Tragedy to triumph -- Cal's Mike Tepper

Tragedy to triumph -- Cal's Mike Tepper
February 22, 2012, 1:47 am
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Kelly Suckow
CSNBayArea.com

Not many athletes can say they have been run down by a car. Mike Tepper can.

The former Cal offensive lineman and current Indianapolis Colt had his life changed forever June 26, 2005.

While walking home in the early hours of the morning with a former Cal volleyball player, Tepper encountered a car full of men making lewd comments at his female friend. After trying to avoid the car, the two found themselves directly in its pathway.

True to his offensive lineman training, Tepper's instinct was to protect those around him. The Cypress, California native used his six-foot-six-inch, 330-pound frame to push his friend out of harms way.

Tepper was not so lucky.

The front end of the car hit him, and his leg caught in its wheel well. After being dragged nearly 30 feet under the moving vehicle, Tepper managed to cling to a metal grid in the road and wrench himself from the cars underbelly.

Once free from the car, Tepper looked up, only to see the car heading towards him yet again. With his life flashing before his eyes, the 19-year-old braced for the second blow that came moments later.

A block away, an undercover Berkeley police officer called for assistance and took off in pursuit of the fleeing vehicle. The driver, John Ray Smith, was apprehended and returned to prison after being out on parole. Three individuals were charged, but it is the driver who is now serving life in prison as a third-strike offender.

People called Tepper a hero, but heroisms double-edged blade hit him hard. After four breaks to his lower leg, a shattered fibula and a torn shoulder muscle, doctors told Tepper he would never walk again, much less play football. His life took a downward spiral -- post-traumatic stress disorder, his parents divorce and depression hung a dark cloud over his next six months.

"Those six months," Tepper classified, "were the closest thing to a living Hell that I could have ever got to."

The lowest of the low came while sitting on the edge of Cal's Memorial Stadium one day. Feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, there were brief moments when he thought how easy it would be to put an end to it right there.

A dream of playing in the National Football League provided the incentive to approach life with a newly-fortified constitution. Tepper withdrew from school and began seeing a psychiatrist. Slowly, the weight that spurred suicidal thoughts began to lift, becoming instead, a source of strength for Tepper.

The left tackle rebounded in 2006, competing in all 13 of the Bears' contests. In 2007, he started all 13 games at right tackle.

A pectoral injury put him on the bench in 2008, but Tepper topped his Cal career off as a first-team All-Pac 10 selection thanks to a sixth year of eligibility granted from the NCAA.

In April of 2010, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys, only to be cut the day before the 53-man roster was finalized. No stranger to adversity, Tepper was prepared for his three-game stint with the UFL Sacramento Mountain Lions, and took it as an opportunity to keep his hands -- and eyes -- on the ball.

In January 2011, he signed a contract with the Colts. True to his story, last year's lockout denied Tepper from joining his team and forced him to remain in California, unsure of the next move.

With no obligations and sparse options, the 25-year-old packed his bags and moved to Colorado on a whim to become a certified rafting guide at Glenwood Adventure Company. Paddling down the raging rivers, squats with a boat trailer and daily runs up the trails in the area provided ample opportunities for him to stay in game shape.

When the lockout was lifted, Tepper was more than ready to move east for the Colts training camp. He survived the gauntlet of cuts and earned his first career start against the Titans on Oct. 30, 2011.

He finally made it.

Two major injuries, six collegiate seasons, two NFL teams, a lockout and a summer as a raft guide are only the bullet notes in Tepper's extraordinary story.

The scars that snake around his lower right leg remind him of how close he was to losing it all, and allow him to measure just how far he has come since that fateful night.

The best part is, his story is still being written. Life may have forced a few fumbles, but you havent seen the best of Mike Tepper yet.

"They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Tepper relayed with a knowing smile, "and that is definitely an aspect of my life that I can look back on, that made me a stronger individual."
Kelly Suckow is an intern with CSNBayArea.com. She is a former staff writer for the Daily Californian and is studying psychology in her senior year at Cal. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJSuckow.

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