Written by Matt Wixon
Wixon: A freak accident nearly claimed the life of Mesquite's Todd Ritter — and he's glad it happened
Editor's note: This column originally ran on May 2, 2012.
The trimmer hummed as it zipped through the grass, but Todd Ritter barely heard it. His headphones were pumping out Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a song that always puts him in a good mood.
It was May 14 of last year, the day after the Mesquite baseball team was knocked out of the playoffs. The Skeeters coach was disappointed by the loss, but he had plans for a relaxing day of watching baseball and going out to eat.
Ritter just needed to take care of the yardwork first. He was a few minutes from finishing, trimming along a fence that separated his backyard from the neighbor’s, when a loud crash drowned out the music.
Ritter never saw the 7-foot brick wall falling toward him. When he looked up, he was pinned between the wall, which fell mostly intact, and a hot tub. His pelvis had been crushed, his hip joint and tailbone were broken, and his abdominal muscles were torn.
“It was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt,” Ritter said.
Nearly a year later, as the Mesquite baseball players prepare for the start of the playoffs Thursday, their coach has an X-ray that shows three titanium plates and 14 screws stabilizing his pelvis. Ritter also has a chilling story of the emotional torment that followed the accident, including a spiral of depression that led to suicidal thoughts and a trip to a psychiatric hospital.
And he has one pretty amazing revelation. He’s glad it all happened.
Ritter played baseball for Mesquite and has been the coach for his alma mater since 1998. The 47-year-old has three children — Cliff (29), Tiffany (22) and Kyla (15) — from a first marriage that lasted 18 years. He was going through a second divorce when the accident occurred.
On May 7, Ritter moved into a condominium in Rockwall near the shore of Lake Ray Hubbard. He needed a new lifestyle, he said, and wanted to be a “good, godly man.”
His prayer to God the night he moved in:
“I need you to completely take control of my life. I need you to gut me from head to toe.”
A week later, Ritter went to the Dallas house where he had lived with his second wife, Lynda. He had promised to take care of the yardwork, and he liked doing it. It’s the baseball guy in him, he said. He likes the way a well-manicured lawn looks.
But then came the roar of the falling wall, which pinned Ritter up to his mid-chest. Ritter said nobody knows why the wall fell, but he couldn’t feel his legs, and his first thought was that he would be a paraplegic. When the feeling returned, he was relieved to be able to move his legs a little under the fence.
His ex-wife was home and called paramedics, but in the few minutes before they arrived, Ritter felt safe, even though he was bleeding internally. He reached back with his right arm and put his hand in the hot tub.
“I felt like an angel was there,” he said. “When I touched the water, I felt like God was there.”
Painful road back
Two days after the accident, Ritter had surgery to reconstruct his pelvis. Three months of painful physical therapy followed.
The doctors told Ritter physical recovery would take 12 to 18 months, and by the start of the 2011-12 school year, he was ahead of schedule. But he was crumbling emotionally as he returned to Mesquite, where he is also a football assistant and teaches business computer information systems.
Sometimes Ritter would start crying as he drove into work. Sometimes he would cry during football practice.
“During football season, every emotion was overboard,” said Todd Purl, who has been Ritter’s baseball assistant for 12 years and also works with the football team. “If something was good, it was like the best thing ever. If it was bad, it was the worst.”
A psychiatrist diagnosed Ritter with post-traumatic stress disorder. Ritter began taking a drug called Pristiq to treat his depression, but he didn’t feel much improvement. He couldn’t sleep well, he said, and he began questioning why God let the accident happen.
“I could still feel the wall on top of me, and I just couldn’t get over it,” Ritter said. “I hated that wall, and it was destroying me. As much as I enjoy coaching and teaching and my children, there just wasn’t any joy in life.”
So in October, Ritter started thinking about ending his life. But he had no idea how he would do it. He didn’t own a gun and had never shot one. Sometimes, he said, he just wished an 18-wheeler would run over him.
One of Pristiq’s side effects is an increased risk of suicidal thoughts. Ritter doesn’t believe the medication played a role, but he said he was having “all kinds of terrible thoughts.”
“I just know I didn’t want to live another day,” he said.
Nobody knew the extent of Ritter’s depression. But on the morning of Friday, Oct. 7, a concerned friend asked Grace Riley, Ritter’s first wife, to check on him at the Rockwall condominium. Riley, who is now remarried, had seen the ups and downs of her ex-husband’s recovery.
She saw the low point when she arrived that day. Ritter was angry and spilling over with emotion. He wouldn’t look at Riley when she talked to him. He only stared at the wall.
“He was in a self-destruction mode at that point,” Riley said.
On the advice of Ritter’s psychiatrist, Riley called the Rockwall police. Officers showed up at the door to take Ritter to Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital.
“They said, ‘Mr. Ritter, for our safety and yours, we have to handcuff you,’” Ritter said. “And I just started bawling.”
After an overnight stay and psychiatric evaluation at Green Oaks, Ritter was released. He was picked up by his son.
“Seeing the humiliation on his face,” Cliff Ritter said, “it was the worst day of my life.”
Life gets brighter
Todd Ritter hated the stay at Green Oaks, but he’s thankful that Riley called the police. Seeing the plight of the other patients helped shake away his suicidal thoughts.
Ritter stopped taking the anti-anxiety medication, stopped seeing a psychiatrist and turned control of his life over to God. On Oct. 30, he was baptized at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall. Ritter was previously baptized as a Catholic, but he felt he needed to be baptized again.
“I needed to publicly declare who I was,” he said.
Ritter now walks and runs three miles each day, often accompanied by his Labrador/golden retriever mix, Mojo.
Ritter feels about 75 percent recovered physically but said he’s 100 percent changed as a person.
He’s much closer with his children. Kyla, a sophomore at Mesquite who lives with her mom and stepdad, is now in the dugouts for Mesquite baseball games as one of the team’s Diamond Darlings. Ritter might soon be playing on a co-ed softball team with Tiffany, and he’s a proud grandpa of 4-year-old Landon Ritter, Cliff’s son.
“It was terrible what happened, but it brought our whole family closer,” Cliff Ritter said. “Now he’s content, and he knows why he’s living, and he’s trying to take advantage of every second.”
On the baseball field, Ritter is still the hard-driving coach with high expectations. But he’s a little more laid-back, said senior shortstop Alex Lopez. “Pappy Ritter,” as the players refer to him, is also quick to praise the players and tell them he loves them.
“And we tell him we love him as much as he loves us,” Lopez said.
Ritter has a coaching record of 276-119 and has led Mesquite to two regional finals. The Skeeters (18-6) won the District 11-5A title this season, but while that’s a nice accomplishment, it’s not as important to Ritter this year.
“I see things differently now,” he said. “I see serenity. I see peace. I’m more compassionate.”
A big Mesquite win still brings joy, but so does a little T-ball game at the park. Earlier this month, on a sunny Saturday much like the one that changed his life, Ritter grabbed a bag of peanuts and a Diet Coke. He sat down in a lawn chair and watched Landon take some lefty swings at the ball.
“God has really blessed me,” Ritter thought to himself. “I’m out here watching my son coach my grandson. Right now, there’s not a better time.”
Follow @MattWixon on Twitter.