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David Vobora: “What you seek is already in you”

The most interesting story that has happened to me was after my NFL career ended. I owned a gym in Dallas working with NFL and Olympic athletes when I met a quadruple amputee, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills. I walked up to Travis and I said, “When was the last time you worked out?” He kind […]

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The most interesting story that has happened to me was after my NFL career ended. I owned a gym in Dallas working with NFL and Olympic athletes when I met a quadruple amputee, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills. I walked up to Travis and I said, “When was the last time you worked out?” He kind of grinned and made a comment sort of like, “Hey, I don’t want to make you feel like an idiot, but I don’t have arms and legs, what do you mean ‘workout’?” My response was, “I don’t care if you don’t have arms and legs, you’re a living, breathing human and we can tap into your physicality, why don’t we redefine that. What are you afraid of?” And I think he kind of loved the challenge and the posturing and again, I think he was willing to bet on me. He came into the gym. I didn’t have any prior history in adaptive training, but when I looked online and saw everything was very rehabilitative and stale, I decided to make it fun.


I had the pleasure of interviewing David Vobora.

In January of 2014, David Vobora, a 5-year veteran of the NFL, met US Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee. David opened up his personal gym to Travis, offering his training expertise. The pair started working out together, customizing and adapting to the unique challenges posed by Travis’ injuries. Through working with Travis and engaging the veteran community, David developed a passion for helping those with life-altering injuries find life-fulfilling adaptive performance training.

David realized that, while there are many excellent rehabilitation programs as well as adaptive/Paralympic sports organizations, none existed to bridge the gap from basic functional rehabilitation to the adapted sport. Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF) was conceived to fill this void.

He continued helping adaptive athletes create sustainable lifestyle changes over the next six months, and by September of 2014, Adaptive Training Foundation had received its 501(c)3 status to allow outside support for these ambitious athletes. To this day, ATF is committed to keeping its services to adaptive athletes 100% free of charge and relies on the generosity of people like yourself to not only restore lives but empower them through movement.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?

I’m a retired NFL linebacker. I was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2008, as the final pick of the draft making me “Mr. Irrelevant”, a title earned by the last pick. I became a starter my rookie year and went on to play a number of years with the Rams. In my fifth year with the Seahawks, I had a catastrophic shoulder injury, which led to a nasty opioid addiction that began with prescription pills. Really, it wasn’t so much about the pain as it was an identity crisis. I didn’t know who I was without football. It had always been my life and my identity and when I felt that crumbling around me, I didn’t cope well. That identity crisis led me to what I would consider a rock bottom — on a drug detox floor, having two seizures and losing 34 pounds in 7 days — literally not knowing up from down. That experience is the exact catapult that led me to the most significant life changes I could ever imagine and eventually my second career founding Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF).

I started ATF when I got out of rehab because the gym has always been my sanctuary — a place where I could use hard work and physical exertion to emotionally purge, while at the same time working towards a goal and developing my talent. I started the gym without any idea of what was next aside from the fact that I thrive off the gym environment. It wasn’t until meeting veteran Staff Sergeant and quadruple amputee, Travis Mills, at a friend’s birthday party that the mission of ATF began to form. After speaking to him at length, I offered up the gym to him and we began working out together, customizing and adapting training to the unique challenges posed by his injuries. Through working with Travis and engaging with the veteran community, my passion began for helping those with life-altering injuries find life-fulfilling adaptive performance training. Over the next 6 months, we received 501(c)3 status to allow for outside support and now offer completely cost-free training for adaptive athletes through a 9-week protocol that trains them in mind, body and spirit. We give them tools not just to reach goals that the doctors said they would never, but also to comprehensively become a better person inside and out.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

The most interesting story that has happened to me was after my NFL career ended. I owned a gym in Dallas working with NFL and Olympic athletes when I met a quadruple amputee, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills. I walked up to Travis and I said, “When was the last time you worked out?” He kind of grinned and made a comment sort of like, “Hey, I don’t want to make you feel like an idiot, but I don’t have arms and legs, what do you mean ‘workout’?” My response was, “I don’t care if you don’t have arms and legs, you’re a living, breathing human and we can tap into your physicality, why don’t we redefine that. What are you afraid of?” And I think he kind of loved the challenge and the posturing and again, I think he was willing to bet on me. He came into the gym. I didn’t have any prior history in adaptive training, but when I looked online and saw everything was very rehabilitative and stale, I decided to make it fun.

And so, Travis started training alongside my NFL players and doing 100-pound sled pulls and pretty soon all of my elite athletes were losing their excuses. I was watching these people champion each other in the gym in a way that was truly brilliant. So I did some more research discovering that there are over 40 million Americans with a physical disability — veterans, civilians, amputees, spinal cord injuries, obesity, addiction. I started to think about the gym as the perfect conduit to redefine their lives in a group of accountability and community.

In 2014, I launched the Adaptive Training Foundation a 501(c)3 non-profit and our mission is to empower people with physical disabilities through community and exercise. We have completely cost-free training, where we run a 9-week protocol that trains in mind, body and spirit, which gives them tools not just to reach goals that the doctors said they would never reach, but also to comprehensively become a better human. The gym is really just a physical market entry. Time and discipline are what reaches goals and advances those goals, but the bigger picture is about what’s going on between the ears and that’s what we try to target by using what I call “sweat psychology”. It’s the way to access the mind through the body and like I mentioned earlier, physical pain was always an emotional purge for me.

What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate success?

Spend time finding your why. What makes you unique? What is that defining factor that makes you, you? Sometimes it’s our scars, the parts that we sometimes marginalize in ourselves. It’s because we let those scars be these defining factors when in fact they should be the gas on the fire that equips us. So for a young person that wants to emulate any of my success, I would say know that your why can help you to redefine whatever it is that you feel is the defining factor that holds you back. That is actually the exact springboard that can elevate you. You just have to know how to be able to play that card. Because again, it’s not about the cards you get, it’s about how you play them.

I found my why becoming a hope dealer. Napoleon Bonaparte — although not a guy you want to quote too often — said, “A leader is a dealer of hope”. I am able to use my scars to empower those around me to be the best versions of themselves. I would encourage anyone reading to broaden their perspective, look someone in their eyes, go up to someone in a wheelchair, and ask what happened. Just listen and be present. If someone looks like they are in pain, don’t look away. Look on them with love. What will return back to you will be more powerful than what you expect. This is something that I live by that allows me to know my aim and what my true north is no matter if I am having the greatest successes or the greatest failures. As Long as I stay true to the integrity of what I call my why, everything works out for the greater good.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Many coaches, my father and my parents all made a profound impact on my life, but one specific person was Gavin McMillan. He was a mentor of mine, a gym owner and an amazing trainer at a sports science lab in California. He is really what sparked a new paradigm shift for me in training that looked for a better way to create optimization under one roof. That has always been my mission with the Adaptive Training Foundation. Gavin used to always walk by me and say things like “it’s in you”. Finally one day I asked, what’s “IT”? He said to me, “IT” is exactly whatever you need it to be, just keep working. I think that is something that is so stoic, yet so deep because its not about looking at what is outside of us, but to discover the part that is indestructible within us when we are willing to push ourselves to grow, even when uncomfortable.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?

Starting the Adaptive Training Foundation is how I bring goodness into the world. I recognized there was a void post-rehab. Cash runs out and insurance runs out, but bigger than that, hope starts to fade. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I encourage our athletes to shift their mindset from dwelling on their injuries as a burden to using them as gifts. At ATF, we encourage the mindset of: “it’s not in spite of that which has happened to me, but because of that which has happened to me that I have this opportunity.” I get to use my scars -my gifts — and the things that I’ve endured, to help somebody else avoid similar suffering. I can’t take their pain away, but I can use my narrative to be vulnerable, to show them and to give them the bravery and courage to do it for themselves. That’s what the gym is, it’s a soul mirror that just kind of looks at you and leads you to hopefully a deeper and better you, that’s free from so much of the trash that we have up in our head. If you treat people broken, yourself included, you act broken. You can be the victim or the victor. At the gym, we’re passionate about equipping people and guiding them, challenging them, nourishing them, and then taking them outside of our walls to explore adaptive surfing and snowboarding and mountain biking and jumping out of airplanes — doing things that prove that they can go far beyond what they thought when perhaps they lost the function of their legs in a car accident or were injured in war.

What methods are you using to most effectively share your cause with the world?

We are now accrediting our adaptive training philosophy to train trainers all over the country how to serve these 40 million+ Americans living with a disability. The world doesn’t need more gyms. It needs more trainers and facilities to open their doors to serving and including this population.

Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

Meeting Travis and seeing what we were able to accomplish — not just physically, but redefining the way he viewed himself when he looked in a mirror — inspired me to transform my for-profit gym into the Adaptive Training Foundation. People bet on people and people change people to the extent that they are willing to see themselves in their story; and that’s represented in these adaptive athletes at ATF. I use a megaphone to emotionally and compassionately touch people’s hearts, and then usher the change in their own mindset to shift. However, you can’t make anyone do that. We have a box tapped off in the gym that we call the “Sympathy Box”, because if you want sympathy you can go stand in the box. I don’t care if you are an NFL Super Bowl Champion or if you are a quadriplegic. That is an ethos for us because we want people to disrupt that cycle of the victim in their life. We are not saying that it’s not hard, but it’s about being honest and accepting before you can go beyond and defy what was once impossible through hard work. That comes only if you show up and give your effort.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

I helped a mom be able to walk again for the first time in 16 years and hold her daughter’s hand and walk her to school. It took us a couple of years of hard work to get there. Her injury was the result of her being in a car accident when she was 15 and I’ll never forget her. She was my first civilian, my first female, my first spinal cord injury I was ever working with. I was watching her almost 1-year-old daughter — which was a miracle that she was even able to have her — standing up and falling trying to walk and I looked at Vanessa and said, “Why is your pride so big that you can’t do the same?” She kind of smiled in a pissed off way and we got to work. We didn’t worry about the when we just decided we were going to come to work every day and let the how to take care of itself. It has and she continues to be such a force, not only within her own family but also in a national spotlight empowering women and inspiring them.

What are your 3 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Breathe — Because if you breathe, that breath is the now, the thing that brings you back. It’s the piece that transcends when you are tapped into it and you can have that conscious response. Only then can we emotionally bring out our best self and benefit those around us.
  2. Be Present — Being present is key because the now is all we have. The more we live torn from the now and not grounded in the now, the more we are unable to see what is being shown to us right in front of us.
  3. What you seek is already in you. I know that I would not have made it in the NFL had I not been a survivor of child sex abuse. For me, I yearn for people’s acceptance and I used football to achieve that. It’s not in spite of, it’s because of. “What you seek is already in you” means to me that unless you have that inner peace, your inspiration for doing anything in the external will be hollow. That’s what led me to the identity crisis before. Football was a great platform for me but now that I have that freedom within, it’s so much more fulfilling. That is why I think I have the opportunity to do something special for others as a result of what flows out of me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I am currently working on is a methodology that is being accredited nationally to certify trainers so that we can open our doors and gyms globally to train people with disabilities. The more trainers and facilities we have available, the larger population we’ll be able to serve and see such a significant impact in.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is by Mark Twain — “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

It’s so powerful. We all ask the questions why are we here, where do we go when we die. To me, the time that we all have is in the dash between birth and death. The main point is to give of yourself in such a way and experience life in such a way that means more than anything money can buy.

It’s to know that you are worth it and that you have something to offer. Even when you feel at your worst, that’s actually when the universe is conspiring for you to have a breakthrough. That unique balance between surrender, that acceptance and defiance of what is, is the key point to discovering what your purpose is.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’m such a fan of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson so I’d choose him. I think his humility, his power and his blending of leadership is so unique that I admire the heck out of him. I think DJ is one of those people who has a compelling charisma, a magnetic force and energy and uses it in such an authentic way. I have much respect for the Rock and all that he does to bring light and inspiration into this world.

I’ve also been blown away by Howard Shultz, former CEO of Starbucks, Obama for flying us out to the White House where we met, Ellen Degeneres when we went on the Ellen Show, President Bush coming to the gym and working out — all of that was amazing. The one thing that is the same with these people is that they have such genuine authenticity, making all of my experiences with them equally incredible.

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