EagleHerald editor

MARINETTE—Chad Francour can’t remember anything about the snowmobile-truck collision that changed his life nearly 18 years ago.

His parents, Dave and Lynn, will never forget it.

“Ryan (Chad’s older brother) and I were in the ambulance with him and they (rescue workers) kicked us out because they thought he was going to die right there,” Dave recalled.

The accident happened at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Country Meadows Road, just west of Marinette near the Taco Bell/Shell station. After several serious crashes—some fatal—and likely many near misses, the intersection was changed to a right-turn-only this summer.

On Jan. 28, 2004, Dave Francour, his two sons and a group of friends were on their weekly snowmobile ride.

“It was always on a Wednesday,” Dave said. “We would ride, get something to eat and come home.”

That day ended differently when Chad, who was ahead of the group, tried crossing U.S. 41 at about 4:30 p.m., just as the sun was setting. Chad’s sled collided with a pickup. A side mirror of the truck struck Chad’s helmet, knocking it off and causing a traumatic injury to Chad’s brain.

Have bike will travel

For about 12 years, Chad Francour has defied the odds and stunned his family, friends and doctors by riding a bicycle. For him, it’s a passion. He rides three times a week, except when there is ice.

He said his father and his former physical therapist, Kim Barrette, were against his riding at first because they believed he might fall and hurt his head again.

“That’s kind of how I operate,” Chad said, “You tell me I can’t do something and I will prove you wrong.”

He credits his brother Ryan, of Howard, with helping him get his bike equipment in order, including pads, helmet and special shoes.

Since 2009, Chad has logged more than 19,000 miles on his bike. He tries to go about 100 miles a week, weather permitting. He also has a stationary bike he rides in his Marinette apartment when he’s unable to ride outdoors.

When asked if he has ever fallen, Chad said, “Tons of times. I have scars. I fell on a Menominee highway (M-35), busted my eye open and there was blood everywhere. I had to get eight stitches. But I haven’t broken any bones or anything like that.”

That mishap occurred this summer.

Chad, now age 34, explained he actually has better balance when he increases his speed, although he admits it is sometimes difficult to stop with his hand brakes.

Dave and Lynn, both retired teachers from the Marinette School District, are obviously worried parents, but they don’t want to discourage their son.

“What are we going to do, tell him no?” Dave shrugged.

His parents said they have an app so they can follow Chad’s rides and they’ve had to help him out of a ditch a few times.

“When he falls, it’s difficult for him to get back up,” Dave said.

Barrette, who worked with Francour on his recovery, said he’s impressed with his former patient.

“When I saw him in July of that year (2004), he was very, very limited,” Barrette said. “His balance was el-zippo. He couldn’t even sit on a table besides get on a bike.”

He said one day Chad rode his bike a few miles to his office and said, “I want to show you what I can do.”

“I was ecstatic,” Barrette said. “I was extremely happy because his quality of life would be better for him with continual biking.”

Tim Stauss, a longtime friend of the family who coached football with Dave Francour for about 20 years, said it’s amazing how far Chad has come.

“I really never thought he would walk,” Stauss said. “I’m not trying to be a buzz kill, but he had a traumatic brain injury that affected every neuron in his body. That’s exactly the way I heard the doctor say it. He won’t be able to feed himself right away. He won’t be able to get the spoon in his hand. To think, OK, you’re going to walk, then you’re going to ride a bike, then you’re going to do it consistently, then you’re going to hunt again. I mean that was a story in itself.”

Chad said he bikes for the physical well being, to stay active and to get a feeling of purpose and accomplishment.

“It’s mental (too); the endorphins release in by brain,” he explained. “It doesn’t feel like I have a disability. Who wants to have a disability? No one. I do it to make myself feel better.”

A long road to recovery

Chad was in a coma for six weeks following the crash. He spent several months in Green Bay before returning home. His parents—and everyone who knew him—realized it would be a lengthy process for Chad.

Lynn said the blood vessels in Chad’s brain were sheered so badly that doctors estimated about half of his brain is not working correctly. She said he lost 80% mobility in his left side and about 20% on his right side.

Chad also broke his collarbone in the crash and he sustained many scrapes and bruises.

Lynn said doctors told her and Dave that Chad had to be stabilized just to be air lifted to Green Bay.

“I knew it was pretty critical,” she said.

“They flew him from Marinette to Green Bay and the doctor told us, ‘he’s either going to be a vegetable the rest of his life or he’s going to pass away,’” Dave said.

Lynn said she kept asking doctors what kind of life they could expect for Chad, presuming he lived.

“I said, ‘will he be able to walk, will he be able to talk, will he be able to feed himself,’” she said. “They said ‘none of those.’ They really didn’t give us any hope. And those first couple of weeks, we really didn’t have any hope.”

“I think we were in shock,” Dave said.

Once he came out of the coma, Chad didn’t show any promise until he got a visit from Stauss. The former fiery defensive coordinator on some of Marinette’s best football teams gave Chad a pep talk, according to Lynn.

Stauss said he can’t recall everything he told Chad, but he knew him to be a motivated teen.

“Nothing against the therapists, because I know they did amazing work with him, but she was kind of touchy feely and (softly) said ‘OK Chad let’s try to move your arms’ and he just ignored her, Stauss said. “I remember saying, ‘HEY, GET YOUR HAND IN THE AIR,” and all of a sudden his arm started going up and I said ‘keep going.’”

Stauss admitted he felt self-conscious in front of the therapist because “she’s way better at this than I am.” Still, he kept pushing Chad.

“I remember saying, ‘listen, you’re going to walk out of here whether you like it or not because you owe it to yourself,’” Stauss said, adding that he told Chad to move his foot and he rolled his toes a bit.

“I just kept barking at him like he was one of my offensive lineman back when I coached offense,” he said. “I didn’t give him a pep talk in a sense, the only thing I said is ‘you’re going to walk out of here whether you want to or not, so let’s get your ass moving.’”

Lynn said it was during the visit from Stauss that Chad responded to a voice for the first time.

“At that point, that’s when we thought, we think Chad’s still in there,” she said.

Lynn and Dave recalled the first time they saw Chad in physical therapy.

“They put him on the mat and he just laid there and drooled,” Dave said. “We were bawling our eyes out. They said they would work with him and they did.”

Chad did physical therapy at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay and when he came home in early summer, he worked with Barrette.

“They turned out to be good buddies,” Dave said of Chad and Barrette.

An athletic daredevil

Mike Corwin is best friends with Ryan Francour and he’s known Chad since elementary school.

“Chad was a daredevil. He had no fear,” Corwin said. “I remember him jumping off his house into his pool. He was always trying to get attention—not in a bad way. He was looking to give people a good time.”

Lynn believes that personality helped Chad fight back.

“His personality was always living life on the edge,” she said. “He really took everything in and experienced EVERYTHING. So we thought, he’s a fighter. We thought he was still in there. They never did a brain wave to see if his brain was still working—the swelling hadn’t gone down enough. So we just kept praying and it turned out to be much better than we ever were told.”

Chad was a center on the M&M Thunder hockey team, a catcher on the Marinette baseball team and a running back/linebacker sophomore starter on the football team.

His dad and his uncle Jim Francour played Division 1 baseball. Paul, another uncle, was a tremendous athlete as were his cousins and his brother Ryan and younger sister Katie.

“The kid was lightning fast,” Stauss said of Chad. “The Francours, I think, came out of the womb running. Those guys were all quick. I had the pleasure of coaching Paul. That kid was lightning in a bottle. I think Chad was faster and quicker. The kid could change direction like Jeff Messenger (one of Marinette’s best athletes ever who went on to have a stellar football career at the University of Wisconsin).

Corwin said he believes Chad was a better athlete and tougher than older brother Ryan Francour, who he called a good high school athlete.

“That bummed him out right away,” Corwin said of Chad. “He really wanted to play sports. It didn’t matter—hockey, football, baseball—that’s what he wanted to do, and he was really good at it.”

Stauss said Chad had unlimited potential in athletics.

“I really think he would have went down as one of the best football players out of Marinette had he not had that injury. I really believe that,” he said. “As a sophomore, he was as good as anybody I saw at the varsity level.”

Lynn and Dave said Chad was the most gifted athlete in their family and they believe that helped him battle back from his injury.

“They kept saying you’re lucky he’s a strong athlete in good shape,” Lynn said of the doctors.

She added that sports and school came easy for Chad.

“He took the honors classes and the kids would make fun of him and ask why are you in those classes,” she said. “He would say, ‘hey, there’s more girls in those classes.’ That was his outlook on life. He was always looking for something positive.”

Besides biking, Chad gets a thrill out of hunting. He has mounts of a bear head and deer head in his apartment. He shot both on back-to-back days a few years ago.

“And the next day was my birthday (Oct. 7),” he said with a grin.

Chad hunts with his brother and Corwin. He also has hunted with his father, who recalls the wet, messy adventure of tracking a bear five miles into the woods, and with Stauss on his 80-acre property.

Willing to work

Before his injury, Chad was in the top 20% of his class. Following the injury and once he returned home, he was able to continue his schooling thanks to the help of Connie Stauss (Tim’s wife) and others.

Chad took classes at UW-Marinette and graduated from UW-Green Bay with a double major in human development and psychology. Lynn said the next step would be getting a master’s degree in social work, but he needs time to gain work experience.

Now, Chad is a substitute teacher, normally five days a week, mostly in De Pere, Menominee and Oconto Falls.

“I do any and all grades, but I like the middle school—fifth through eighth grade,” he said. “The kids are cool.”

By all accounts Chad is an exceptional worker. He wakes up at 5 a.m. when he has to sub in De Pere and he’s never been late.

His parents said, and Chad agrees, that he would like to find full-time employment where he can be around people.

“He’s interviewing all the time,” Dave said. “He wants to work with other people. His disability is overwhelming and they (employers) don’t give him a chance. They are looking for people to work and he wants to work. They won’t hire him. It’s like, dang people, give the kid a chance.”

A lone wolf

While Chad has overcome unbelievable odds to get a high school education, a college degree, hunt, bike, drive a car and live on his own, he admits life isn’t easy.

“There are days when I say ‘I can do this s—-. There are other days, when I say, ‘why am I alive,’” he said. “It’s hard. Nothing is ever going to be the same. One thing about life is that it’s not constant. It’s always changing.”

Chad rides his bike by himself and does many things alone.

“Because of my injury, I don’t really have many friends,” he explained. “I have people that I talk to but nobody that I do anything with. I’m kind of a lone wolf. I do my own thing.”

He’s candid about his emotions.

“As much as I put on this façade of joy and happiness, there are many more days when things just suck,” he said, adding that he will sit alone, reflect on life and cry.

“I believe it’s healthy to cry,” he continued. “It also shows that I am human, too. I have feelings. I have wants and needs just like everyone else.”

Dave and Lynn said it’s difficult for Chad to make new friends.

“His social skills took a beating,” Dave said. “And many of his friends have left. He lives by himself and he would like to meet other people. This is a small community. He doesn’t go to the bars. How do you meet people?”

Corwin, who said he’s known Chad for virtually every stage of his life, said his friend has a hunger and drive to succeed and be loved and wanted.

“Sometimes Chad can rub people the wrong way because he’s not afraid to speak his mind. I think he can push people away and he knows that,” Corwin said, adding that Chad’s had girlfriends and other relationships (before the accident) and those are deep in his memory.

“I think that’s where he gets the loneliness,” he said.

Chad, who lives with his Goldendoodle, Libby, realizes that his family and friends provide support.

“My parents are 100% all in on me. They love me,” he said. “I want to find something more in life.”

Those who know Chad best realize it will happen, especially with the obstacles he’s already eclipsed.

“If you’re going to bet on somebody in adversity, you bet on the Francours,” Stauss said. “They’re a pretty tough breed and Chad’s a pretty determined kid.”

Æ Chad’s immediate family includes: parents Dave and Lynn; brother Ryan (Amber) and their son and daughter of Howard; sister Angie (Sean) Rohland and their three sons of Minnesota; and sister Katie of San Diego.