Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Catch the conversation here: The Power To Empower
All of us have experienced, or will experience, a life event that has a profound effect on our lives, and many of us have met, or will meet a special individual that will do likewise. And when it happens, or when we meet this person, whilst we may not realise it at the time our trajectory can be changed, and our life’s journey take on a whole new direction.
For our guest on this episode of ONEOFTHE8, it was a career curtailing injury and a chance meeting with a man who had lost all four limbs in an explosion, that paved the way for this inspirational human to do his ‘more significant work’ - developing ground-breaking work that builds physical, emotional, mental, spiritual strength in those who need it most.
Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, the son of church-going parents whose compassion for those less fortunate he talks about with such great pride, David Vobora always had ambitions to play in the NFL (think incredible crash-helmetted athletes and the Superbowl). Achieving a Division 1 scholarship at the University of Idaho, David was on his way, and his ambition was realised when he was drafted by the St Louis Rams.
For those unfamiliar with the draft, this is when professional teams make their choice of the star college athletes they want to join them. It happens in order of preference, and in David’s case he was the last pick in the 2008 draft, something that earned him the nickname of ‘Mr Irrelevant’. It’s a nickname that couldn’t be more inappropriate - ‘call me anything you want, I had achieved a dream I had set out for my entire life’ - and at the time something that gave David the determination to be anything but irrelevant.
‘Your perceived disadvantage, limitation, actually is your uniqueness…take great faith in the fact that at some point that is going to become your x-factor, your superpower. As it does, make sure you use it for good, to empower other people, because that’s the purpose of it’
In his four years playing in the NFL, David enjoyed Sundays he describes as ‘glorious as you can imagine’ and locker-room camaraderie that he clearly still holds close to his heart, as he puts it, you could always ‘look to your brother to right and left’ and know how to ‘keep showing up under stress’ – lessons and experiences he pays forward today.
‘I did more than some, and less than most’
In such a high-impact contact sport injury is always waiting just around the corner for every athlete, and it was to be a shoulder injury that curtailed David’s career, an injury that even led to him buying opiates off the street in order to manage the pain. It was also to be an injury that led to an ‘identity crisis transitioning out of football’, asking himself the question ‘who is David without this game called football?’
The thought of career ending injury is incredibly tough for any professional athlete, yet in the words of David himself ‘defining yourself by what you do, that’s a trap. You’re a human being, not a human doer’.
‘Your opportunity to show up as your true self is the freedom that you seek’
So it was that David’s trajectory was changed by a life event, in this case, injury. After a brief spell with the Seattle Seahawks, he retired from the NFL and opened ‘Performance Vault Inc.’, a training centre located in Dallas, Texas for elite athletes and US Special Forces. Here the attributes taken from sport were transferred into the gym.
‘That’s the sweat psychology, when our heart rate goes up and we start to dig in to hard things - that’s when we discover the parts of us that are agnostic of annihilation, that can’t be held down, that’s when your true self shows up’
It was during this time of training elite athletes in their off-season that the chance meeting took place with an exceptional individual who would also profoundly affect David’s life. Attending a friends surprise 40th birthday party, he was socialising and enjoying some downtime ‘then in walks a guy without arms and legs’. That guy was retired US Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, a man who lost parts of both arms and both legs after being critically injured by an IED whilst on patrol in Afghanistan.
‘I walked up to him and said ‘dude, when was the last time you worked out’
Soon Travis was in David’s gym, doing 100lb sled pulls and leaving super-fit NFL players open-mouthed in awe. Suddenly they were putting their aches and pains to one side and raising their own game. Thanks to Travis, everybody had to elevate.
A special connection was made, and the idea was born to revolutionise the space and start a gym for people who have suffered trauma – a gym for veterans, for first responders, for people who’ve been in accidents, for people suffering from neurological disorders – restoring hope through the power of exercise and community building.
‘An opportunity to train with us, be part of a greater tribe and community, also to have an opportunity to take what people said was impossible and to truly defy those definitions’
It was the moment that David realised, not only was he done with football, he was also done with ‘for profit’ – all he cared about now was serving these people who could get a whole new lease of life. Soon they were training 20 -30 ‘adaptive athletes’ and in September 2014 David founded the ‘Adaptive Training Foundation’, a non-profit with a mission ‘to empower the human athlete, restore hope through movement, and redefine the limits of individuals with disabilities’.
‘Seeing people as who they are, but calling them to who they could possibly be’
Adaptive Training Foundation provides free, customised nine-week training programs for injured veterans and people living with disabilities, with a tenth week of ‘redeploy’ that involves skiing, surfing, climbing or biking. The primary drive is of course physical, however it’s really about ‘what’s between the ears’ and so every individualised workout has a pre and post focus on mindfulness and mediation. It’s about more that what the athletes are physically, the energy is ‘spiritual’, the difference between ‘get to’ and ‘got to’.
‘If you treat someone as broken, they act that way. If you look to someone and call to the parts of them that they may not see in themselves, that part rises up’
Life at ATF changed quickly for David, and there were times when he would find himself grabbing just three hours sleep on the gyms yoga mats so that he could be there for early morning sessions. Not the best plan when you have a young daughter and a wife who is pregnant at the time. In fact, it was David’s wife who reminded him that there is ‘no mission without margin’ and that he should ‘do good but make it responsible’. To continue doing their best work, they had to make ATF sustainable – and that’s something they’ve become incredibly successful at doing.
Growing up around the gym has also had a profound affect on their two young children, and as David points out, they’ve been taught not to see disability.
‘It’s what I’m most proud of, my girls they don’t see disability. They’ve grown up in this ecosystem, the gym is their safe haven, it’s their playhouse’
Finally, and as with all of our guests, we asked David what – or who – it is that has inspired him, but first we asked him for one example (and there are many) of someone that the Adaptive Training Foundation has worked with.
In response David tells us about an incredible woman called Vanessa Cantu, who is an ‘example of just doing what you can, with what you have, and where you are’. Vanessa was left paralysed and in a wheelchair after a car crash at age 15. Now some 20 years later, Vanessa is raising a daughter, has become a leading CrossFit athlete, has taken her first steps, and has recently married another adaptive athlete.
David then nominates former NFL player and Navy SEAL, Clint Bruce as his inspiration, a man he says ‘embodies what it is to be a leader’. Clint also had a direct impact on David’s life when a major decision needed to be made. After David had recovered from injury he had a call from his agent telling him that the Dallas Cowboys wanted to sign him. When asked for his advice, Clint pointed out that ‘all though football is familiar, this right here is feeding your soul’, and David’s answer to the Cowboys was thanks, but no thanks.
Driven by our guest, the truly inspirational – and very relevant - David Vobora, Adaptive Training Foundation continues to go from strength to strength. A docu-series is in the planning and a series of Masterclasses are on the way, and you can find out more here and see athletes going through their paces on Instagram @adaptivetrainingfoundation
You can also find out more about Travis Mills, Vanessa Cantu and Clint Bruce at
We leave the last word to the man himself –
‘The choice is yours, when you’re willing to see the differences, celebrate them by connecting with someone, looking in their eyes and saying what happened, tell me your story’
If you would like to hear this inspirational speaker sharing his story with us, be sure to head over to David’s episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast, we guarantee you a positive mental workout.