Cycling-accident survivor champions helmet safety Longtime area tennis teacher has new goals and dreams while he continues to recover

One day last fall an early teenage boy was riding his bike up to a stop light at the corner of North Anthony Boulevard and Crescent Avenue. Then he looked over to see a man who was wearing a plastic blue football helmet without the face mask walking up.

“Hey, how are you?” the man asked. “Hey, do you know why I’m wearing a blue helmet? I was in a bicycle accident. You are too good-looking a kid to have this happen to you, so would you do me a favor? Christmas is coming up, and if you don’t have a helmet, maybe ask for one for Christmas so you don’t have to go through this situation. Could you do that for me? I don’t want this to ever happen to anybody else.”

Then the light changed and the boy rode off while the man in the helmet slowly resumed his journey.

* * *

Of course, originally, there was a girl involved. Don Offerle was a Bishop Dwenger student who wanted to stay closer to a girl over the summer, so he applied to be a lifeguard Pine Valley Country Club where she hung out. There was no opening, but the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department had one and hired him. Then department needed somebody to vacuum the pool at 7 a.m., so he said he’d do it. Then the department needed somebody to run the recreation leagues at Swinney Park, so he did that, too.

He became known as the guy who would volunteer for everything and get the job done well. He’d work from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and sometimes invite friends to play tennis until midnight. He wasn’t any good, usually getting smoked, but he had fun. Desperate to improve, he asked for advice from teaching pro Tim Sullivan, who suggested books by Vic Braden.

Then someone came by asking for a lesson, and Offerle figured he’d try, using the principles from the books. The player was impressed and suggested Offerle to others.

After graduating from Bishop Dwenger in 1981, Offerle read a story in IPFW’s The Communicator about the new tennis team looking for players. Sullivan happened to be the coach. Despite all his passion, Offerle wasn’t very good, serving most often as an extra. In fact, he never played until one night when the opponent showed up with an extra player. When Offerle asked for advice, Sullivan simply said, “Don’t get hurt.”

Offerle worked hard and eventually improved enough to play No. 2 singles for IPFW. Then he coached at Fort Wayne Country Club for a year before becoming the coach at Harding High School for seven years and then at New Haven High School for four more. Like himself, he’d take hopeless situations and help players improve more than they dreamed and somehow win a few matches as a team.

While keeping up the private lessons, Offerle became the original pro at Autumn Ridge Golf Club and then at Cherry Hill Golf Club. He didn’t use traditional instruction, but he was successful. His love of the sport was more than infectious: It was addictive. He could make people believe they could improve and they would.

That’s how he fell in love with tennis. The girl married somebody else.

* * *

For fun and because he worked with children and liked to stay fit, Offerle would ride his bike all over Allen County and sometimes beyond if the wind was pushing the right direction. He acquired a 12-speed Miyata but was always extra careful on it, scared by newspaper articles about people dying in bike accidents. He always rode assuming a car couldn’t see him.

After riding more than 4,000 miles over the previous summers, he rode the Hilly Hundred through southern Indiana in 2014, purchasing a helmet in a thrift shop to follow the rules. He lost it afterward, never thinking riding was a life-threatening situation since he had never known anyone who had been in a serious accident.

Last May 15, the Offerle family was preparing to leave the next day for a Florida vacation. Offerle was going to stay at his brother Tom Offerle’s house, so he rode his bike through the IPFW campus, over the bridge and onto California Road behind the Red Cross. It was about 11 p.m., but there were no cars out and he was continuing to be very careful as he crossed Parnell Avenue.

* * *

No one knows what really happened that night, especially Offerle. Police don’t think he was hit by a car, but maybe he rode over an unseen pothole or possibly a speed bump, flipped over his bike and landed on his unprotected head. No one knows how long he laid in the shopping center’s parking lot.

Eventually, maybe just in time, someone discovered him, but no one knows who. As Offerle was rushed to Parkview Regional Medical Center, police found his cellphone and called the last number used to notify a family member. When his nephews arrived, they were told he might not survive the night.

Dr. James Dozier, a neurosurgeon, saved Offerle’s life by persuading the family to let him remove a hand-size piece of Offerle’s skull on the left side to relieve brain swelling. Days later, family members were told he might not get any better. Somehow he kept hanging on.

For a month Offerle stayed at the medical center, but he doesn’t remember any of it. Even when coherent, he didn’t recognize some family members.

Then he spent a month at Parkview Hospital on Randallia Drive, continuing to heal as family members were encouraged to find a nursing home. When Offerle finally regained full consciousness, he asked his brother Tom why he was in the hospital.

At the request of family members, Offerle spent 40 days at Hope Network Neuro Rehabilitation Center in Coldwater, Mich. He could walk around but was required to wear a blue helmet, and on Nov. 12 the missing part of his skull was replaced.

* * *

Friends kept praying, even gathering on the courts at Autumn Ridge where a “Pray for Donny O” sign was arranged on the fence. Denise Brower started a Facebook page, “Donny O, he’s my pro… fan and prayer club,” which attracted more than 400 members. A rumor started that Offerle had died, so he posted a video July 5 thanking everyone for their love and prayers.

How do people ever know how blessed they are until they come up against something and everybody they know steps up?

“It’s only because of those prayers that I’m still here,” Offerle said. “Prayer definitely works. I was a very good believer before all this happened. I even talked about God and even got yelled at once for bringing up Christ during a lesson. My faith after this accident has totally increased. The Lord was my savior before, and now he’s my best friend.”

Offerle has always been the guy who does things for everyone else, the guy everybody owes favors because he never reclaims them. With his injuries, he’s had to learn to surrender his life to someone else.

But somehow he has survived and continues to recover. He’s committed to teaching tennis again, and he swears he’ll definitely ride again, this time with a helmet.

He spends his time thanking friends and family, whenever he can talking about the need to wear a helmet. As his sister said, he has learned to drink in life’s blessings, and he has become a modern-day prophet enthused by a new message.

“My mission is to get the word out, and I am totally convinced that’s why I’m here,” he said. “I want my tragedy and what happened to help others. It’s something I don’t want anyone else to have to go through.”

* * *

Recently, a woman stepped into the South Bend office of John Offerle, an optometrist, saying, “You’re about to see my 13-year-old son in your next appointment, and he’s a biker just like your brother, but he will not wear a helmet. Could you do me a favor and talk to him?”

So John Offerle sat the boy down and told him about his brother who was so injured from a bicycle accident that he didn’t recognize his older brother. The doctor wasn’t sure how much the boy had listened but hoped somehow his message got through.

About 10 days later, a letter arrived in the office.

“Dr. John Offerle, I want to thank you for saving my son’s life,” it began. “He was involved in a bicycle accident and cracked the helmet in half. He suffered a broken eye socket, and that’s all.” <br>

<i> For more on local sports, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at blakesebring. </i>