July 9, 2003
Fort Worth Star Telegram
Even before a spinal cord injury changed his life, John Nichols was devoted to working out.
Classified as a quadriplegic after a water skiing accident in 1988, Nichols, 38, continued to exercise, using what little movement he began to regain in his shoulders and arms.
For Nichols, working out was a way to build strength, confidence and independence while dealing with a life-changing injury. He has built enough strength to perform the routine tasks most people take for granted.
It was only fitting, then, that Nichols became a founding member of the Neuro Fitness Foundation in Euless in 1999. The non-profit organization allows its 160 members with neurological disorders the ability to work out for free and learn about nutrition.
"Once you leave the rehabilitation setting and go back into the world, there are no real places to go work out," said Nichols, a 1983 graduate of L.D. Bell High School. "There is a lot of specialized equipment out there that someone designed here or someone designed there. I started studying what some of these other spinal cord rehab centers were doing and what they had."
Nichols, meanwhile, never left behind his devotion to hunting, fishing and the outdoors, and helps run two businesses he started with his father: a consignment boat and recreational vehicle shop, and the Pro Team Tournament Trail, a professional fishing organization based in Fort Worth.
Nichols' father, Jerry, competed in tournaments for several years, giving his son an early start on fishing. Nichols won his first boat at 15, and the two have won father-son bass fishing tournaments.
Most weekends during football season, Nichols would play on Friday and be on a lake the next morning to fish in tournaments.
On the football field, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Nichols was smaller than many of the players he faced as a defensive end. But he made plays.
He recovered a fumble against rival Trinity in a 1982 regional final and was named the defensive player of the game in the state championship against Beaumont Westbrook, a 21-10 loss at the Astrodome.
"Every time you looked up, you wondered if he was going to be big enough or fast enough," said former L.D. Bell coach Tim Edwards. "But he was the guy that was making the plays. If he didn't have a real big heart, he couldn't have made those big plays. "
Nichols graduated from Texas Tech in 1988 with a plan in place. He was going to continue fishing, maybe turn professional, and work in his father's moving business.
Two months later he was water skiing with some friends on Lake Whitney. An experienced skier, Nichols was gliding across the water barefoot.
"I felt pretty comfortable doing it," Nichols said. "We got out there about noon, and it probably wasn't an hour and half later that I had my accident."
Nichols' foot got caught in the water. "It happened so quick, and it was like somebody grabbed my ankles," he said. "At that point it was like a pop."
Nichols was going about 40 mph and shot under the water. His wetsuit had enough flotation to bring him back to the surface. He never lost consciousness, but quickly realized he could not move his arms and legs.
Another boater had a cell phone -- a rarity 15 years ago -- and his companions called an ambulance. Nichols took his first helicopter ride to Fort Worth's Harris Methodist Hospital.
Nichols broke two vertebrae and stretched his spinal cord. After battling infections the first few weeks after the accident, he had a surgery to fuse the two vertebrae together, the first of three surgeries over the next few years.
After six months, he could move his shoulders, sit up and move from his chair into a bed.
Today, Nichols can move his arms, but does not have a strong sense of touch or the ability to pinch. A brace helps him grasp objects, allowing him to dress, brush his teeth and do things many people take for granted.
He drives a specially-equipped truck, and another apparatus with knobs that fits under his palm allows him to type and dial the phone.
"My whole deal was, 'How am I going to become independent again?' " Nichols said. "It's hard when you are 23, you are released on life and then you have to depend on people. I didn't want anybody to help me with anything. One thing I think was helpful from fishing was the patience I learned. I channeled all my energy into working out."
Two years after his accident, Nichols moved to Galveston to participate in another rehabilitation program. Over the next few years he went through two more surgeries and worked out when he could.
He began to think about a workout center in the early 1990s, but could not come up with money needed to start one. After a third surgery, he moved back to Bedford in 1994, turning his parent's garage into a workout center.
A few years later, he began to talk about starting a center with people he worked out with at his house. They formed a board in 1998, and a year later the Neuro Fitness Foundation opened in Euless in a building once owned by former Bell football player Mike Janszen.
"He's why I'm here," said Kathi Davis, another founding member who has multiple sclerosis. "He's always had a smile. He has that drive you need. I saw he enjoyed life more than most people that walk around."
Nichols said the hardest part is raising money, but through the years they have received grants from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and the Colleyville Women's Club.
The foundation has one full-time employee, physical therapist technician Willie Phea, and several volunteers. Nichols said Phea is the reason the center runs so well. He hopes to expand in the next few years.
"I haven't been involved in the center as much as I need to be because I've been so involved with my tournament and my business," Nichols said. "This is just an incredible thing so many people can use and benefit from."
The John Nichols file
Then: Defensive end for L.D. Bell, 1981-1982
Now: Founding member and treasurer of Neuro Fitness Foundation in Euless.
Personal: Lives in Fort Worth ... 1983 Graduate of L.D. Bell High School ... President of Pro Team Tournament Fishing Trail ... owner Pro Team Marine in Fort Worth.
Career highlights: Defensive end on 1982 L.D. Bell football team that
went to state championship. ... Recovered key fumble against Trinity in
Class 5A Region I final ... Named defensive player of the game in state
title contest against Beaumont Westbrook.
Copyright © 2003, Fort Worth Star Telegram