Out of the Depths

Out of the Depths


Words by Andrew Campo | Photography by John Ryan Hebert


In February of 2014, I traveled to Mexico with one of my best friends, Cody Schafer, to attend a four-day ride down the Baja California peninsula. The ride was led by Cameron Steele, and our group of roughly twenty riders consisted of several lead industry figures, including the seven-time Supercross Champion Jeremy McGrath. We had no idea that “The King” himself would be joining us, and I’m pretty sure I saw Schafer pinching himself in disbelief as we geared up for the ride. Life was at an all-time high, and I was experiencing it with one of my best friends.

The days in Baja were full of twisting singletrack, massive hill climbs, surfside wheelies, frosty cervezas and campfire laughter deep into the night. But like all good things, the ride came to a close, and as we loaded up the van, thanked the crew, said our goodbyes and began to pull out of the parking lot, we heard some yelling and banging on the side of the van. Schafer stopped and McGrath came running up to his window to have one last word with him. “I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed riding with you, you have a great style, and it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope we get to ride again.” 

McGrath walked away, and Schafer and I looked at each other in disbelief at the amazing gesture from one of the most respected men ever to throw a leg over a motorcycle. Like any other kid growing up in the ’90s with a love for dirt bikes, Schafer idolized McGrath. With Schafer’s humble nature, you’d never know that his list of accomplishments at the time included winning Class 21 Pro at the Baja 1000 the year before, representing the United States at the International Six Days Enduro, and holding several Colorado off-road championship titles. It was a surreal moment for him, but he is someone who truly deserved the accolade.

Five years later in September of 2019, I received a call from Schafer’s wife, Hannah, and my heart sank. She informed me that he had been airlifted to a hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after colliding head-on with another racer in a freak accident during a sighting lap at a regional hare scramble event. I was in shock, and all I could do was pray, try to keep calm and do my best to manifest some positive energy. In 2012, Schafer and I had lost one of our best friends and mentor PJ Marquez, who had helped Schafer realize his racing goals of moving up in the professional ranks. From the pain of that loss we have become like family, and I could not fathom losing another friend. Every passing hour felt like an eternity.

Although Schafer’s accident was both brutal and life-changing, thankfully after a few days we learned that it was not going to be life-threatening. His list of injuries included multiple facial fractures, bleeding of the brain, a torn posterior cruciate ligament, a torn lateral collateral ligament, a torn meniscus from hyperextending his left knee, a broken wrist, and a shoulder injury that was causing immeasurable pain. Schafer was hospitalized for nearly two weeks as doctors monitored his brain bleeding through multiple CT scans on a daily basis. He was experiencing an intense battle with nerve pain as the result of his brachial plexus injury, and he had severed the nerves from both C5-C6 vertebrae, resulting in paralysis of the left arm.

“The weeks following the accident are still pretty fuzzy to me,” Schafer says. “Although, there are also memories that are so clear I could never forget them. The sound of the impact of my accident is something I will never forget. The feeling of rolling over on the mountain and watching my arm just flop is burned into my memories. Getting loaded up into the helicopter and the wave of calm that came with the fentanyl is a strange numb feeling I hope to never have again. I remember laying on a gurney in the hallway in the hospital crying and begging for some sort of pain meds.” 

Roughly a week into his hospital stay, the doctor finally came in and told Schafer, “You have sustained a brachial plexus injury and will never use that arm again.” But Schafer didn’t accept this diagnosis, and thankfully neither did Hannah. She immediately got to work searching for a specialist who could help.

Once he returned home to Colorado, he was able to visit multiple specialists, and they scheduled him for several electromyography (EMG) tests. From those tests, they determined that he had ripped the nerves for the left arm out of the C5 and C6 vertebrae and had severely damaged the remaining nerves from his spinal cord to his left arm. A local plastic surgeon referred him to a specialist in St. Louis who specializes in brachial plexus injuries. He was fortunate enough to get an appointment to see Susan Mackinnon for a consultation, a highly respected doctor who is recognized as the first to perform a nerve transfer surgery. 

“When I first met Dr. Mackinnon, she asked me how I knew her grad student that referred me?” Schafer recalls. “Hannah and I were both confused by the question and asked what she meant. She said that she only took me as a patient because her student referred me. The crazy thing is, the doctor who performed the EMG tests on me in Colorado was not her old student, but had the same exact name as one of her students. What are the odds?”  Twelve hours later, Schafer was on the operating table.

Three additional eight-hour nerve transplant surgeries were required over the next couple of months, including a wrist nerve to the bicep, a hand squeeze nerve to the bicep, a triceps nerve to the deltoid, and a trapezius nerve to the supraspinatus for external rotation.

Now the waiting game was staring him dead in the eye. There would be no immediate results from those surgeries, and it was still highly unlikely that he would ever regain any movement. This is about the time I saw Schafer start to become more mentally vulnerable, something that was extremely out of character for him, but as his new reality was setting in he began to realize everything that used to be normal for him was now a thing of the past. He felt lost, and rightfully so. His bright future was now overshadowed by the unknown, and he says he felt like he had been forgotten by the racing community he once called home. He was searching for answers, for reason, and it broke my heart to see him so full of doubt, struggling to find his identity and in desperate need of his friends, family and restored faith. 

“The first couple of months following my injury I was taking a lot of pain medication, I was very depressed and thought that life as I knew it was over,” Schafer says. “Then I saw a video of a guy in Europe riding mountain bikes with the same injury as I had.  I just wanted to be on two wheels again and decided the safest way to try to do it was first on a bicycle.  The time spent outside and the fresh air really helped bring me back to life.  It was really hard to ride with only one functioning arm, but I figured out it was possible. The mountain bike helped me refocus my energy in hopes of making the best of every passing day.” 

During this time I witnessed Schafer regaining some of his physical strength, and becoming mentally strong enough to reach out to others in need, and more importantly to have the confidence to let himself be carried by others. I saw Schafer weekly and was able to witness one hell of a transformation over the next couple of years. He mastered the art of patience, and in doing so used his time as an opportunity to help coach young racers through riding camps organized by his church, and he began riding his mountain bike at level most of us can’t even comprehend.

In July of 2020 I received another phone call that made my heart sink yet again. This time it was from Schafer, and he simply said, “Campo get your ass out of bed, it’s race day.” I didn’t ask many questions, and an hour or so later I watched him return to off-road racing in the Pro Class where he had left off. His arm still doesn’t work, but his hand is just strong enough to hold onto the grip, and that’s all he needed to place fourth overall that day.

Over the past two years, Schafer has been doing his best to live a normal life. Riding bikes and doing the things that bring him joy. And in time, life would present offerings greater than any adversity when Hannah gave birth to their beautiful son Craig Walter Schafer. It’s been horrible to stand by and watch him overcome so much pain and adversity, but it’s truly inspiring to see how far he’s been able to come, and I’m excited to see where life takes him next. I hope that by sharing his story it will help to inspire other people to believe in better days. To let those who love you carry you when they can, and to never let go of the desire to live each day to fullest, no matter what the odds are.

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