Every time Blake McMeans begins one of his many public speeches, he gets up from his wheelchair, goes over to the podium and stands.
Sometimes the process takes five minutes, other times less. When he’s settled—with his caregiver, Tony, by his side—he starts his talk the way he starts all his talks.
“They say a picture’s worth a thousand words,” McMeans tells the rapt crowd. “You saw a picture of what can happen to a person who decides to drink and drive.”
McMeans’ story is one of promise, tragedy, debilitation, redemption and second chances. Growing up in Knoxville, TN, McMeans became a standout athlete in his formative years. His father was a football player at the University of Tennessee, but Blake was more of a natural on the court than on the gridiron. He became one of the top tennis players in the country, and dreamed of a professional career.
But at 16, McMeans’ world was turned upside down. His father—his idol—suddenly died of a heart attack at 46. It crushed the aspiring teenager, but his goal of becoming a professional tennis player never wavered.
McMeans received several scholarship offers from around the country, but decided to stay close to home and play tennis at UT, his father’s alma mater.
But McMeans would never play a match for the Volunteers.
Three months before what would have been the start of his college career, on Nov. 10, 1994, McMeans went out drinking with some buddies, got behind the wheel and ran off the road. He hit a tree, and the car flipped over three times.
The prognosis was grim. McMeans was in a coma for nearly four months. When he came out, he was confined to a wheelchair, and had to re-learn how to swallow, sit, talk and stand.
Now 40, McMeans has come to terms with what happened to him many years ago. Tennis will always hold a special place in his heart, but he sincerely believes that his accident led to a far greater purpose in life.
“I don’t think about the accident anymore,” says McMeans. “It happened. It’s over. You need to move on, so I’ve moved on.”
With his positive outlook, McMeans has made tremendous gains in his personal life. After becoming more independent, he moved to Nashville, where he was hired to be an assistant tennis coach at Montgomery Bell Academy. Even more significant, he found his calling—ensuring that others don’t make the same mistake he did.
The former tennis prodigy-turned-inspiration now travels the country on a mission, sharing his story, educating about the dangers of drinking and driving, and imploring students to make smart decisions.
“Students come up to me and tell me I changed their lives,” says McMeans. “That’s better than any tennis match I’ve ever played, because that’s really what living is about.”
One speaking engagement led to another, and in 2007 McMeans’ non-profit organization, the Blake McMeans Foundation and Promise Tour, was founded. Since then, his reach has grown significantly: in 2011 McMeans had eight speaking engagements; in the first four months of 2017, he had 20.
Despite his disability and the difficulties of travel, McMeans has spoken to more than 20,000 students in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Florida and Missouri. In the past two years, the Blake McMeans Foundation has awarded five scholarships worth $25,000, and from 2014 to 2016, the organization raised $542,611.
“I think that speaking has given him the desire to live and go forward,” says McMeans’ mother, Cynthia Hickerson. “He could have been playing in the Australian Open or the US Open, and I would never be as proud as I am now.”
For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime. Click here for more Heroes stories.