Jordan Running Back Coach an Inspiration to All Around Him
By Ron Bevan
Sandy - Just like any other assistant coach at any high school in Utah, Travis “Tra” Vendela prowls the sidelines during games, heavily invested in how his Jordan Beetdiggers are performing. He cheers the great plays, winces at mistakes, and calls his group, the running backs, around him to formulate additional game plans.
But unlike most coaches, Vendela does it from a wheelchair, thanks to a decision he made years ago that perhaps saved several lives. Vendela sacrificed both of his legs to protect his troops while serving in Iraq.
“He is probably the biggest example of resiliency for our players and coaches,” Eric Kjar, Jordan’s head football coach, said. “He has lots of reasons to not be out here on the field, but he shows up every day. He loves being out there with the kids and he enjoys the interaction with them. Obviously he is a great coach, too.”
Vendela grew up loving the sport of football. Born into a military family in Sheridan Wyo., Vendela was on the road throughout his youth as his father received new assignments. He began playing high school football in Texas, and then moved to Utah where he played cornerback at both Bountiful and Davis high schools.
“I loved the defensive side of the game,” Vendela said. “You can do more hitting on defense and I liked the physical aspect of it. I also liked that I could make the play that might take the glory away from the opposition.”
He was good enough as a cornerback that he received an offer to play at Texas Tech. But things just didn’t seem right for him.
“I had done some things in high school I shouldn’t have been doing,” Vendela said. “Something touched me on the head and told me to do something bigger and better. I was maturing.”
Vendela struggled with the decision to either play football or go into military service. He sought his father’s advice.
“My father asked if I was going to go in as an officer or enlisted,” Vendela said. “My father was both in his career and knew the officer route was a bit safer than enlisted, and the enlisted did the hard work.”
The day before he was to sign his football offer in 1997, Vendela made up his mind: a career in the Army. And, not one to be a pencil pusher, he would join as an enlisted soldier.
“When I told my dad I was going the enlisted route, he smiled at me and said, ‘You made the right decision,’” Vendela said.
Vendela served six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. During a leave from his third deployment, he went to visit a cousin at the University of Wyoming. It was there he met his future wife, Tiffany. Smitten, Vendela extended his leave to get to know her better and a few years later, prior to his final mission, he proposed.
His last mission to Iraq would change his life forever. Vendela, by now was a seasoned war veteran, was platoon sergeant for a reconnaissance unit. It was his unit’s job to lead a convoy of tanks into an Al-Qaeda stronghold in Iraq on Feb. 7, 2007.
Vendela knew the mission was going to be tough. Although a platoon sergeant usually rides in the back portion of his unit’s patrol, Vendela elected to lead.
“I knew I had more battle experience than the rest of my platoon,” he said. “I wanted to be able to anticipate and react to any threat we received. I knew that if something was to happen, I wanted it to happen to me.”
Vendela’s Humvee hit a small IED (improvised explosive device) while crossing a bridge over a river. The explosion partially damaged the Humvee, but its armor held and, being on the bridge, he knew there was no turning back. So they forged ahead.
“All it did was take the paint off my Humvee and cracked a window,” Vendela joked. “But we were taking some of the worst gunfire I had ever seen. It seemed like there was someone shooting at us from every building on the other side of the bridge. We had to push through for the mission.”
As they neared the crest of the bridge, Vendela saw what he knew was an IED buried ahead. And it wasn’t small: it was about the size of a refrigerator. His driver began to steer around it. But with all the vehicles coming up behind him, Vendela knew what he had to do.
“I had seen in the past some of the vehicles in the back would hit the IED, even when we would warn them,” Vendela said. “In my head I thought one of my men could be hit and die. I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
So Vendela instructed his driver to drive over the IED.
“He knew what I meant and didn’t even hesitate,” Vendela said. “We all had the mindset that we would sacrifice for the others.”
The IED turned out to be about 300 pounds of explosives and projectiles. The explosion raised the Humvee into the air like it was a toy. It ripped out the engine and tossed it even higher.
The heat of the blast melted a copper projectile, which ripped a six-inch hole under where Vendela was seated. The molten copper took off one of Vendela’s legs. It broke his rifle and welded a portion of the rifle to the side of the Humvee, with part of it sticking through and pinning Vendela’s other leg to the interior of the vehicle. He also broke his jaw into about 400 pieces. His troops had to use any tool available to amputate his other leg and get him out of the vehicle.
But amazingly, none of his troops were killed in the blast. Some were hurt, but the only one to die was Vendela himself.
“I died three times that day,” Vendela said. “But thanks to the miracle of combat medicine, I returned all three times.”
As he lay in various Army hospitals recuperating, thoughts went through his head.
“‘Why was I alive through all that happened to me, when I had seen others die from much smaller injuries?” he wondered. “During the day there was a lot of activity at the hospitals, but at night you are left alone in the hospital. Alone with only your thoughts. Sometimes I would go to sleep hoping I wouldn’t wake up. I didn’t know what life had in store for me.”
And what about his fiancé? Would the woman he fell in love with and proposed to still want him?
“She came to my hospital and stayed with me,” Vendela said. “I could see in her eyes how much she cared about me and that she didn’t care if I had lost my legs. She is the reason I am still here. She would tell me that God has a plan for me. It took a while for me to accept that.”
He finally left the hospital in July 2009 and began telling his story at high schools.
“Kids would come up to me and say, through tears, how much they had made their lives better just by hearing my story,” Vandela said. “I was helping them, but at the same time they were helping me. My wife had told me that if I could just affect one kid per year, I would be changing the world. It helped me to push on. I realized I could be a tool to help others.”
As he told his story, his own drive built up inside of him. He then decided he wanted to get back into football, this time as a coach.
“I began coaching in Wyoming,” Vendela said. “At first I was afraid the kids would look down on me and wonder what I had to teach them about football. I found out it was totally opposite. There was instant respect.”
He began to try to get on coaching staffs when he moved back to Utah. Although the first 20 schools accepted his application, none called him back. Then, in 2012 his luck changed.
“I told my story to a guy at an American Legion function,” Vendela said. “He said he knew the coach of Jordan High because they were neighbors.”
Kjar found out about Vendela and called him. Kjar hired him on the spot.
“He told me he didn’t have any defensive coaching positions, but needed a running back coach,” Vendela said. “I began to study the position more so I would be ready for the season.”
It was Vendela’s first year on the team that Jordan won the state 5A championship.
“He contributed heavily to our success that year and he has continued contributing since,” Kjar said.
Throughout his four years at Jordan, Vendela has bonded with most of the players.
“The kids talk to me about things they won’t tell others,” he said. “I give them the best advice I can and help them through things. But what I have found along the way is, while I may be helping them, they are helping me. Some have taught me life lessons that I can pass along to others.”
Vendela also dismisses the notion that he hears a lot: that football players aren’t very smart.
“I hear it all the time that people think football players are just dumb kids,” he said. “They are actually smarter and more respectful than many adults. I have nothing but respect for them because they give me nothing but respect. It doesn’t take them long to realize I am there to help them.”
Vendela even gets respect from the opposition.
“Last year after our game with Bingham, I had one of their players come all the way across the field to me,” Vendela said. “He got down on one knee, shook my hand and told me thanks for everything I had done for our country and for him.”
His favorite story revolved around Clay Moss, a former Jordan running back with all kinds of talent. But Moss had a chip on his shoulder and wasn’t very well liked on or off the field. He stayed away from others and wasn’t fulfilling all he could on the field.
“He was in a hole and wasn’t liked by even the coaches,” Vendela said. “I began talking to him and he began listening to me. He would even come to ask me for help. Before long, his life was turning around and he was making friends with the entire team.”
Moss would run for 134 yards and two touchdowns in the 2012 championship game. Later somebody approached Vendela to tell him why Moss had become such a threat.
“He told me Clay had said he worked so hard and ran so hard because of me,” Vendela recalled. “Clay had said that because I had lost my legs for him, he was going to run his legs into the ground for me. It was an emotional moment for me. That was his junior year and the next year he was a totally different person.”
Vendela’s approach to life hasn’t changed much from his mission in the Army to his mission as a coach. He is still trying to clear obstacles for safe passage for his charges