On a warm, summer evening in July, Luke Griffith was doing what he loved.
In a packed arena on the third night of the Ionia Free Fair on July 21, Luke was dressed from head to toe in his cowboy apparel, opening and closing chute gates for bull riders during the Great Lakes Invitational Bull Riding competition.
It was an exciting show that capped another fun day for festival goers at the fairgrounds, with riders doing their best to stay atop each bull for as long as they could.
A true cowboy at heart, Luke was living his dream, working another rodeo show surrounded by the atmosphere of horses, bulls, boots and all things western.
But midway through the show, the excitement and joy throughout the audience immediately stopped. The sound of the thunderous cheering of the crowd dropped to a quiet chorus of concerned whispers, and Luke was suddenly at the center of everything.
A devastating accident
On that night, Luke’s life was turned completely upside down. As one of the bulls was led back through its gate, it suddenly veered out and charged straight in his direction.
Luke turned and ran as fast as his legs could carry him to the nearest fence to jump out of the arena, but the bull was faster.
What happened next is something Luke can remember every vivid detail of.
“I remember everything,” Luke said from his recovery center. “I opened the gate for a rider, he rode, and then the bull started going back in the return gate, but he turned toward me and started running at me. I started running toward the fence, but he was a little quicker than I am.”
Within moments, the bull caught up to Luke just feet from the fence.
“He scooped me up from behind and threw me about nine feet in the air and I landed on the back on my neck. I went to get up and move, but couldn’t feel my legs.”
The bull continued to thrash about in the arena, but other rodeo members quickly threw their bodies on top of Luke to prevent further harm. The bull was roped and restrained and taken back to its gate, but the harm had been done.
“At the time, I just thought it was a bad injury,” he said. “EMS came out and started looking me over. They put a neck collar on me, placed me on a board and into an ambulance.”
Luke was taken to Ionia County Memorial Hospital where he was stabilized, and as soon as he had the chance, he was given a phone and called his mother.
Roxanne Griffith, who was with her husband Dennis, had already heard from a friend that an accident had occurred at the fairgrounds involving her son, but she didn’t know the details. It was while in a state of worry and confusion that her phone began to buzz and the caller ID read “Luke.”
“He called me, and I asked, ‘What are you doing Luke?,’” Roxanne said. “He then said, ‘I can’t feel my legs .. and I’m going for a helicopter ride.’”
Roxanne, who has worked with many victims of spinal cord injuries throughout her time as a nurse, immediately knew how severe her son’s injury was.
She and Dennis arrived at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, but she couldn’t go inside.
“I had to see him arrive,” she said. “I had to see that helicopter land at the hospital.”
Luke was immediately put into surgery that lasted about four hours and from there he was placed into an induced coma that lasted about 10 days.
When he awoke and came down off of his medications, he was finally told how serious the results of his injury were.
“The doctor said I exploded my fifth vertebrae,” Luke said. “He said they had to put a spacer in and then they placed me in a halo brace.”
What he was told next was information that will undoubtably change his life forever.
“I was told I was paralyzed from the chest down from the accident.”
Recovery begins with a positive attitude
Luke spent the next few weeks unable to communicate. A ventilator helping him breathe left him unable to speak, and in the halo brace, he couldn’t move his head or arms as doctors waited for the swelling from his surgery to go down.
For weeks Luke was immobilized in the hospital, with care coming from doctors and family members, such as Roxanne, who never left his side.
Life will never again be the same for Luke, but if you were to talk to him today, you wouldn’t notice one negative change in the young man’s attitude.
He had been told by doctors that he may never come off the ventilator, but today he’s breathing easily on his own. He’s been told he will be paralyzed for life, but just a few weeks ago he regained feeling in his left hand. And He’s been told he may never walk again, but just a few days ago he briefly moved one of his legs and is now undergoing physical therapy on his quadricep.
His willpower and mindset to continue forward are his biggest allies, and he knows it.
“You have to take it seriously, but at the same time you can’t,” he said from his electronic wheelchair, which he controls with his hand. “You can’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself. There have been a few points when I’ve been down for a little bit, thinking about giving up, but I can’t do that. I’ve got a daughter and family. It’s not an option.”
The Greenville High School graduate and 27-year-old father of his 3-year-old daughter, Blayke, lives in Mount Pleasant and works as a truck driver for Allied Van Lines. Despite his crippling injury, Luke says he is bound and determined to return to his old life in as much of the same capacity as he can.
Through physical therapy, support from his family and fiancé, Ruth Bryant, Luke said he knows he can overcome the injury and says the evidence is already there.
“The movement in my fingers started off slow, but it progressively improves more and more,” he said. “It’s exciting, it’s a good feeling and gives you more hope.”
Luke’s other source of inspiration puts a constant smile on his face.
His daughter still doesn’t quite understand what has happened to her father, but when she climbs into his lap and they ride together around the hospital in his wheelchair, all the pain of dealing with the reality and gravity of his situation momentarily disappears.
“I wouldn’t say I’m limited, I’m only limited by what I set my mind to,” he said. “But it’s a little nerve-racking thinking about the things I wont be able to do that other fathers can do with their daughters, but I’m not going to sit there and feel bad for myself because one way or another I’m going to figure out a way to do it.”
But as Luke continues to battle back from his injury, he faces another uphill battle.
Without any health insurance or current source of income, the medical bills are piling up fast.
In response, community members are attempting to reach out and raise as much money as they can in support of Luke.
Brandt Clark, owner of World Champion Event Productions, the company Luke has worked three years for, is throwing a benefit rodeo in Luke’s honor hoping to raise as much money as possible.
The two-day event, on Oct. 19 and 20, will take place at the Montcalm County Fairgrounds off of Peck Road in Greenville, with many events scheduled throughout the two days.
According to Clark, Friday will feature a benefit dinner at 5 p.m. with a silent auction held at 6 p.m. followed by a live auction, with all proceeds going to Luke.
On Saturday, events begin at 5 p.m. and include barrel racing, wild cow milking, cattle sorting, a stampede horse race and bull riding. The event is open for free to the public with all attendees asked to make a donation to Luke if they can.
For those who cannot make either night of the benefit rodeo and make donations, but would still like to help, donations may be made to The Griffith Benefit at Preferred Federal Credit Union 534 N. Lafayette in Greenville.
“The benefit itself is a ranch rodeo,” Clark said. “It differs from a standard rodeo because cowboys compete as teams of four. They compete in five different events, simulating what they would do on a real working ranch.”
Clark was there at the Ionia Free Fair the night of Luke’s injury, and said everyone in the rodeo community wants to do everything they can to help him.
“Everybody that steps out in that ring knows that there is a danger that goes along with this,” he said. “None of these guys are scared of that. Luke’s not afraid. I’ve never seen a guy with such a great cheerful outlook that he will get through something like this. We, as a group, are behind Luke 100 percent.”
Luke said he is incredibly grateful for everyone’s desire to help him, and he is most looking forward to just leaving the setting of a hospital and being with friends and family again.
“Just come out to the benefit, say hi to me, and have a good time,” he said. “I’m so thankful for all of the prayers I’ve received, It has meant a lot.”
When looking back on his injury, Luke said there’s nothing he would change about his involvement in such a dangerous sport.
“Rodeo is something I love doing, I got hurt doing something I love doing and I don’t regret it for one minute,” he said. “I’d get right back out there and do it again. It was more of a freak accident than anything. I was put in this situation for a reason. I’m still trying to figure it out, but it will come to me and I will figure it out one day. I will do what I was meant to do.”
Roxanne said she couldn’t be prouder of the way her son has handled the situation thus far.
“He’s a good kid, he’ll end up going as far as he can go with this thing,” she said. “No parent ever wants to see this happen to their child, but God’s got a plan. We don’t always understand or agree with it, but faith is a big part in getting through this.”