Metro Detroit community sends local hero Sean English off to Purdue in style

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Former U-D track star Sean English shows off his black-and-gold Purdue prosthesis. He was set to move into his dorm room Sunday.

Ferndale — Sean English stopped to help some strangers, and it cost him his right leg.

This weekend, hundreds of strangers returned the favor, helping English, the former U-D Jesuit track-and-field star, fulfill his longtime dream of attending Purdue University.

On Sunday, a day after the Metro Detroit community came together and raised more than $8,000 for English's tuition during a packed event at the Ferndale Elks Lodge, English was all set to move into his dorm in West Lafayette, Ind.

"It's been a lot of ups and downs. It started in the hospital, and now I'm here walking," English said in a conversation with The Detroit News, sitting on an outdoor patio couch as Woodward Avenue traffic buzzed in the background. "Now I'm gonna be lifting those boxes, and I never thought I'd be able to do that.

"I'm going to be independent for the first time in my life. Physically and mentally, I'm ready to do that."

"As parents," said Sean's father, Sean Sr., "we are so proud."

English, 18, was well on his way to earning a track scholarship from Purdue when, following his junior season, he was heading to Sunday Mass with his mother and father when they spotted an overturned vehicle on I-96, near the Davison.

They stopped to help — "It was the right thing to do," said Sean Jr. — and the chain of events that would follow would forever alter the course of several lives.

An 18-year-old driver crashed his car into English and another Good Samaritan, a local doctor, that morning of April 2, 2017. The doctor died. English underwent months of surgeries — "We lost count at 13," Sean Sr. said — and grueling physical therapy. The driver was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison.

Yet, through it all, English, who also played basketball, has stayed remarkably positive and maintained a dashing sense of humor, even on the worst of days — an attribute that has made him easy to root for. When he first arrived at the hospital, he told his sister and best friend, Meghan, to call Applebee's, where English worked as a host. He was on the schedule that day. "Tell them I don't think I can make it," English said, though he doesn't remember it — he was heavily medicated. "Maybe tomorrow." Weeks later, when he was told that amputation was the best option for a better quality of life, he looked at the doctors and, with barely a pause, said, "Hey, you've gotta do what you've gotta do." He even says today, "I wouldn't do it any other way." Think about that.

"Well, a lot of things in life, a lot of challenges are more mental than they are physical," said English, who was a track captain, also ran cross country and got to run one more high school race, in May, as friends and family looked on with pride — and tears.

"It's very easy to be down in the dumps, but then it makes whatever you're going through harder. So if I kept a smile on my face even though I was going through some pain, then it would make it easier for me to keep going."

In the weeks and months after the accident, English considered changing his college plans — to attend Southfield's Lawrence Tech, where his mother, Peggy, works and where he could, thus, get free tuition. That would've been the easy route.

But Purdue, where his dad once ran track, always has been the goal. And he decided that's where he wanted to be, even if it meant having to pay largely out of pocket — in other words, the hard way. A hand-written letter from Purdue president Mitch Daniels — who, in a face-to-face meeting, Sean Jr. called "Mitch," to the absolute horror of his father, who would've much preferred, "President Daniels" — helped convince him. So did one campus visit that included a meet-and-greet with Purdue men's basketball coach Matt Painter. He's hopeful of dunking again one day (he claims to have dunked one time before, though acknowledged it was questionable), and dreams of walking on the basketball team (not as some publicity stunt; he wants to earn it).

Sean English with his family -- sister Meghan, father Sean Sr. and mother Peggy -- during Saturday's college fundraiser in Ferndale.

He's also still hopeful there might be some academic-scholarship money available.

"I am a living, walking billboard for them," English, whose prosthesis features the Purdue logo and colors, said with a laugh.

Saturday's event will help, no doubt.

Donations from dozens of local businesses and individuals — almost all of whom had never met English before Saturday but were inspired by his story and resolve — raised $8,200, and the Elks are continuing to collect donations for the next week.

"One thing that stands out," said Sean Sr., wearing a maroon "Sean Strong" wristband, "is the generosity of strangers."

Several local dignitaries were in attendance Saturday, including Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson and state Sen. Marty Knollenberg. Knollenberg called English "a hero, that's what we have here today." Attorney General Bill Schuette sent a proclamation, reading, in part, that "you represent the best of Michigan."

English never was officially offered a track scholarship from Purdue. That was likely to come during his senior year — he ran a 4:29 mile as a sophomore — but then the accident happened. Purdue coaches expressed remorse they couldn't extend the athletic scholarship, but they did offer him a spot as a team manager. English had to decline, because he's not out of the woods yet. While at Purdue, he will continue to undergo physical therapy three days a week, on campus, not far from his dorm. And he needs at least three more surgeries, on his left leg, which the English family all refers to as "the good leg," with air quotes. They would like to put those off until after his first year of college, but they could happen at any time, should something go wrong physically.

Either way, expect English to approach the future like he has the past — with a smile and a shrug ("Never once," said Sean Sr., "did he say, 'Why me?'"), and, of course, a tireless work ethic. He actually was a folk hero, of sorts, early in his days of physical therapy; they'd say take one step, he'd walk down the whole hallway. Eventually, physical therapists even began bringing in down-in-the-dumps patients just to watch English work out.

It's been inspiring, to be sure, and almost certainly will continue to be. That includes those closest to him, like Meghan English, 24, who since the accident has changed her career focus to nursing — enamored with the care her brother received during his five weeks in the hospital. And, yes, that includes total strangers.

"If other people can see me smiling, if other people can see me going through hell and just realizing I am going to be OK and I'm gonna be completely fine and happy in the end, then whatever they're going through, hopefully I can help them with that," English said. "Life is way too short, that grudge that you've been holding or whatever it is, it's way too short to keep.

"You never know when you're never going to talk to anyone again, you never know when it's going to be your last conversation.

"Be happy for the situation you're in, because there's a lot of people out there that are doing way worse than you."