June 28, 2010. 7:15 p.m.
That’s the moment Rodney Champagne’s life changed forever. The volunteer firefighter was doing an annual hose inspection when something went wrong. Approximately 800 feet of hose at 200 PSI ruptured, sending the hose directly at Champagne, hooking him under the armpit and sending him in the air upside down.
One firefighter who was standing on top of the truck during the accident said he saw Champagne’s head go over the top of the 12-foot high truck. Champagne landed headfirst on the asphalt.
Champagne now suffers from memory loss, but he can rattle off the long list of injuries like he’s reading it from a book.
“I had multiple fractures in my skull, subdural hematoma of the brain, had to have a craniotomy, cranioplasty, five fractures in my spine, a complete AC separation of the shoulder, five broken ribs, three on one side, two on the other, with a punctured lung, a fractured scapula,” he says. “I’m hearing impaired in the left ear. I wear a hearing aid. The bones inside of my ear on my left ear, those bones are broken. I didn’t know you can break those, but you can.”
While the effects of the injuries will stay with him forever, he isn’t sitting on the sidelines moping. Instead, the 31-year-old now leads six employees at a Grounds Guys franchise in Lafayette, La., and has a good sense of humor about the accident. During a conversation with him, it’s apparent that he doesn’t dwell on what his life would be like had the accident never happened.
“I never felt sorry for myself, but I did, for quite some time, have to go through therapy to figure out how am I gonna deal with this,” he says. “So don’t get me wrong, I’ve gone through years, not months, years of therapy. From mental to physical to cognitive thinking to try to improve the brain function, so on and so forth.”
Champagne doesn’t remember the accident or anything else for 18 days after it happened. During that time, he was awake but in an unconscious state, which made him act like a different person.
“I was up and about and doing therapy and they say that I was talking to people and saying things that were not very nice,” he says. “But due to the swelling of the brain and the brain injury – they said that was normal.
“The first thing I remember – I was sitting in my bed in the hospital and I reached up to scratch my head with my right arm and I noticed that there was like a crater in my head, you know, a big divot. Because whenever they took off the skull they just left it flapped over. So you know the soft spot on a baby’s head? I had a gigantic one.”
After his wife, Nicole, who helps Rodney run the business, constantly explained to him what happened until he finally remembered, his life was constant physical therapy and learning how to live again.
The abilities we take for granted every day, Champagne (who has a 5-year-old daughter, and another child on the way) had to learn again – even swallowing. He would have to drink colored fluids and watch himself swallowing on a computer screen, which retrains his brain how to do it correctly.
He still experiences seizures, can’t lift anything heavier than 25 pounds and has no short term memory. You tell him your name one minute and he won’t remember it the next. Tell him again, and a minute later it’s gone again.
But two weeks later, sometimes he’ll see, hear or smell something, and he can remember everything about the conversation you had.
“There ain’t nothing worse than being in the lawn and landscape industry and a customer asks you what kind of plant is this and I’m looking at it and I’m knowing the name of it because it’s a plant that everybody and their grandmother has in their yard in south Louisiana. But I can’t tell you the name because I don’t remember,” he says.
“It’s very hard for me to deal with that. I’ve found ways in dealing with doctors to be able to offset my disabilities. I don’t like to say like I’m disabled, because I’m not disabled, I’m a perfectly functioning individual. I just learn how to deal with my inability to do things.”
After two brain surgeries and about 30 days in the hospital, Champagne was released and back home to his normal life.
Except, nothing was normal for Champagne. He has holes in his memory about his life before the accident as well. He has photos of him “having fun” riding 4-wheelers or skiing, but none of that is fun to him anymore.
“I just don’t find anything to be fun anymore, except for working,” he says.
Because of the accident, he couldn’t continue as a mechanic, which had been his career at the time of the injury, because laying down created issues for him.
“I can lay down, but I kind of have to let the world stop spinning in my head before I could actually focus on doing things,” he says. “And once I’m laying down, I can’t twist and turn and move. I get disoriented whenever I’m in a laying down position.”
But sitting around wasn’t an option for Champagne. He was had a very active outdoor life before the accident, and working in the green industry was a natural fit as the next phase in Champagne’s life. As a teenager, he ran a landscaping company with a friend, but when Champagne’s family moved, he stopped mowing lawns.
“The one thing they tell me I said a whole lot was I wanted to go cut grass while I was unconscious,” he says. “I wanted to go home and cut grass.”
So maybe it was fate that Champagne was at home watching an episode of “Undercover Boss,” featuring Dina Dwyer-Owens, chairwomen and CEO of the Dwyer Group, The Grounds Guys parent company. He decided to visit the company website and request franchising information, eventually receiving a call from a representative.
“I said, yeah, it’s probably just some old snobby dude trying to get some money out of me or some sales pitch thing,” Champagne says. “So, I listened to him, and in my mind, my thought was I’m going take him up on his offer. He said that he’d pay for me a hotel room in Waco, Texas, and feed me for the weekend. I said, you know what, that’s great, I’m in for a little vacation, a little weekend.”
A little weekend, and an opportunity to, as Champagne puts it, steal the franchiser’s ideas and implement them in his own company. But after hearing what the Grounds Guys could offer, he had a change of heart.
“I remember (thinking), I know what my deficiencies are, I know what my deficiencies are in memory and abilities and capabilities, and I’ve never really ran a business before, so I can recognize where I’ll need help,” he says. “I said, yeah, you know what, I can’t do what I intended to do which was to steal all their ideas and take them back to Lafayette, Louisiana, and implement them because their ideas were – Wow.”
But would they want him? He was told the company needed to evaluate if Champagne was a fit, which threw him off a bit considering he was more than willing to pay the franchise fee.
“I was kind of thinking to myself, ‘What the hell are you thinking people?’ I said I’m going to give you some money. It’s all good, you know,” he says. “At the end of the day, I picked them but they also picked me.”
Champagne gets asked a lot why he chose cutting grass, and the answer has a lot to do with his previous career.
“Whenever a mechanic works on something it’s broken. Whenever you tow it into your shop, you fix it and you drive it out. It’s the gratification that it came in here, it was not working and now it’s working,” he says.
“In the lawn industry you get what’s called instant gratification. Whenever you turn on them blades and you drive forward and there’s grass to cut, whenever you look back, it’s that gratification: I did that. It’s accomplishment. I don’t know if that’s what I was seeking or not but I can tell you that’s what I get.”
He’ll take photos of yards he’s worked on to remind himself of what he accomplished that day.
“It’s the before-and-after pictures that I really like,” he says.
As far as working with customers, Champagne explains his challenges. He still has trouble spelling and typing, and takes medication for seizures.
He informs them he’ll be talking into his phone to take notes. If he needs to remember that the customer lets the dogs out between noon and 1 p.m., he can document it so he remembers to close the gates while he mows – the little details that contractors have to pay attention to in order to provide great customer service.
“Every one of my customers knows my limitations,” he says. “As long as you communicate with your customer, they’ll understand.”
While he enjoys mowing, he’s still in the business to make money. He has a goal of hitting $5 million in gross sales, but also wants to help those working for him succeed on their own.
“I think everyone wants to own their own business at some point and wants to be their own boss – have control of your own destiny and your financial world,” he says. “I want my employees to be able to own their business at some point. I think that’s just the caring nature of me. But, at the same time, building myself, building my family, taking care of customers and taking care of all my trees, man.”
And though it still drives him “bananas” when he hears about a problem with a vehicle, and he can’t roll under it and get his hands dirty, he has come a long way since that day in June two years ago.
So instead of focusing on what he can’t do, Champagne gets on the mower, cleans up a yard and feels that instant gratification. Even if he forgets it five minutes later, he’ll get to do it again the next day. And after what he’s been through, that’s cause for celebration.
Watch interviews with Champagne and his wife Nicole at their home in Louisiana as they talk about his injury and how he runs a business by downloading the new L&L app at bit.ly/lawnandlandscapeapp in the iTunes store.