CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If this story weren't true, even the people involved might not believe it.
There's Dean Otto, avid runner and triathlete, hit by a pickup while riding his bike last September. The trauma to his spine was so severe that when he arrived at the hospital, he was paralyzed from the waist down.
There's Matt McGirt, the neurosurgeon, who put Otto's spine together with a foot of titanium and tried to let him know his plans to run again might be overly optimistic.
And there's Will Huffman, the driver of the pickup, who was found at fault. He worried he might never find forgiveness — from Otto, or himself.
Sunday, their story was to come to a climax: On the one-year anniversary of the accident, Otto was to join the man who broke him and the surgeon who put him back together in Napa, Calif., to run a half marathon (that's 13.1 miles).
Side by side by side.
"Look at this friendship that you all have," Ellen DeGeneres told Otto, 52, McGirt, 42, and Huffman, 27, on her daytime talk show earlier this month. "This is amazing."
But there's one aspect of the story that was overlooked by Ellen, and by others who have chronicled their relationship, and that's this: If Dean Otto had been in this crash before he got sober, it wouldn't have as happy an ending.
Here's what happened on Sept. 24, 2016:
Otto, an avid runner and budding triathlete, was nursing a minor but nagging hamstring injury. So he decided to go easy on it that Saturday morning by getting on the bike instead of running. Since he was heading out before sunrise — around 6 a.m. — he pulled on reflective socks, put a reflective vest with flashing LED lights over his jersey, and powered up a light that was mounted under the seat of his Scott road bike.
As he set out, something just felt … off. It was extra-dark because of the new moon, and it was so humid there was condensation on the handlebars. In fact, he felt uneasy enough that he turned back toward home after reaching the top of Arbor Way at Sharon Lane. But he changed his mind again, made another U-turn, and set out onto Sharon, then Providence, toward uptown.
Meanwhile, Will Huffman was making the turn off Old Providence Road onto Providence as he and an old college friend set out on the 175-mile drive from Charlotte to Virginia Tech, armed with tickets for their alma mater's noon game against East Carolina.
Huffman had his 2012 Ford F-150 in the right lane of the two northbound lanes on Providence. He says he was traveling below the speed limit, both hands on the wheel, and had the wipers on, because of condensation on the windshield. The wipers had just made a clearing pass when Otto's figure popped into view, Huffman says, less than 15 feet in front of his pickup. He slammed on the brakes but didn't have time to steer clear.
"I heard brakes, I felt the impact, and immediately, I was just pissed," Otto recalls. "I was like, 'Are you f — — — kidding me? I've got lights all over my bike, I'm in the middle of the lane, there's a whole 'nother lane over here. How the hell are you hitting me right now?'
"And then it was lights out."
If this had happened nine or 10 years ago, Otto says, he would have still been furious upon regaining consciousness — and may have stayed angry for a very long time.
"I would have harbored a ton of resentment over what happened to me. And I could have easily spiraled downward. I could have gotten addicted to painkillers. I would have been like, 'Hell, I've got a free pass, man.' I would have been a mess, frankly. Drinking, popping pain pills, isolating, withdrawing. Self-centered fear is the alcoholic's lair."
That's where Otto lived for a good chunk of his adult life.
He swears he never touched a drop until after he was done coaching his son's Pop Warner football games or his daughter's soccer practices, and limited his indulgences to the weekends, but otherwise, "from Friday at 5 o'clock till Sunday (night), I was gettin' after it.
"I had convinced myself that, look, if you're only drinking during the week, you don't have a problem," says Otto, a software salesman. "You're a successful guy, you're doing great. … But I was just a total d — — all week, because I wasn't drinking, and I was really hard to live with."
On Aug. 22, 2009, he passed out alone by the fire pit on his patio while watching Kyle Busch win the televised Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The next morning, he went for a run, then swung back by his house in the Foxcroft neighborhood near SouthPark to grab the family dog, Blue, to take her for a walk.
When they got back, the circle driveway was filled with cars belonging to his parents, his in-laws, his friends.
"My wife had had enough," Otto recalls of the intervention. "She basically said, 'You've got Door No. 1 and Door No. 2. Door No. 1's go to treatment and get help. Door No. 2 is get out.'"
'I STARTED TO HAVE FAITH'
He chose Door No. 1, entering a 16-week outpatient program.
As he progressed through recovery, people around him spent a lot of time talking about God, and how a strong faith could benefit him. Otto — who wasn't religious at all at the time — says he initially played along to appease them. Conversations about spirituality persisted, though, and he began to listen more actively. Eventually, he took to prayer.
"I started to have faith," he says, "then I started to see the results. I was being a nicer guy. My life was getting better. Pretty soon, I didn't think about drinking anymore."
The old Dean Otto, he says, would have responded to being hit by Huffman by hitting him with as big a lawsuit as possible.
But when the new Dean Otto regained consciousness on the side of Providence Road, he responded with a prayer.
God, he prayed, I don't know what you've got planned for me, but whatever it is is larger than I can process. It's all yours. I'm gonna give it to you, and trust that this plan is gonna work out.
"I knew, through my recovery, that resentment is awful. It sends more alcoholics back out to drink than anything else. I knew I had to get rid of that resentment immediately. So even though I was pissed when I was flying through the air, I woke up and pretty much forgave Will right on the spot."