David Vobora Gets a Fresh Start Giving Others a Fresh Start
By Anna Kuchment
Dallas Morning News
It’s just after sunrise, and David Vobora and Vanessa Cantú are salsa dancing. Their steps are slow and halting, like those of a middle-school boy and girl dancing together for the first time.
Cantú moves her small frame carefully, because a car accident injured her spinal cord when she was 16. Vobora leads her gently, belying his background as an NFL linebacker.
Vobora’s search for a new identity after leaving professional football is what brought the two together.
Last January, Vobora was back in the limelight, offering commentary on TV and radio as his former team, the Seattle Seahawks, prepared to meet the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
After retiring from the Seahawks in 2012, Vobora took time to decide what to do next. Playing for the NFL had taken its toll. At 28, he knew the highs of making tackles before cheering crowds and performing at his physical best. He also knew the low of giving a team his all, only to have a shoulder injury abruptly end his career.
Like other former players, Vobora thought about coaching college football or applying for a front-office job with a professional team. But neither seemed satisfying.
Eventually, he found a way to draw on both his triumphs and disappointments to help others find grit, resilience and determination within themselves.
Last April, after moving to Dallas with his wife and baby daughter, Vobora opened the Performance Vault, a gym that trains NFL-bound players and disabled athletes under one roof.
For months, Vobora trained disabled athletes on a volunteer basis. Then, in September, he started the Adaptive Training Foundation, a nonprofit that offers free-of-charge personal training to clients recovering from traumatic injuries. He also is developing a curriculum and certification program to prepare others to do similar work.
Vobora, who comes from a family of U.S. Marines, initially focused on helping wounded veterans. Besides Cantú, most of his foundation’s clients have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I had this vision for what it looks like for veterans and transitioning athletes helping each other,” said Vobora, referring to athletes leaving their playing days behind.
“It’s a phase of life where we deal with the same kinds of problems. We’re used to running in front of thousands of fans, or running into battle and giving orders, and suddenly life looks a little different when you’re struggling to find a job or watching football from the couch. “What does that do to the meaning of a man?”
Since then, Vobora’s plans have expanded to include clients with many different injuries. His goal is to bring athletic excellence to those who thought they’d have to leave it behind.
Figuring it out
Cantú, 31, met Vobora last summer at a competition organized by the gym CrossFit. Mutual acquaintances introduced them.
She liked that Vobora wasn’t afraid to work with her.
“You could tell that if he didn’t know how to do something, he’d figure it out,” she said. “He’s always doing something different and thinking outside the box.”
Vobora came up with the idea of salsa dancing as a way to help Cantú move more quickly and spontaneously. He wanted to get her away from the stiff walking pattern she was used to and to engage nerves and muscles that might have been dormant since her injury.
After their dance, Vobora helped Cantú onto the gym’s HiTrainer, a treadmill-like machine that many pro athletes use to build endurance. Unlike a treadmill, the HiTrainer has no motor, so athletes must propel the belt with their own muscles. As they move, the machine measures their power, speed and balance.
Vobora called over three athletes to help Cantú move the belt. Soon, she was walking at top speed, holding the side railings for support, as four beefy men crouched behind her and paddled the belt with their hands to keep it moving.
Vobora watched intently, making second-by-second adjustments to Cantú’s pace and rhythm, assessing how fast she could go and how much she could do on her own.
“Think about pushing out the back, OK?” he coached. “All right, let’s pick it up: one, two, one, two, one, two.”
The gym’s adaptive athletes use most of the same gym equipment as everyone else. “I consider these guys able-bodied,” says Vobora. “I try to do the same training for them that I would do for myself or any top athlete and just find a safer or easier way to create the movement.”
Cantú says Vobora has helped her push past what she had thought were her physical limits. Since she began visiting Performance Vault once a week in August, she has graduated from metal crutches to a cane and gained muscle in her legs, she says. The other day, she surprised a friend by bending down to pick up her 2-year-old daughter unassisted.
Vobora runs Performance Vault with Jonny Wright, a fitness coach who directs the gym’s elite training program while Vobora focuses increasingly on the foundation.
Their roster of for-profit clients numbers around 20 top high school, college, professional and pre-professional athletes who pay around $150 an hour for one-on-one sessions.
The gym also does additional work with professional and pre-professional teams, including prepping college football players for the NFL Combine in February.
On another recent morning, Brian Aft, 26, a Marine corporal who lost both legs in Afghanistan in 2011, was doing shoulder presses.
In October, Aft was rolling out to his truck in a wheelchair after buying a drink at Jamba Juice, when he heard a man’s voice shouting, “Hey! Hey, dude!”
He looked around. “This giant guy’s running on over,” remembered Aft. “He’s just like, ‘Hey, man. What happened, dude?’ And I said, ‘Afghanistan, man.’”
Vobora handed him his card and asked Aft to stop by the gym. Aft has been coming five days a week ever since.
With Aft, Vobora’s main challenge lay in figuring out how to give him a vigorous workout. They started off doing wheelbarrow races, with Vobora holding Aft by the hips.
But then a new idea struck: Vobora helped Aft strap into a harness attached to a ceiling rail that supports people with injuries as they walk. Only Aft would have to use the device, known as the Solo-Step, upside down.
That morning, Aft executed a series of lightning-fast sprints on his hands — back and forth, back and forth across the gym floor. As he approached one end of the gym, he swung his hips around and ran back in the opposite direction.
It made him feel like a cheetah sprinting, he said.
Vobora’s own life has not been without challenges.
He grew up in Eugene, Ore., and attended the University of Idaho. In 2008, the St. Louis Rams picked him last in the draft — a slot known as “Mr. Irrelevant,” because last picks often fail to make their team’s roster. But Vobora went on to play 34 games as a linebacker with the Rams.
Early in his career, Vobora failed a drug test and received a four-game suspension.
He had used a supplement without realizing it contained a banned substance.
Accustomed to being cheered and celebrated, Vobora suddenly began getting hate mail.
He sued the drug maker for failing to disclose its ingredients and won a settlement for $5.4 million in lost income and other damages. (He says he hasn’t seen a dime of the money.)
His good name restored, Vobora went back to playing with the Rams and then signed with the Seahawks in 2011.
But he soon suffered a series of shoulder injuries. He beat the first one, but the second injury required surgery, and he moved to San Clemente, Calif., with his wife, Sarah, to recuperate. He spent the first several months training hard to get back to the game.
“Six or eight months into the process, I got a call from a team that was interested, but I had a gut feeling that I shouldn’t go back,” he said. “In the NFL, you can’t be on the fence.”
That’s when he made the difficult decision to retire. He spent the next year surfing and soul searching. He grew his hair long. The idea of starting his own business began to germinate.
In August 2013, Vobora, Sarah and their newborn daughter, Elealeh, moved to Dallas to be closer to Sarah’s family.
The move brings the couple full circle.
David met Sarah in Dallas in 2011 after an ice storm left him stranded at the airport. There were no flights and no taxis, so a friend of Vobora’s called Sarah to ask if she could give him a ride.
“She came to the airport at some ungodly hour, and I remember seeing her, what she was wearing, and everything kind of changed in that moment,” he says.
While Vobora misses surfing, he likes Dallas’ business climate, the way the city honors veterans, its love of football and the ease with which he has been able to forge friendships.
“The networking is special here,” says Vobora. “I don’t know that I’ve ever lived where people are so genuine.”
Back in his windowless office, Vobora is surrounded by symbols of his new life. An enormous American flag covers the back wall; a surfing poster decorates a side wall, and a passage from Corinthians is taped above his desk: “And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”
Nearby lies the mission statement for his foundation, neatly handwritten on an easel-sized pad of yellow lined paper: “To restore hope through movement to those with physical impairment.”
It’s been an exhilarating retirement.
“I come here at 4:30 a.m.,” he says of the gym. “I’ll be driving down the tollway, and I’ll just start chuckling, because I’m genuinely excited about what the day is going to bring.”