Story provided by Liberty University News Service
Former Liberty University football player Rod Gladfelter ('80, B.S. in Theology/Christian Ministries) is planning a month-long, 3,000-mile, cross-country cycling trip to raise awareness for dementia in honor of his mother and others affected by brain disorders.
Gladfelter, a physical education teacher and defensive coordinator at Dallastown (Pa.) High School, was ordained as a pastor in 2009 and has traveled around the region giving faith-based motivational speeches for businesses, high schools and college football teams. At the request of Ed Gomes, Liberty Football's director of spiritual development, Gladfelter led a chapel service before the Flames' Sept. 12, 2015 game at West Virginia.
In 1992, Gladfelter survived a near fatal industrial accident in which 300 pounds of steel fell on his head and ruptured two sets of discs in his spinal cord. The resulting 16-hour surgery, during which he was twice declared dead on the operating table, left him temporarily paralyzed and required four fusions in his neck that make it impossible for Gladfelter to raise his head while cycling. After not knowing at first if he'd ever walk or bike again, he has pursued adventure with reckless abandon, earning his pilot's license in 2005 and completing the Rattlesnake Trail Run Ultramarathon through a challenging stretch of West Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in 2008.
"It's a humbling experience to go from being very physically able to being unable to do anything," said Gladfelter, who was an All-American defensive back on the Flames' NAIA football team in 1978 and later earned a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys. "That is when a person realizes that their strength comes from the Lord only. The adversity I faced through the work-related accident was all used by God to shape me and take me to where He wanted me to serve Him best. I count my blessings every day."
At the same time, Gladfelter sympathizes with his mother, one of more than five million Americans suffering from dementia and other brain-related illnesses, including Alzheimer's disease.
"I feel helpless to do anything for her," Gladfelter said. "When I prayed about what I could do, God led me to raise awareness for my mother by riding across the country."
He also wants to support caretakers of dementia patients — including his father who provided care for his mother for three years before finally moving her into a nursing home — who are often physically, emotionally and financially stressed.
Gladfelter will embark on his mostly unassisted journey on June 12 from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., camping out along the way back to his home in York, Pa., where he tentatively expects to arrive on July 15, barring weather-related delays.
"It's a solo ride for the first 12-14 days, when I'll be living out of my own sleeping bag and on power bars and Gatorade," he said, noting that he will need to carry 30 pounds of water while traveling through the desert along the "Loneliest Road" in Nevada. Towns along this stretch of highway are 70-80 miles apart and there are no services in between. "Route 50 is desolate. It will parallel the long, lonely road people with dementia experience every day. I still cannot understand what is going on in my mother's mind, but I believe that it is a lonely place for her. This loneliness must be more difficult than one can imagine."
In Grand Junction, Colo., Gladfelter will meet up with friends, a married couple who will provide support for the remainder of his journey as needed. "They like to camp, so they're going to go 300 miles ahead of me and never be more than three or four hours away if I need assistance," Gladfelter said.
The Gladfelter Dementia Fund has been created to support his ride, caretakers of dementia patients, and to raise money to find a cure for the brain disorder.
Gladfelter invites followers to submit the names of friends or family members affected by brain disorders that he can honor on his journey. He will write their names on a flag attached to his bike that has a photo of the "Loneliest Road" on the opposite side.
For more information on how to support Gladfelter's ride, view his poster.
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