Greg Gardner ’91 came to campus as a state wrestling champ, mentally and physically psyched for the grueling schedule of an NCAA student-athlete. Equally determined to gain his teaching credentials, he was ready to tackle classes in DeGarmo Hall.
Greg lived his dream of wrestling well at Illinois State, rising to a national ranking two consecutive years. He excelled with his College of Education degree, becoming a beloved Central Illinois special education teacher and respected administrator.
But what he really gained from his days as a Redbird was something far more nebulous and precious: A soul mate who shared his better days, but also stayed for those that were far more worse than either could have envisioned.
The dark days started with a routine jog before work on the rainy morning of January 11, 2005. In a tragic split second, Greg’s world was shattered by an accident that left him a quadriplegic.
“It was a Tuesday morning. I was home getting the kids ready, and knew he should have been back,” recalled his wife, Roxanne (Rahn) ’89. Her anxiety escalated when a neighbor arrived with news that Greg had been hit by a vehicle near their Springfield home. Struck from behind, he ended up on the car’s hood.
Greg’s left tibia was shattered. As he was rushed to the hospital with a compound fracture, Roxanne was concerned about an infection from the open wound. She worried about Greg’s heart, as he was still recovering from surgery months earlier to fix a mitro valve. Jogging was part of a regiment to regain his strength.
Greg was alert and moving at the hospital. He expressed to Roxanne his dismay over the stress his accident created for her. She had just ended a fight against thyroid cancer. How would she care for him and their girls—Bre, Brooke, and Kate, who were 10 or younger at the time—while still rebounding from her own physical battle?
The weight she would carry multiplied when it became clear after surgery that there were complications. Not only had Greg suffered a stroke, but a spinal cord compression left him paralyzed from the chest down.
“It was the hardest moment ever to act like our world was not destroyed,” Roxanne said. “I tried to protect him as much as I could. There was no crying over his bed. I kept things as simple and positive as possible.”
Greg was in a medical stupor in intensive care. “I still don’t remember that first month,” he said. Roxanne went into a tailspin, relying on the family’s strong faith. There were “lots of great God moments,” she said, recalling how the Redbird cohort of Greg’s wrestling buddies rallied with the couple’s extended family, friends from their Baptist church, and coworkers. The Gardner team went from filling the hospital waiting room and providing meals for six months to building a home addition to accommodate a hospital bed.
The help was desperately needed, as Greg was unable to move his right side when discharged. “For the first six months to a year I worked just to touch my nose and feed myself,” said Greg, who was 36 at the time of the accident. The effort was especially excruciating for him as a disciplined athlete who had moved with such precision and speed on the wrestling mat.
“I wrestled early on and I loved it,” Greg said, explaining that the sport is a passion pursued by the entire family. His father, Jack, and uncle Jim Gardner, coached the sport. They started working with Greg when he was 10.
By the time he reached Springfield’s Southeast High School, Greg’s abilities were known throughout the community. A three-time city champion, he made it to state three times and earned all-state honors his junior and senior years.
Greg captured the first state wrestling championship for Springfield as a senior in 1986, winning the title at 155 pounds. He ended that season with a 43-0 record—including 32 pins—and finished his high school career with 136 wins. Along the way he captured third place at the Jr. National Freestyle Tournament, earning All-American status. In the off-season he opted for football, becoming a captain and MVP of the high school team.
Greg’s athletic ability caught the eye of the late Illinois State head wrestling coach George Girardi, who was eager to add another Gardner to his team. His older brother, Mark ’91, M.S. ’00, also wrestled as a Redbird; as did their younger brother, Brad ’96, and cousin, Andy ’94.
Beyond continuing a family legacy, Greg’s five-year scholarship meant the opportunity to pursue his dream of working in special education. “Academics were hard for me. Given my own learning struggles, I picked special education,” Greg said. “I wanted to teach and coach.”
After a redshirt year, he was eager to compete again. In his second match, Greg blew out his knee. The injury required reconstructive surgery and ended his season, but the setback was temporary. Gardner persevered and rose to be ranked in the nation’s top 12 as a junior and senior. He was named MVP and captain his last two years at ISU, advanced to the NCAA championships as a senior, and finished with an overall record of 83-32.
Roxanne shared many of those Redbird moments, as the two met at Illinois State through their roommates. She was working toward an early childhood degree when they became a couple in 1986. Their first date was a Chinese meal shared in Wright Hall on Valentine’s Day.
The two married in 1991 and settled into teaching jobs in the Springfield area. Greg completed a master’s in education administration at University of Illinois-Springfield. He returned to Southeast High School to teach behavioral disorder kids before becoming a department chair, coaching a National Freestyle Team of wrestlers on the side.
He also joined his father at the high school as an assistant wrestling coach, taking over as head coach at his alma mater when Jack retired from the position in 2003. That same year Greg became assistant regional superintendent of schools for Sangamon County.
Less than 24 months later, the routine was shattered. Greg could no longer work. His energy was focused on regaining strength and some mobility. There were multiple hospitalizations and intense physical therapy that continues yet today.
“I still work out three hours a day, five days a week,” Greg said. It takes huge effort to maintain the limited arm movement he has regained. The family has relocated to a wheelchair-accessible home and acquired a vehicle that Greg can operate, giving him the freedom needed to move forward.
He has done so with the same determination and attitude he displayed as a champion athlete. Having made the decision to put aside bitterness, Greg forgives the car’s driver. His mantra is to “live in the minute.”
“I wake up every morning and say there’s gonna be things I’m limited to. I’m still going to have a good life, but it’s just going to be a different kind of life,” Greg said. “It is absolutely a choice.”
On many days, it’s a difficult one to make. He struggled through some breakdowns, especially while initially hospitalized. “It was hard to give up my career, and there are so many things I miss about that. I have had to set new goals and be realistic,” Greg said. At the top of his list is to “set a good example for my girls and Roxanne,” which explains how there is so much joy despite adversity in the Gardner household.
“We have made a conscious decision that we want to be positive,” Roxanne said. When the girls initially asked her the hard questions about Greg’s ability to walk again, which doctors say is doubtful, Roxanne emphasized that he is still their dad. They adapted remarkably, in large part because Greg displays a sense of humor that is appreciated as much by the medical staff as his kids.
Roxanne and Greg were college sweethearts who married in 1991. They remain happily married and are the proud parents of three daughters, from left, Brooke, Bre, and Kate. Bre will continue the family ISU legacy as a freshman in the fall.
“His personality, what he stands for, and who he is as a person did not change,” Roxanne said, noting the family has grown stronger through their struggle. “We have become better people because we have lived through this experience. We have gained a compassion for others with special needs.”
From that emotion has come action. Greg uses his talents as an educator and administrator to help others. He does so through Individual Differences Inc., a nonprofit agency he founded in 2008 to provide support for persons with
“Everybody is born with an innate personality or quality to do one special thing,” he said. “Mine is to work with others who are disadvantaged.”
Beyond creating a space where individuals in need of physical therapy can come to workout, Individual Differences offers equipment on loan. It is also a source of information and advocacy services. Greg consults for families pursuing accommodations for a child within a school district. All services are free.
The work fills his schedule, which no longer includes coaching. The inability to demonstrate a move is just too frustrating. His love for wrestling remains strong, however, and he is still applauded for his accomplishments and contributions to the sport.
He was inducted into the Springfield Sports Hall of Fame last year, and received the Medal of Courage from the Illinois chapter of USA Wrestling’s National Wrestling Hall of Fame. The awards are meaningful, as Gardner credits the sport with his ability to rebuild his life.
“There are so many positives to being an athlete. I know what it takes to improve. And all those little things I learned in wrestling have made me disciplined in setting goals. Wrestling and athletics definitely helped me with recovery,” said Greg, who frequently shares his story through speaking
But it doesn’t take a microphone for Greg to be heard. Each day of his life is a poignant example for others. Always an educator, he now teaches how to triumph over tragedy, which is the most important lesson he can impart. Not surprisingly, he sums up his message with a sports analogy.
“The truest form of being a champion is overcoming adversity,” he said. “It shows character.”
Indeed, it does.