By Nicholas Worrell
As we go into Valentine’s weekend, where we give our love and commitment to our significant others, I wanted to share a story of a young man who has shown extraordinary love and commitment to his community and to young people across the United States. His gift is not roses or chocolates, but the gift of his story and the lessons he imparts.
Fletcher was a high-school athlete on the verge of entering college. He was fast, but not the fastest – so he developed moves that other guys didn’t have. He was strong but not the strongest – so he spent hour after hour in the gym developing his body. Time after time, Fletcher overcame obstacles and excelled, despite the odds, through sheer commitment.
Fletcher didn’t get the attention of the big colleges, but his combination of intensity, work ethic, and on-the-field flash landed him a football scholarship to attend Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee.
But all that hard work to play at the collegiate level was nothing compared to the challenges he would face next.
On September 10, 2009, as Fletcher was driving with a friend near his home, he was struck by an oncoming car driven by a distracted driver. Fletcher vaguely recalls the lights of the driver’s phone in her face before the horrific crash, which paralyzed him.
Last year, I had the privilege of meeting Fletcher during the NTSB’s Youth Open House and Transportation Education Day, an event aimed at teaching teens about safer driving practices and empowering them to become advocates for safe driving. Motor vehicle crashes remain the number one killer of teens – even more than the toll of cancer, drugs, and violence. In the last decade, more than 2,000 teens have died every year in such crashes.
Fletcher eagerly accepted our invitation to tell his story about the impact of distracted driving. As he told his story to the rapt teens in the audience, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how that same commitment to become a great athlete – no matter his size and other obstacles – quickly reemerged again after his tragic accident and found a focus on teen education. Fletcher had doubled down, pouring all that same intensity and commitment into youth education – and being in a wheelchair didn’t hinder him in the least.
Through his story, he reminded the audience that driving safely prevents needless tragedies. Although technology and teens go hand in hand these days, he urged teens to put down the phones and avoid distractions while driving. While his plans for athletic glory had been tragically cut short, he told teens that they can pursue their dreams – and not to take risks that might remove that option from their future. His powerful story is told in a video from AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign, which was produced with an ESPN team.
Fletcher lost the use of his lower body because another driver was not disciplined enough to put down a portable electronic device while driving. That driver, sadly, was never caught and convicted. Yet, as he talked to teens at our open house about the dangers of distracted driving, Fletcher smiled.
He smiled because he has a new purpose. He smiled because, although he lost the use of his lower body, his mental toughness has increased two-fold. He has a new goal in life that saves lives. He’s still in the game and he knows it.
So this Valentine’s day, I encourage you to think of Fletcher and give a gift to your fellow mankind: when you’re behind the wheel, focus only on the task of driving.
Nicholas Worrell is the Chief of the Safety Advocacy division