David Vobora knows a little bit about overcoming adversity. He was the very last player to be drafted in the 2008 NFL draft, earning him the not-so-coveted title of “Mr. Irrelevant,” the unofficial name given to the player that the league figures will have zero impact going forward. Vobora didn’t let the label slow him down though, as he began working his way up to starting linebacker for the St. Louis Rams, and then the Seattle Seahawks 3 years later. He achieved many personal goals during his time in the NFL, and got to play against his childhood hero, Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. By the time he was 28 however, the regular pummeling that comes along with being a professional football player had taken its toll on Vobora, and he decided to retire from the game.
David didn’t slow down at all however, and in 2012 he opened Performance Vault Inc., an elite training facility in Dallas, Texas. He didn’t stop there either; in 2014, Vobora opened Adaptive Training Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower and redefine the limitations facing individuals with disabilities. ATF also features free training for wounded veterans, and goes to great lengths to help restore a sense of community and purpose through training. The organization provides a much-needed support system and sense of accountability to the wounded warriors that enter the program, and the resulting empowerment and sense of self that they are able to reclaim through the program is invaluable to all parties involved.
We were lucky enough to be able to hop on a call with David recently, and talked with him about the program he runs for wounded veterans at Adaptive Training Foundation, as well as what gets him out of bed in the morning and how he stays motivated even when the going gets tough. We hope you enjoy learning about David and the incredible work he and his team are doing as much as we enjoyed talking with him!
LALO: For those of our followers who don’t know, could you summarize in a sentence or two what the Adaptive Training Foundation’s mission is?
DV: Our mission is to empower the human athlete, restore hope through movement and redefine the limits of individuals with disabilities. Our goal through the Adaptive Training Foundation is to offer optimization for people with physical impairment through our customized physical training programs. We believe that any person can seek to become a better version of themselves physically and mentally through our program. We serve the adaptive athlete, both veteran and civilian; primarily, but not limited to amputees and spinal cord injuries.
LALO: How do you choose to take people in to train at Adaptive Training Foundation?
DV: We have an application process that’s about 13 or 14 pages. It goes through a wide variety of questions, from medical questions down to some motivation and quality of life questions. We ask people how much pain they’re in, we talk to them about how motivated are they to attain goals both physically and emotionally and mentally; how ready are they to take that next step? Again, we roll 10 new applicants—10 new adaptive athletes—through our program, every 9 weeks. So that application process, I have a stack of applications of people that want to get into our program. This upcoming class that starts this Monday will be our first time bringing athletes nationally, housing them and then bringing them through our 9-week redefine program. The application can be found online through our athlete tab on our website, and people can come to the gym physically here in Dallas and pick one up as well.
I go present to my board of directors and to my team, explaining whom it is that I think really needs that last push. If someone can go to a typical gym and workout, they may not be a really great fit for our program—that’s not to say we wouldn’t allow them to come in if their application is such that we felt that they’d be a really good fit, and they are ready for that next step though. The goal then, as we grow, is to offer potential parallel classes. We like the idea of keeping classes at no more than ten people per-class; that really creates that tribal community. It creates the opportunity for them to know everyone that they’re training alongside during group sessions, or with everyone that they see during that nine-week period. It gives the ability for really strong relationships to form, which is absolutely critical to the success of our program.
LALO: Playing in front of tens of thousands of people every week like you did in the NFL must’ve been quite a rush! Not to compare apples and oranges, but is there an aspect of what you’re doing now that brings a similar sense of excitement or enthusiasm?
DV: Well, you nailed it, there’s no rush quite like running out in front of 80,000 screaming people. The feeling that what you’re doing on the field echoes—not only in the physical sense right in front of you when you make those plays—but kind of in eternity as well, is special, and I don’t think you can replicate that feeling. All of that said, my dream was to play in the NFL, and I fulfilled that, but I lacked the [feeling of] fulfillment because I had to have such tunnel vision to get there and to have success, that I got kind of near-sighted. I was robbed of some of the joy along the way. What I mean is, it’s not that I didn’t care about people during that journey, because I think I was still the same David, but I think the way that I export who I am now, the fulfillment and the excitement that I get to see when I utilize my gifts to help our adaptive athletes, these wounded warriors, when I see them get that breakthrough, when they hit that goal, whether it’s something as seemingly insignificant as someone standing up again on their own, taking their first steps unassisted, being able to push up a wheelchair ramp by themselves, I mean these are all goals that our athletes have had and have attained—all the way up to athletes that are competing in the Paralympics, they’re making the U.S. Team, they’re competing in Ironman races, they’re going and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and doing these massive feats. I get immeasurable amounts of joy from that. It’s truly rewarding.
Although the “Grid Iron” isn’t where I’m seeking that same type of excitement anymore, I definitely still get the rush from when I see them break through, and that’s truly incredible for me. So what we do is we recalibrate these competitors, offer them the opportunity to compete again, and through that they find a way to come alive, and those milestones, when they reach them, are just as significant for me.
LALO: Do you ever have any days when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning? What keeps you motivated?
DV: Anyone that tells you that they don’t have mornings where they wake up and they want to hit that snooze button is lying! I’m a morning person, I wake up really early and I’ve always just sort of been wired that way. I remember being a little kid and waking up early to steal Pop-Tarts out of the pantry to go curl up and watch cartoons even before my parents got up, so I think part of that is just innate. You know, for me, with my football career especially, I formed this habit of getting up and getting my work in before my competitor, because I always felt like I had to be the first one to say that I made that deposit at the bank; that no one was going to beat me to it and that no one was going to work harder than me. So I think that hard work factor has always played a big key role in my motivation. Working hard is easy, but for me, I think you’ve got to work smarter, and that’s where I’m looking for balance at this point in my life. I’m looking to not have to just “white knuckle” it and bleed for what I do on a daily basis anymore. You know in football, it was a very easy kind of “X+Y=Z”, and in this non-profit space in the business world, kind of as an entrepreneur and someone that is developing the different facets of business and in his life, it’s really easy for me to kind of go all in and recognize that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
So, I definitely have days where I have to find that motivation and dig deep, and it’s really easy for me; I have two little girls and I don’t have to look any further than them, my wife, these warriors that I work with, you know they all motivate me. For me, it’s an easy, easy response when I recognize that I have something to offer daily. And I want people to be encouraged to recognize that, even when they’re down to nothing, God is up to something. And if they’re willing to just take a step out, step out in faith—and whether you have a really active faith in religion, spirituality, or not, there’s a saying, “Don’t be so worried about doing the right thing next, just do the next thing right.” There’s been times in my life where it has not been clear what my path was, but I’ve just put one foot in front of the other, and when the fog cleared I recognized that I had gained ground. Definitely look for motivation. Find someone that has something that you want in their life, and learn from them. Be able to walk alongside them and gain knowledge around why they have something special—not tangible things, you know, I don’t mean cars and money—I mean someone that has a “Why.” Even if you lack your “Why”, you can come along people that are passionate about something in their life, and that can make all the difference.
LALO: You clearly have a strong respect and appreciation for our country’s servicemen and women; when did that develop?
DV: I come from 3 generations of Marines, so it’s in my blood to a certain extent. My grandfather was my hero, and I would make him tell me war stories all the time. So yeah, it’s kind of in my blood. But back when I was playing for the St. Louis Rams, we would go to Scott Air Force base, where we would play with the kids for the NFL’s “Play 60” program. One of the servicemen I ran into while we were out there, he said “thank you,” which really took me by surprise; I thought it was ridiculous that he was thanking me, given the service he’s done for our country. But he told me, he said, “When we’re on deployment, for the 3 hours we’re watching the game, we’re home.” I had never thought of it that way before, and I thought that was so cool. That was a light bulb moment for me; that mutual respect and appreciation that we had for each other, it showed me that there was a real commonality between our warriors and athletes.
I think humans were built for connectedness, we’re built for community. Even though those service members are over there doing the real job, they’re the true heroes, what we’re doing here matters. There’s a ripple effect, and that’s powerful. So the commonality between the warriors and athletes is this idea that we had to have this tunnel vision when we were going out there to put it on the line. Suddenly now when you’re removed from that, that opportunity, whether it’s football or whether it’s retiring from the service, you lack the next ridgeline, and you also miss the brother next to you. So that’s why it’s so critical for us to pick the pack back up and get back in the fight in some capacity at the community and local level. You need a call, and that call is built into the human experience I think. The ability to create ways to export that is everything; being honest to recognize when you need help and how to ask for help is such a critical piece. I just love what our flag stands for man; I’m as patriotic as anybody, and I love to celebrate the ones who put it all on the line to protect our freedom.
LALO: Without trying to state the obvious, Adaptive Training Foundation—and you specifically—are known for coming up with innovative ways to rehabilitate and train veterans that may not be able to perform more traditional exercises; what is your philosophy when it comes to training, especially when it comes to altering more traditional training to meet the needs of the individual you’re working with at any given time?
DV: I’ve always thought that creativity is clever rearrangement. For me, creativity and being able to improvise has always been important, back from the days when I was still “Mr. Irrelevant,” and I had to prove myself every day. If you were a business, you’d reinvest to grow— so I got faster, stronger. I had always wanted to know the “how and the why” of training, and I have a knack for understanding and learning quickly. What I found was that a lot of traditional methods were putting athletes at high risk, so I began to look for better ways to train.
People ask all the time, “How did you get into this? What did you study? Etc.” I say look, human performance is what I had to know to give my career longevity in the NFL. When people ask how did I get into training these guys and what are my philosophies, I tell them I train them like a pro-athlete. Why not? Who cares if their bodies look a little bit different, if it’s missing some limbs or if it’s missing the capability to lift a leg or move out of a wheelchair. I really think that they come alive when they see the fact that I’m not going to give them sympathy.
And I’ve had some incredible mentors along the way; Gavin McMillan from Sports Science Labs in California absolutely taught me about training through such a different lens. It wasn’t about just “pain and gain” and sweating without purpose, it was about being intentional and finding creative ways so that training builds towards what you want to perform at. What a novel idea, right? There’s no twenty-fifth hour in the day, but you can create your own by integrating what you’re doing and what you’re practicing, as long as it directly correlates to what you’re going out to test yourself in. I don’t care if it’s tactically speaking or if it’s sport or if it’s in the fine arts. I’m sort of an engineer’s mind when it comes to training, but I’m definitely not [an engineer], aside from maybe changing the oil on my car, I couldn’t tell you anything about modern engineering. But I could tell you, when someone says, “hey look, here’s what we want to get to fire,” I could come up with maybe 20-50 ways to tell you how I would get it to do it, and then find innovative ways to approach it so that it doesn’t feel like rehab.
At ATF we don’t use words like “recover,” or “heal,” and that’s really intentional, because we come in post-rehabilitation; it’s like, sure, we’re creating psycho-social healing that is definitely rehabilitating these men and women, but it’s not from the stance of being soft about it, or being touchy about it. It’s just about saying, “Hey look man, we can use good pain to push out bad pain.” Through sweating together we can galvanize relationships and then people will open up. I think there’s a brilliance in people that are willing to share their scars, whether they’re physical or emotional or however you look at it. There’s this saying that I say quite often, that I don’t trust an “unbroken man.” I don’t want to be standing next to somebody who says that they’ve got it all put together, because those who are willing to share their scars are proof that they’re moving beyond them—and that’s a message for all people.
LALO: Adaptive Training Foundation is unique, in that you connect two pretty different worlds, that of the wounded veteran, and the aspiring professional athlete. Have you noticed either of those two cultures influencing the other? Do you see any similarities between the work ethic or goals of the up-and-coming athletes and the veterans you work with?
DV: I think the brilliance of the opportunity to train Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee, was the first time I saw that our NFL athletes could no longer complain about their pinky toe being sore. It was just a paradigm shift in perspective. We get certain perspective shifts in life, maybe because of some tragic news to you or to someone you know, maybe it’s because of a certain circumstance or situation that abruptly happens, and if those happen, it offers you some type of a revelation; that is typically what motivates people to change action. So what Travis became was a catalyst; he became this catalyst for a paradigm shift and a perspective awakening for so many of my “able-bodied” athletes. So even though you’ve got two groups of people who may look different from the outside, they’ve got a whole lot of will and a whole lot of grit and a bunch of spirit of people that are saying, “hey look, I have my individual goals that I’m working towards, but collectively as part of this tribe that trains inside of these four walls, I can find a gear that’s greater than my known capacity.” When you step into my facility it doesn’t feel like a gym. There’s no mirrors, and that’s intentional; we do have one mirror that we use that’s on wheels that we pull around to use as feedback for coaching, but it doesn’t feel like a gym, it feels like you’re coming to get some work in. It’s not pretentious, it doesn’t feel polished, and that’s very intentional. That’s that common thread again of the soldier and the athlete. There’s a lot of similar mindsets and common respect for being able to push past where you’re comfortable, and that’s what we embody between the Adaptive Training Foundation and then my Performance Vault lead athletes.
LALO: If you could train anyone—or train WITH anyone—whom would you train?
DV: Chuck Norris. Enough said.
LALO: Do you have a favorite game that you ever played in? Which was it and why?
DV: That’s a tough one… But my rookie year, the first-ever snap I had at linebacker in the NFL, that was pretty great. Then the first game I ever got to play against Brett Favre, my hero; that was tremendous. My first game beating my old team, the Seattle Seahawks, when I was playing with the Rams, that was definitely a highlight—you know, because you always want to go back and beat the team that traded you. I made a big sack against the Seahawks, which felt great. But I’d have to go with my first snap at line backer against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.
LALO: Who were your biggest supporters/mentors growing up? Are there any lessons of theirs that you still carry with you to this day?
DV: It’s got to be my parents and all the lessons they taught me. I’m a lot like my mom personality wise, but I’m more like my dad psychologically. They both taught me about the inherent worth of others. They taught me that when I commit, I need to see it through to the end. Sometimes you face mass adversity and it gets tough, but the understanding that I committed and need to persevere, there’re lessons to learn there.
My parents also taught me that all people deserve to be treated equally, and that all people have worth; you see people as whole people, you talk to people, you look them in the eye, you shake their hand, and so on. When you approach life that way, your eyes are constantly open to the brilliance of all that’s around you. That’s how you recognize that you’ve got this awareness, this ability of how to champion other people; how to make other people feel special. I’ve had plenty of people that taught me so much, my parents, my high school coach—a coach of mine that taught me so much in the weight room at 6am in the morning before high school, where I was learning the lessons of what it was going to take for me to be successful, all the way down to, you know, finding Gavin McMillan and what he’s done now for helping me with what I do for my vocation training people, there’s definitely been some pivotal moments.
LALO: What is your favorite professional sports team? Do you have a favorite player(s)?
DV: It’s interesting, because when you’ve played in the NFL, it’s tough to just watch the game as a spectator anymore; it’s difficult to take it for entertainment value. But I grew up a huge Niners fan, and then I became a Green Bay fan because of Brett Favre. I’ll put it this way; when I’m watching the NFL, I root for the teams my buddies are on. Other than that, I always love to root for the underdog. Then across all pro sports, team sports, nobody roots harder for the USA in international sports that I do. I yell and jump up and down and get totally into it! As far as Individual professionals that I respect, I like Steph Curry; I love how he handles himself in public, in his interviews, and with the fans, as well as how he puts his family first.
LALO: What is the one thing you would like to be remembered for?
DV: I’d like to be remembered for being the type of guy who walks into a room and says, “There you are.” A lot of guys like to say, “Here I am;” I want to say there you are. I don’t care who you are, or what you see yourself as, I believe there’s capability in all of us. People tend to put leadership just outside of arms reach for themselves, but they could all build others up. I want to be the guy who recognizes the potential and the capability in the people that I meet, not the one who tries to impress on others how great I am.