-- This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 29 Fame Issue. Subscribe today!
CALL ME DT. On a more formal basis, I'm Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro Jr., but it's really DT who will be competing in the second Invictus Games in Orlando starting on May 8. The games showcase some of the finest competitors you've never heard of, men and women from the world's armed services who refuse to let their disabilities conquer their competitive spirit. I'll compete in shot put, discus, javelin and cycling, and I'll be bringing my lucky hat.
To look at me, you might think, "How lucky can that guy be?" An IED explosion in Afghanistan in December 2005 burned away the cartilage on my face and destroyed the fingers on both of my hands. But to borrow a line from Lou Gehrig, I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the face of the earth. I have a beautiful wife, Carmen, who's been a pillar of strength, and a wonderful 13-year-old son who carries my name and my pride. I've got thousands of friends from my 19 years in the Air Force, not to mention the incredible camaraderie of my sports community. I've even gotten to throw out the first pitch in my hometown for my favorite team, the White Sox.
I'm also fortunate because I've been given the opportunity to tell my story, a story with a moral attached to it. That message is embodied by a battle-ax I received from a group I instructed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The inscription on it reads: "Thank you for being a true testament to the NFQ attitude." The N is for never; the Q is for quit; and I'll leave you to figure out what the F stands for.
Now, about that hat. It's just an Adidas baseball cap I bought when I was stationed in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the '90s. I took it with me everywhere and had it in my left back pocket in Afghanistan when we went on a mission to try to ambush insurgents on Dec. 4, 2005. Unfortunately, our Humvee rolled over a mine, and suddenly I was engulfed in flames. After I was thrown into a nearby creek to douse the flames, my first thought was that I was never going to see my wife and son again. My second thought was, "That sucked."
I was airlifted to a military hospital -- I remember the doctor cutting the watch off my wrist, but nothing else after that. I was then flown to San Antonio and was in a coma for three months. The doctors said I would probably never walk again and would have to spend the rest of my life on a respirator. "Screw that," I thought.
There was one time, though, when I did feel disheartened. I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror, and I was horrified, not because of vanity but because I was worried about what my 3-year-old son was going to think. What was he going to do when he saw me? When the day finally arrived, he looked at me, called out "Papi!" and gave me a hug. He just wanted his dad. And I wanted to live to see him grow up, to play ball with him and do the things I didn't get to do with my father, who died when I was 12. That helped me to defy the prognosis of the doctors by getting out of the hospital in May 2006.
Shortly thereafter, I was awarded the Purple Heart in front of my Air Force teammates and friends and family members. You know what else I was given? I was given the Adidas hat that was in my left back pocket. There's discoloration on it, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape.
During my recovery, sports was also a godsend. I had always been a good athlete, and in therapy I discovered the wonders of adaptive sports. I could compete in events I never thought were possible for me: track and field, cycling, air rifle. Who ever imagined I would set world records in the discus, shot put and javelin?
Along the way, I achieved another milestone. In 2010, I became the first 100 percent disabled veteran to re-enlist in the Air Force. I couldn't return to combat, but I could train personnel, give speeches and represent the service in adaptive sports events.
At the first Invictus Games, held in London in 2014, I had an audience with Prince Harry, the guiding force behind the games. More specifically, he wanted to see the lucky hat he had heard so much about. So there I was, DT, showing His Royal Highness this ratty, slightly singed baseball cap. It's funny what can rise from the ashes.
-- AS TOLD TO STEVE WULF