Tony Sauer was always a risk-taker. At 18 years old, the Supercross champ thought dirt bike racing would become his career, as it had for all his role models. Sauer had the drive and the reckless passion. And he had enough talent to bring him to the Pro Class Grand National Championships in Los Angeles.
Sauer doesn't remember much from the accident. He knows that he was out in the lead when he fell. After the crash, he remembers falling in and out of consciousness, and being strapped to a hard wooden bench, reeling with pain. At the Kaiser hospital in Hollywood he was told that several cyclists had driven over him and several vertebrae had been crushed. He would be a paraplegic for the rest of his life.
After being transferred to Rancho Los Amigos in Downey, Sauer suffered through physical pain; grief, and denial before undergoing an intensive surgery. A few days after the operation, Sauer was visited by a rehabilitation counselor who began asking questions.
What do you plan to do? What would to like to be?
Within three months, Sauer had enrolled in Sierra College for cabinetmaking. It was scary, he says, the prospect of having to lift heavy materials and work high-powered saws. Did he have the capability to do it? Would the instructors embrace him?
Chris Owen was fresh out of Chico State when he started teaching woodworking at Nevada Union High School. The two met when Sauer was 15, a sophomore in Owen's class. Owen had had polio as a kid. After Sauer's accident, he looked to Owen for inspiration. The two have been friends ever since.
There's another individual whom Sauer credits with helping him find his strength. Sauer's brother, Ed, was born with encephalitis, a brain inflammation that causes brain damage. But that didn't stop Ed from entering the logging industry and becoming a successful trucker.
"He taught me not to give up," says Sauer.
Tony Sauer is reflecting on his role models from his executive office on the third floor of the new Department of Rehabilitation building. Upon mentioning the lessons learned from his brother, the DOR director's voice starts to quaver, his eyes flush and he reaches for a bottle of water.
"Obviously this is an emotional subject," he says. "I don't know why," he laughs, "my brother is still alive. But …"
Sauer doesn't complete the sentence, instead opting to demonstrate his gratitude with silence. A moment passes, and he goes on to talk about his other heroes: motorcycle racers, former colleagues and friends, his daughters.
How have these individuals helped him help others?
"Whether it's an accident or disease, the best thing to do is to give people hope," he says. "I talk to people with recent injuries. One chapter of your life is closed, but there are so many opportunities in front of you."
The most important thing for the newly injured, Sauer explains, is not to get trapped in a cycle of dependency. "Many people are afraid that they'll lose their special benefits if they go back to work. I say take the risk, working is so helpful for the psyche. Give something back."
The California Department of Rehabilitation provides training, education, transportation and job placement to people living with disabilities. Founded in 1963, DOR funds 29 Independent Living Centers throughout the state, offering information and referral services to prepare disabled men and women for unassisted, employed, independent living.
Sauer is responsible for overall administration of the $370 million department, which is part of the state Health and Human Services Agency. He overlooks a team of deputies, managers, administrators and chiefs.
"Our work crosses party lines," he says. "Democrats like the fact that we offer choices for people with disabilities that lead to their independence. Republicans appreciate that DOR encourages people with disabilities to explore employment as an alternative to entitlement programs that many times chain people to poverty."
Donna Calame is the executive director of San Francisco In-Home Services Public Authority. She met Sauer several years ago. Before he started at DOR, Sauer was director of public authority in Nevada Sierra.
"Tony is a good listener," says Calame. "He always gives measured, thoughtful responses. He's also firm in his view that people should be independent for as long as possible."
Sauer admits that he has strong beliefs about independent living for the disabled; he calls it his "fire and passion in the stomach." A natural question arises about stubbornness and its importance when you're a lifetime fighter for self-support.
Sauer laughs. "Stubbornness? Unfortunately that's not seen as a positive attribute.
"As the leader of 2,000 employees, stubbornness is not a good quality. I try to listen far more than I talk. You have to set those things aside in order to hear divergent views."
But not all divergent views are positive, and Sauer has learned when to draw the line. In the disability business, Sauer constantly encounters well-meaning friends, church groups and other charity organizations that want to give handouts to recently disabled individuals. While Sauer understands that the desire comes from kindness, he is quick to point out that it can hinder an individual's progress.
"You can believe in someone when they don't believe in themselves," he says. "You can convince people to take risks."
The biggest risk of all, perhaps, is to re-enter the race once you've been knocked to the ground. But as Anthony Sauer has learned, once you get up, people begin to look up to you.