Grief and difficult circumstances kept piling on Steve*, a police officer in Eastern Oregon. The year began with the sudden, unexpected death of his 43-year-old friend from a heart attack.
Steve barely had a chance to breathe before the next blow hit him. During a police training exercise that he was leading, he made a sudden movement and blew out his achilles tendon. You could hear it snap from across the room.
Then a winter front descended on Bend, Oregon, where he lived and his pipes froze, causing significant house damage. To top it off, a tree fell on in his driveway, smashing his Jeep.
And then the knockout blow landed. His brother, Gene*, who had only just retired from a long and exemplary career as a police officer in California, died of a heart attack.
Gene was the oldest of six brothers and had paved the way for four of the brothers to enter law enforcement as a career. Gene’s death was really hard to handle. But it wasn’t the last. Steve kept getting pummeled by a low season of hardships.
Another friend had a heart attack. Another friend died in an on-duty motorcycle accident. Meanwhile, Steve was in severe pain, needing a knee replacement. And a close family member attempted suicide.
“I was in a dark, dark place,” Steve recalls. “My knee was killing me. Everything was crumbling around me.”
In the midst of all his pain, Steve created the Johnny Lawrence Project in honor of his friend who’d died. He didn’t want to see other first responders die because of unseen symptoms. So, he applied for a grant to provide a comprehensive health screening for police officers in his town. It included a heart scan, a sleep study, a diet study, a functional fitness test, and a PTSD suicide screen. He put 57 officers through the screening and won a Department of Justice award.
Even though it looked like life was going well for Steve and he was helping others, inside he was dying. He had a foundation of faith and had been ministered to by Navigators First Responder Ministry, but during this dark period he withdrew, isolating himself and not letting anyone else into his dark thoughts.
“I was dark, bro,” Steve says of that time. “I went underground. Drinking was the only tool I knew how to use. I didn’t reach out to anyone for help.”
Steve went to Phoenix to give a speech on officer wellness while far from well himself. It was there that he heard an audible voice in the night.
“Get on your bike,” he heard. “It’s gonna save your life.”
Whoa! What was that?
The voice came again. Demanding. Insistent. Yet not scary.
“Get on your bike. It’s gonna save your life.”
Previously Steve had been invited to join some other officers from his town to the Police Unity Tour, a 300-mile bike ride ending in Washington, D.C. Steve had brushed off the idea until the voice in the night insisted on it. The day of the dream was his brother Gene’s birthday. So, he decided to get on his bike and ride in honor of Gene.
Training for the ride wasn’t easy. Not only was he rehabbing from his knee replacement, but unusual weather kept him from riding on the streets for a month.
Despite the obstacles, the day of the Police Unity Tour arrived, and Steve was as ready as he was going to be. The riders left him in the dust, and he finished the first leg 20 minutes behind the next-to-last rider.
“Dude, you’ve got to pick up your pace,” a rider said has he passed Steve. “It would have probably helped you if you lost some weight first.”
That was so demoralizing, it launched Steve into a round of negative self-talk.
The second day started out well. But the ride was 111 miles, including 2,500 feet of elevation gain. And Steve was close to last again.
“My legs were almost completely blown,” he said. And there were still two more segments to go.
He made it to the lunch break, but despair set it, knowing the next 25-mile leg included a 1,500-foot elevation climb. His mind crowded with negative talk and self-doubt. “I’ll tell them my knee hurts and I need a break,” he said to himself.
So, he started looking for the sag wagon, for those who need a break. The internal battle was brutal, calling himself a quitter and searching for the fortitude to press on. Steve texted his wife and kids, asking for prayer, and they inundated him with encouragement, love, and prayers.
When the whistle blew for the start of the dreaded leg, he could barely move. That’s when he heard a voice from behind him. “Where did you get that old school Torrance patch?”
Steve had a patch from Gene’s old uniform shirt on his biking jersey.
“It belonged to my brother,” Steve replied. “He was a Torrance cop for 29 years.”
“What was your brother’s name?”
“Dude, I was your brother’s partner for five years,” the other rider said.
The coincidence brought tears to Steve’s eyes immediately. As they continued to talk, he discovered that the Torrance department had never been in this race before. Not only that, the rider he met was retiring and wouldn’t be doing the race again. Their meeting seemed providential.
“Your brother was a gentle giant,” the officer shared with Steve how much Gene was loved by his fellow officers, how much he was missed.
The break ended and the two made their way to their bikes. And before too long, they hit a hill that went straight up. And Steve could feel his legs fail beneath him and his bike began to slow down.
“There’s no way I’ve got this,” he thought. His legs felt like they were on fire.
But just before he was going to veer to the side of the road, step off his bike, and flag down the sag wagon, he felt a hand grip his bike seat.
“I’ve got you brother,” he heard a voice say. “What you are doing in honor your brother is amazing and there is no way I’m going to let you fail.”
It was his brother’s partner who got him to the top of the hill.
Steve bombed down the other side of the hill, hoping to build up enough momentum for the next hill. But he slowed down.
Another hand grabbed his bike seat—another Torrance officer who knew Gene. Together they conquered the second hill.
On the third hill, another hand grabbed Steve’s bike seat. “I worked with Gene in traffic,” the rider said. “We’re not going to let you fail, brother. You’re going to do this.”
The fourth hill was an easier climb and Steve made the top on his own.
The fifth hill was a monster. But, again, a hand grabbed his bike seat and eased the strain on his legs. This guy was different. “I never knew your brother,” he said. “But we’re not going to let you fail.”
With the help of the Torrance officers, Steve finished the day among the top riders.
The final day wasn’t easy, but it was the home stretch and Steve was able to keep pushing himself until he made it.
“I have never felt as close to God and my brother as during that ride” he said of the experience. “In the moment of despair, in my darkest time, I reached out to God. And He sent these officers to help me. I was physically and mentally broken. I was full self-doubt, exhausted, and ready to quit. But I reached out. I said, ‘I just need a little something.’ And I got it in those four guys. It reaffirmed my faith in God and others.”
When Steve thought he couldn’t make it over the next hill, the Lord provided help right when he needed it.
Praise God for the many ways that first responders support each other through difficult seasons. Pray that many more will live out the gospel and grow generations of disciplemakers among first responders.