our production team.
“What would you say to him if he were in this room right now?” I asked.
“Just getting the name got me . . .” Susan Stilwell trailed off as she began to get emotional. “I mean, he saved his life. He would not be here if it weren’t for him and his quick actions.”
“I think that was a beautiful answer,” I said, “and I’m really glad you said it because . . . John, Susie, may I introduce you to Mr. Ric Groeber.”
You can see their reactions in this video:
“When I saw how visceral their emotions were and when they started crying, I couldn’t help but tear up myself,” Groeber said. “I didn’t even realize how much it meant to so many people.”
Without Groeber, Nick Stilwell might not be alive . . . and the Never Say Never Foundation may not exist.
I mean, (Ric) saved his life. (Nick) would not be here if it weren’t for him and his quick actions.
“It’s amazing to see what he’s done with his life and how he’s helping other people,” Groeber said. “I had no idea any of that would ever happen.”
After winning a national championship and launching a foundation, Nick Stilwell still reflects on his time in the hospital bed 13 years ago.
“I would tell that guy in the bed that everything is going to be okay, and it’s gonna be a wild ride so saddle up.”
A wild ride that still has so many chapters left to be written.
As for Groeber and the family, Susan Stilwell tells me he has been invited to Thanksgiving dinner later this year.
As for Nick Stilwell, his foundation is currently planning on hosting their annual pirate camp in October. If you want to sign up or donate, you can do so at neversayneverfoundation.org.