Facing an auditorium filled with Brownwood High School students Wednesday morning, Tyson Dever established some ground rules as he maneuvered his wheelchair across the stage.

Don’t feel sorry for him or pity him, the 36-year-old Kingsland resident and professional motivational speaker told students. And it’s OK to laugh with him, Dever  assured students — a point he proved often as he alternated between humor, some of it self-deprecating, and a deadly serious message about distracted driving.

Dever, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a fiery three-vehicle crash near San Marcos on March 11, 2005, had a message that was as much about survival, overcoming adversity and challenging to students to set “extremely high goals,” as it was about distracted driving. 

Dever spoke at two morning assemblies at the high school, and at an afternoon assembly at Brownwood Middle School.

An organization called Teens in the Driver Seat (TDS) hosted the assemblies. TDS is “a peer-to-peer safety program that educates teens abut the top five dangers of teen driving — driving at night, speeding and street racing, distractions such as cell phones and teen passengers, not wearing a seat belt and alcohol/drug use,” a TDS press relates states.

Thanks to funding from the Texas Department of Transportation and State Farm, program resources and technical support are available at no cost to schools in Texas, the press release states.

The crash

Dever was an athlete and 22-year-old junior at Texas State University, planning to become a teacher and coach, when the crash happened.

Dever was driving to pick up his girlfriend for a trip to the beach over Spring Break. He activated his car’s left turn signal and stopped on a two-lane road to wait for oncoming traffic to clear, planning to turn left into the neighborhood where his girlfriend lived.

A fully loaded cement truck traveling nearly 70 mph hit Dever’s car from behind, literally running over the top of the car and pushing it into oncoming traffic, where it was struck by another vehicle.

Passersby pulled Dever from the flaming wreckage. Dever barely survived after sustaining injuries including a fractured vertebrae that left him unable to walk.

He returned to school in August to finish his degree, and has excelled at feats including wheelchair basketball and tournament fishing. Dever travels the nation as a motivational speaker.

Despite naysayers, Dever achieved his goal of becoming a coach. He coached for two years at a 6A Austin school.

Dever said he never learned what caused the driver of the cement truck to run over his car. “Whether he didn’t see me, his brakes failed, he’s texting and driving, maybe he’s just not paying attention, I don’t know,” Dever said. “And I never will know. He had the opportunity to tell me. He couldn’t. But clearly he’s distracted, or he wouldn’t have been going 70 through almost a school zone.” 

‘You’re not going to hurt my feelings’

If not for the wheelchair, there would be no indication in the Brownwood High School auditorium that the personable and casually dressed Dever had been involved in a life-altering accident 14 years ago.

“I know when you came in today, you saw a 36-year-old guy rolling around in a wheel chair, and you’re probably wondering, what happened?” Dever said as he began his presentation.

“And by the time you leave here today, you’re going to know exactly what happened to me. But I just want you guys to know, I do not take my situation very seriously. … it is OK to laugh with me. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. I’m not going to roll over your toes.

“ … Distracted driving — the second I said that, I saw the look on a lot of your faces. … you’re like, ‘oh, no.’  Everywhere we go it’s on TV it’s on billboards, it’s on social media. Everywhere you go, it’s distracted driving, distracted driving, distracted driving.” Dever said he was not going to “throw a bunch of stats and bullet points about distracted driving” at the students. But he told the students to remember “you’re looking at a 36-year-old guy who’s going to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair because of distracted driving, because somebody made the choice to be distracted behind the wheel. This right here is going to be my forever legs.”

‘You walk and I roll’

Dever asked students to name the first thing they noticed about him: his light blue pullover shirt? His shoes? “Wheelchair!” several students shouted.

“This wheelchair you see right here doesn’t define me,” Dever told students. “It doesn’t make decisions for me, it doesn’t eat for me, it doesn’t get me dressed. It does nothing for me. It gets me from point A to point B, which is what your legs do for you. My motto: you walk and I roll. That’s the only difference, right?

“If you’re sitting there thinking ‘I feel bad for him, I kind of feel sorry for him,’ stop. Quit. I hate pity. I do more from this chair than a lot of people do walking.”

Reverting to humor, Dever noted that many people aren’t sure how to react when they see a man in a wheelchair. “Immediately everybody looks down,” Dever said. “Somebody will just go ‘wheelchair’ and look down quickly.

“If you guys can’t tell already, I like to joke and have fun. A lot of places I go, people don’t know how to respond to a guy in a wheelchair. Do you talk to him? Do you shake his hand? Do you make eye contact? Is he contagious? They don’t know!”

Dever told of shopping in an HEB, wheeling himself along and pushing a cart, when he realized a woman was staring at him. As the two passed each other, Dever said, he looked up suddenly and said “boo!” Students laughed as he described the startled woman’s reaction.

‘There’s a car on fire’

Dever became serious as he used a remote control to play a video on a screen behind him. The video was “intense” and included recordings of 9-1-1 calls immediately after the crash, Dever told students.

He said students would hear a woman telling a dispatcher it was a fatality accident and would also hear his own voice on the recording as he fought for his life.

“There’s a car on fire, it looks like there’s a guy stuck in there!” one of the callers told a dispatcher.

Someone else shouted on the recording, “Hurry! Hurry! He’s on fire! Hurry!”

“Now I’m still 100 percent conscious,” Dever said, describing the accident. “I remember everything — I remember the sound, the smell of the fire and the heat. I remember bering trapped inside this burning car thinking, this might be the end of the road.”

Dever lost consciousness after passersby dragged him from the car — moments before it exploded into a fireball. A helicopter flew Dever to an Austin hospital, where awoke to learn he would never walk again.

‘That’s on me’

Dever took on the role of motivational speaker as the words “be the change” appeared on the screen.

“Are you who you want to be? Are you where you want to be?” Dever asked students.

People do not like change, and in an instant “my life was changed forever over something that wasn’t even my fault,” Dever said. “I can’t go back to that day and change what happened to me. Already tried. Can’t do it. But from that day forward, that’s on me. That’s my responsibility.”

There are three ways of looking at change, Dever said: ignore it (try to pretend it’s not happening); react to it (play the blame game); or meet it head on. 

Dever said he’s been asked what he’d change about his life if he could. Dever said he would not change the crash because “I believe I’m a lot better person today because of it. I’m accomplishing things in my life today that I never would’ve accomplished before, and I have more drive and motivation in my life today than I’ve ever had.”

Dever asked students if they’d like to be better at whatever they’re doing — make better grades, be a better brother, sister, son or daughter, be better at activities including band, choir, sports, ROTC or a job.

“The majority of people in this world fall in a category known as average,” Dever told students. “Spend an extra five or 10 minutes a day doing the little things in life that the majority of people in this world simply choose not to do.”

A lifestyle change   

Dever turned back to the topic of distracted driving.

“How many of you feel that distracted diving is a serious issue?” Dever asked students. “It is. It’s a serous topic. I’m going to ask you to be the change in regard to distracted driving.” It requires a lifestyle change, not just a change for a day or a week, Dever said.

“It’s going to take every single one of us doing our part to end this epidemic of distracted driving,” Dever told students.

“What I don’t want to happen is for any of you to have to go into a mediation room, sit at a long table with a bunch of attorneys … you have to look across the table at a guy in a wheelchair like myself, knowing that he’s in the chair because of a decision that you made to be distracted behind the wheel.

“And on the flip side of that, I don’t want any of you to have to attend a funeral or a memorial service because of a decision that you made to be distracted behind the wheel. Don’t be the cause, be the solution. It’s going to take all of us working together.”

‘May I always play on the square’

Everything people do in life is affected by their attitude, Dever told students. During the dark days of rehab, when he didn’t care if he lived or died, someone gave him a quote: “you can’t start over in life’s marathon. You often can’t change your situation or circumstance. However, you do have the privilege of changing your attitude.”

Dever concluded by reading from a laminated card his high school baseball coach gave Dever and Dever’s teammates. The card was the only item in Dever’s wallet that survived the fire after his crash. Dever read from the card:

“Dear God, help me be a good sport in this game of life. I don’t ask for an easy place in the lineup. Put me anywhere you need me. I only ask that I can give you 100 percent of everything I have. If all the hard drives seem to come my way, I thank you for the compliment.

“Help me to remember that you never send a player more trouble than he can handle with your help. And help me, Lord, to accept the bad breaks as part of the game. May I always play on the square no matter what others do. Help me study the book so I’ll know the rules.

“Finally, God, if the natural turn of events goes against me and I’m benched for sickness or old age, help me to accept that as part of the game, too. Keep me from whimpering that I was framed and that I got a raw deal. And when I finish the final inning, I ask for no laurels. All I want is to believe in my heart that I played as well as I could and that I didn’t let you down.”

‘Be that person’

“That’s my life on a card,” Dever told students. “You have the opportunity to make a difference in somebody’s life. It could be a classmate, brother or sister, family member, a community member.

“ … be that leader and difference maker in your school. Be that person everybody is looking up to. Set extremely high goals for yourself. Start today. The choices that you all make today can and will affect whether or not you’re able to reach your goals later in life.”