One base at a time

One base at a time
After two freak car wrecks and a 30-year battle with PTSD, alumnus triumphs

By Alayna DeMartini

Every time David Mellor smelled car exhaust, heard an engine rev, or heard tires squeal, he returned to a summer evening in 1981.

Mellor was 18 then. He was walking across a McDonald’s parking lot in Troy, Ohio, when a driver who had just pulled into the parking lot signaled to him to walk in front of her car. Then, she accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake. Catapulted into the air, Mellor landed against a brick wall, crushing his right leg. A surgeon told him he’d never walk normally again.

At the time, Mellor had just graduated from high school in Piqua, Ohio, north of Dayton, and was awaiting word from colleges for scholarships to play baseball. He was a pitcher and had a pipe dream to make it to Major Leagues. The accident put his plans for college on hold for a few years and tabled forever his plans of playing baseball.

For 2 ½ years, he walked on crutches and had a series of knee surgeries. Even harder to recover from were the flashbacks when he was awake, and the more frequent nightmares.

“I was scared to go to sleep,” he said.

Mellor, a 1987 graduate of CFAES, is the groundskeeper for the Boston Red Sox. (Photo: Billie Weiss)

Often, he yelled out in the middle of the night, waking in sweat-soaked sheets. Four years after the accident, when he entered college, he was so concerned his roommates would find out about his nightmares that he slept with the TV on. If he screamed during the night, he had an excuse: Someone on TV had yelled.  

Even during the day, if he smelled car exhaust or the scent of McDonald’s French fries, or if he heard a motor rev, he’d get sweaty, his face would turn red, his heart would race.  

“I didn’t know what was wrong, what was happening,” he said. “I thought it was a sign of weakness.”

Despite his injuries, both emotional and physical, he graduated from The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in turf management. It was a natural pick. He had always loved baseball and had grown up taking care of neighbors’ lawns. Not long after he graduated, the Milwaukee Brewers hired him as a groundskeeper.

On a fall afternoon in 1995, 14 years after the car accident in Troy, Mellor was raking in left field of the Brewers’ stadium when a car drove onto the field and directly toward him.

Both hands raised, he yelled for the driver to stop. Instead the mentally ill woman behind the wheel smiled widely, then sped up. Mellor hit the windshield and ended up against a stadium wall. After driving a lap around the field, the woman returned at full speed. He never expected to survive. But swerving to miss him, she slammed on the brakes and stopped just beside him. Another car accident, this time on a baseball field of all places. Mellor couldn’t quite believe it. 

“It wasn’t a question of if I was going to have a nightmare. It was a question of how many.”David Mellor

After the first accident, he had 15 knee surgeries; after the second, his right knee had to be replaced. He was in chronic pain, and the nightmares intensified. Sometimes he drank to help him sleep.

“I knew the sun was going down, I was going to have a nightmare. It wasn’t a question of if I was going to have a nightmare. It was a question of how many,” he said.

In some, the woman waved as she drove toward him. He felt as if his feet were cemented in place, as if he couldn’t move as he watched the driver staring at him from her seat. Even during the day, he sometimes felt the same way—like he couldn’t move, like he was trapped.

On a rare night, he’d get five hours of sleep. More often, it was just two to three. One night, his physical and emotional anguish reached a boiling point and led him to a grim thought: Maybe if he didn’t wake up the next day, it might be easier, for his wife, for their two daughters.

So caught up in his own pain, he felt he had let them down. At times, he opened up to his wife about the physical pain, but never the emotional pain. That he held in, too embarrassed about what she would think.  

“I was worried if I didn’t explain it right, she might leave me. It might put a wedge in our relationship,” he said.

That night, he prayed for himself and for his family.

Drago sits in Fenway Park's diamond beside a copy of Mellor's latest book, One Base at a Time. (Photo: Mellor)

In the late summer of 2010, Mellor was in the waiting room of an acupuncturist when he picked up a magazine and began reading an article on post-traumatic stress disorder. Everything he read reminded him of what he had experienced for the past 29 years—ever since the day of his first accident. He wiped away tears.

“It scared the heck out of me, but it gave me hope,” he said.

Soon after, he was diagnosed with PTSD and would begin counseling to unravel the years of unspent fear and anxiety, of regrets and guilt for being so distant to his wife and daughters.

Eventually, the nightmares went away. It’s not surprising that Mellor remembers Feb. 25, 2011, the day he slept for seven hours straight for the first time in nearly three decades. Then, that began happening regularly.

Mellor attributes a significant part of his recovery to the help of his service dog, Drago, a German shepherd, who would stay by him even when he slept. Born in Slovakia, Drago means “precious” in Slovak.

Whenever Mellor experienced nightmares, Drago jumped onto the bed and put his paws on Mellor’s chest, waking Mellor and calming him. Even now if Drago senses that Mellor is anxious, he puts his front legs on Mellor’s lap and his head into Mellor’s chest to distract him and calm his thoughts.

Now a groundskeeper for the Boston Red Sox, Mellor, 56, has built a reputation of creating intricate mowing patterns, mostly of team logos, on athletic turf. A author of two books about lawns and mowing techniques, he recently wrote a book detailing his struggle with PTSD: One Base at a Time: How I Survived PTSD and Found My Field of Dreams.

So many times it would have been easy for him to give up entirely, never leave the house for fear of injuring his leg again, never see friends, date, go to college, work. It would have been easy to just withdraw.

But Mellor was used to being thrown curveballs, and he was competitive by nature.  

“I turned each challenge into a game,” he said. “Even just getting up and walking across the room, I considered a contest to be won.”

After 45 surgeries and three decades of struggling, untreated, with PTSD, Mellor considers the day he was struck by the car in Troy to be the luckiest day of his life. The luckiest? Had he not had the first accident, he likely would not have met his wife, Denise, who was introduced to him through a blind date in their hometown. He would have been away at college, not home, going through surgeries.

And without that accident as well as the second one, he would not be so determined to let others know what he has discovered: That after years of holding in his pain, suffering in silence, he finally reached out.