High school football: Travis Vendela's inspiring sacrifice in Iraq has the admiration of the Jordan Beetdiggers

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 7:00 p.m. MST

He surfaced to the crest of the bridge and saw what he described as a "refrigerator" buried in the far side. Aware of the threat, Vendela knew what was needed to ensure safety to the trailing soldiers.

"I told my driver just go drive over it," he said. "Knowing that we had just briefed about (risking injury), (the driver) didn't think twice, turned the vehicle and drove right over it."

Instantly, 300 pounds of explosives discharged beneath his feet. The blast lifted the Humvee 10 feet, ripped out the engine, and rotated the vehicle 90 degrees. While airborne, 40 pounds of molten copper seeped inside and severed Vendela's left leg. The copper superheated the barrel of his M4 rifle and lodged into his right knee. When a medic pulled him from the vehicle, his jaw was broken in 400 pieces, his pelvis blown to 90 degrees and his C3 and C5 spine were shattered.

He was dead.

Three times the medic revived Vendela before he gained consciousness one month later. During his recovery, he found comfort in his wife, a physical therapist, and nurse, who he describes as the only person capable of adjusting his pillows correctly. Never religious before the explosion, he was motivated to explore his faith.

"(The nurse's) name was Faith (and) that's the thing I never had any of," he said. "It just clicked all of a sudden. I had this girl who my wife thinks is my guardian angel at the place where I needed her the most at my lowest time in my life."

Refusing to let negativity dictate his life and cognizant his military career was over, Vendela returned to football undeterred by daily pain.

"I get all of this damage put on me and I don't end up dying — I'm here for a reason," he said "For me it was easy to see, I have this ability to take people and put them the right way."

His passion for influencing teenagers is encapsulated by tailback Clay Moss.

The junior, who has experienced a breakout season (977 yards and 20 touchdowns), explained the greater significance of playing as a tribute to his coach.

"It just shows what you can do," Moss said. "It's a big thing for me because I can go out and use my legs and do it for him."

When Vendela heard of Moss' sentiments Tuesday, the father of one was moved to tears.

"To hear him say that is the reason why I came here," he said. "To hear something like that and to see these kids have positive attitudes even through bad times vindicates why I came here. It means a lot that there are people willing to look past the fact that I don't have legs and I'm rolling around in a wheelchair.

"To be able to be on the sidelines and have every kid give that respect to me just means that my choice to pursue the Army instead of a game was the right choice. Knowing what happened to me I'd do it all over again — knowing that I'm going to lose my legs, I also know that I would be here. It's the purpose for me being here on earth and not losing my last breath in February of 2007."

Email: tphibbs@desnews.com Twitter: tphibbsami