Manhattan Teen Crash Victim 'A Miracle,' Walks At Graduation

MANHATTAN, IL — Just 14 weeks ago, Brenden Wetzel’s senior year of high school looked pretty bleak. But he was lucky to be alive—and he knew it.

The Manhattan teen was critically injured after losing control of and crashing his truck on the way to school one February morning. He broke both legs and arms, lacerated his spleen, suffered a concussion and underwent multiple surgeries in the days and weeks after. Lost in the crash, too, was his beloved Dodge Ram truck — and even more crushing for a mom-described “good ol’ country boy,” his cherished Ariat cowboy boots. First responders had been forced to cut them off of him that day, though they’d make it up to him a little later, with a new pair of the exact same ones.

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In the months since, Wetzel set two very ambitious goals for himself—take his girlfriend to not one, but two proms, and walk across the stage at his graduation from Lincoln-Way West High School. With doctors saying it would be months before he’d be weight-bearing on one leg, he’d settle for using crutches for both.

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But he didn’t have to.

Wetzel made it to both proms, and walked to grab his diploma Wednesday, May 24. Without crutches.

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“He never got down on himself, he was so, so positive,” his mom Josie Wetzel told Patch, of her son’s determination. “His outlook of ‘I got this, and I’m gonna get through it, I’m gonna be stronger,’ even helped me.

“I’m so proud of him, we are all so, so proud of him.”

The popular Manhattan teen’s recovery stirred substantial support from the community, with a GoFundMe raising more than $30,000. A portion of the funds has gone toward medical bills, Josie told Patch, and some went toward Wetzel’s new prized possession: a 2003 F-250, lifted.

Josie can clearly remember the day first responders told her if her son had been in anything other than a truck, he might not have survived the impact of the crash.

“It’s a country boy’s truck,” she said. “I like that it’s so big, because they said that if he wasn’t in a big vehicle, he wouldn’t have made it. … It’s a big, huge truck.”

Wetzel dedicated himself to his recovery. He kept up with schoolwork remotely, attended physical and occupational therapy multiple times each week.

“He was catching up,” Josie said. “His teachers were pretty awesome, but he still had a good amount of work to do. He was able to catch up, and even improve some of his grades.”

Wetzel’s positivity kept him grounded, Josie said. Five days before the first of two proms he wanted to attend with his girlfriend Gia, his doctor cleared Wetzel to ditch the crutches.

“I’ve definitely proud of myself for keeping up with the therapies, reaching my goals far before what I had them set for,” Wetzel told Patch. “I’m glad I have the awesome support in my life, with the doctors, parents, everyone else that’s rooting for me.”

Graduation was an impactful moment for the family.

“I was emotional before it even started,” Josie said, laughing. “… replaying a lot of the last 14 weeks in my head, and not even thinking that it was going to be possible for him to go back to school—but he was able to overcome it.”

Wetzel kept his goals firmly in sight. He wanted to experience the last of his high school milestones, but also be able to enjoy what he described would be one of his last “childhood summers.”

“I just wanted to get back to normal,” Wetzel said. “Get back to being an 18-year-old, experience one of my last, childhood summers.”

With high school wrapped up, Wetzel now hopes to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and become a union sheet metal worker. Ideally, his apprenticeship will begin in August, he said.

In the meantime, he’s got a lot of living to do. He’s at about 85 percent to recovery, with some work to do to reach 100 percent.

“It is crazy, but he did it,” Josie said. “He’s really excited to be able to be an 18-year-old kid again.”

Wetzel said he’s felt the support from so many.

“I’m so thankful for everyone that had my back, donated to the GoFundme for the bills and everything,” he told Patch. “I couldn’t thank them enough for helping me out when they completely didn’t have to, but they chose to go ahead and do so.

“And all the prayers that everyone sent … definitely feeling them.”

Her son’s determination has inspired Josie, she said, and she knows how fortunate they are.

“We’re in a good place now,” she said. “Brenden is nothing short of a miracle.”

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