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Local residents are coming together to support a Monticello native who was injured in a bull riding accident in Fort Worth, Texas, on Jan. 25.
Griffin Strode, 20, is now starting down the long road to recovery from a traumatic brain injury—but making such rapid progress that even his doctors are amazed.
His mom, Michele Strode, calls it "nothing short of a miracle."
His grandparents, Mahomet residents Ralph and Anita Specht, and aunt and uncle Allyssa and Andy Harpst, are among the network of supporters cheering him on toward recovery and lending support to the family.
Strode is a student in the agriculture program at Southern Arkansas University, where he's also a member of the rodeo team. He and some friends were in Texas for the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo late last month when they decided to do some bull riding at the popular local night spot Billy Bob's Texas.
Later Strode's friends told his parents that the bull he was riding went up on its hind legs and then came down hard on its front legs, at which point Strode lost his grip, his face made contact with the bull's head and he was knocked unconscious.
Bull riding accidents are particularly dangerous because bulls often turn on an injured rider. But according to witnesses, the bull "just turned around, looked at him and calmly walked out of the arena," Michele Strode said.
His family—Michele, dad Steve and brothers Greyson and Grant—were at home in Monticello when they got a phone call from one of Strode's friends, telling them about the accident.
Calls from his doctors followed that first anxious message. A CT scan revealed the extent of his injuries: he had fractured his skull, the orbits of both his eyes and his zygomatic arch (or cheekbones). He had also damaged his sinuses and there was swelling and bleeding in his brain. In addition, he had a pulmonary contusion from a blow to the chest.
He was in a drug-induced coma, his doctor said, warning that his condition was very serious.
"He told us we just needed to get there fast," his mother said.
His parents flew to Texas, arriving at Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth the next day. "He wasn't doing well at that point," Michele Strode said.
But Strode made rapid progress. Within four days, he was allowed to wake from sedation and was soon displaying his familiar, determined personality. Doctors were amazed by the strides he was making, his mother said.
She'd been aware of the risks associated with competitive bull riding. Strode began competing at county fairs as a teenager—a fact he kept from his family, at first.
"He hid it from us for awhile," Michele Strode said, knowing that his parents would think it was too dangerous. For awhile, the subject caused considerable friction at home.
But since he was determined to compete, the Strodes wanted to be sure that he was safe. They insisted he wear a helmet—something that's not required in collegiate competition—and had one custom-made for him last summer.
That helmet probably saved his life, doctors say.
Now, he's awake, alert and going through the intensive therapy used to return victims of traumatic brain injuries to their daily lives. He's a patient at Texas Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Worth, looking forward to his return to Monticello, where he'll continue outpatient therapy in Springfield.
His mom said that he's still working on issues like balance—his skull fracture went through his left ear canal, making him a little unsteady on his feet. But doctors say he should make a full recovery.
It was a bad injury, but it could've been worse. Doctors told his parents that many bull riding accidents lead to paralysis due to neck injuries. But Michele Strode believes that her son's history as a high-school wrestler taught him how to protect his neck at the moment of impact.
"He had an angel on his shoulder," she said. "It shows the power of prayer."
The family 's goal is for him to return to college next fall. He won't be able to compete as a bull rider again, but his rodeo coach made him an offer: return to the team next year as an assistant coach. It's something for Strode to look forward to.
The support from the rodeo community has been incredible, Michele Strode said. Teammates have made the four-hour drive to visit him in the hospital and the friends who were with him on the night of the accident stayed by his side for days.
Within a day of the accident his aunt Allyssa Harpst established a Facebook page, "Kickin' Up Prayers for Griff Strode," that now has nearly 2,000 "likes." She wanted a way to keep friends and family up-to-date on his condition, but has been amazed by the response from across the country.
"We're seeing people from all over the area, all over the United States, offering support," she said.
In the wake of accidents like Strode's, "people want to help," she said. "But they don't always know what they can do."
Strode's brothers, both students in Monticello schools, are staying with the Harpsts while their parents are in Texas. Their aunt said that they've been encouraged by the good news, as well as from the overwhelming support being offered to the family by neighbors in Mahomet and Monticello.
A benefit fund for the family has been established at First Mid-Illinois Bank and Trust. Donations can also be made online through links available on the Facebook page. The family also plans to raffle off a bow donated by PSE Archery this month, with tickets available at Hunter's Haven in Champaign, Pard's Western Shop in Urbana and Blue Ridge Backwoods in Monticello.
That support will be crucial as Strode's recovery continues, Allyssa Harpst said.
"The journey isn't over the day he gets home," she said.
Michele Strode said that she's gotten encouraging messages from "rodeo moms" across the country as word of the accident spread on Facebook.
Rodeo competitors are "such a tight-knit community," she said. "I can understand why he loves it so much."