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

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 11:51 p.m. MST

Jordan High's running backs coach Tra Vendela at practice Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, as they prepare top play Syracuse for the 5A title. Vendela is an Iraq war veteran who was injured while on duty and lost both of his legs.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SANDY — On Monday, Jordan High running backs coach Travis "Tra" Vendela arrived at the Jordan High football field for the first practice in preparation for Friday's 5A state championship game to the surprise of a snow-covered turf.

The field, cloaked in white powder, was cleared at midfield but remained blocked around the sidelines. Vendela, his play-sheet dangling from his keychain, needed passage. Quickly, several players grabbed shovels and began opening an entrance for Vendela's wheelchair.

In 2007, the 33-year-old Sheridan, Wyo., native, sustained injuries that ultimately cost him both of his legs when he sacrificed himself to preserve the safety of his troops while at war in Balad, Iraq.

"He motivates me all the time," receiver Nick West said. "Coming out here and showing he still has passion, keeping that drive — it's an inspiration to have him out here."

Despite his disability, Vendela has been a vital addition to the Beetdigger staff, coaching a position predicated on using one's legs. The 11-1 Beetdiggers lead the state in scoring and under Vendela's guidance, who is in his first year with the team, Jordan's rushing production has increased by 867 yards and 14 touchdowns from 2011.

"He means a lot. His perseverance in life in general has just been incredible," Jordan coach Eric Kjar said. "For the kids, I think it's a great example of how you have to approach life. You never know what's going to happen to you or what things are going to come your way. You're going to have to suck it up and do the best you can with whatever life throws at you."

As a high school junior in Texas, Vendela began receiving attention as a defensive back before relocating to Bountiful his senior year. Upon graduation, he verbally committed to Texas Tech but, uncomfortable with continuing his education, decided to join the U.S. Army in 1997.

"The idea was I'll go in for a few years and get a little bit more mature about the school thing," Vendela said. "Then come back out and see if I could get picked up as a walk-on."

Shortly thereafter, Vendela realized his fervor for the military and put a permanent hold on his football career.

After the third of his six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he was issued a 30-day leave to decompress. While visiting his cousin at the University of Wyoming, he met his future wife Tiffany, whom he proposed to on Christmas before his final mission.

On Feb. 7, 2007, Vendela, a senior NCO (non-commissioned officer) on a reconnaissance unit, received orders to establish a foothold on the bridge above the Tigris River for a battalion-sized attack (300 combat vehicles) in place of route clearance patrol.

"The next best thing is the reconnaissance element," Vendela explained. "They (told) us, 'You go in front of these armored tanks that can take anything in your little aluminum Humvee and drive over this bridge and tell me if it's clear.' "

Second in command, Vendela — normally in the rear — elected to operate in front after feeling that "something nasty is going to happen."

"I figured I had more deployments and more training that I could spot a threat and deal with it quicker," he said. "Since we had 300 combat vehicles behind me waiting, we couldn't get stuck on a bridge."

Vendela briefed his crew, stating "if we had anything that could keep anybody else from getting hurt — even if that meant we were going to get seriously injured or killed — we were going to do that."

Within moments of proceeding across the bridge, an IED (improvised explosive device) detonated as enemy troops fired tracer rounds and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). Without an ability to turn around, his only option was to take the Humvee forward.

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

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