A couple weeks ago, I found myself sitting across the table from 27-year-old Mike Welch at a restaurant on Chicago's north side. Over the years I've had the opportunity to interview all kinds of people, from over-achieving corps members, to prize-winning musicians, even over-caffeinated figure skaters who weren't this animated and ecstatic to be where they were. That's why it was difficult to fathom that this lively and effervescent person I was talking with was totally paralyzed from his waist down. Mike grew up in California, but came to the Midwest to march in a drum corps, playing euphonium with Cincinnati Glory in 2000 and contra with the Marion Glory Cadets from 2001 through 2004. He instructed the Racine Scouts in 2005 and then auditioned and made the cast of Blast!, where he "inherited" the job of playing a trombone while riding a unicycle. (If you've seen Blast!, this is when the trombonist in "Officer Krupke" appears to lose control while riding the unicycle, haphazardly rides offstage and then rides back onto the stage with a bent slide.) Up until joining the Blast! cast, Mike had never sat on a unicycle. He instantly became a self-described fanatic; so much so that in May of 2008 after the U.S. tour of Blast!, he rode the one-wheeled contraption from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Arctic Ocean and back, a round-trip distance of 1,030 miles. Most of the trip was on the Dalton Highway, a gravel road built to service the Alaska Pipeline. He did the trip in 22 days. For those without a calculator handy, that's an average of almost 47 miles every day … on one wheel … with bear encounters! Yet, that's perhaps not the most extreme thing he's done. In the summer of 2007, during a Blast! tour of Japan, Mike hiked Mt. Fuji and thought the trek looked doable on a unicycle. So he came back and became the first person to ride a unicycle down the famed mountain. Mike says the terrain wasn't ideal; "Like riding through six inches of marbles, with a lot of loose ash and rock." Check out his incredible feat in this video: Between his four tours with Blast!, Mike played trombone in a cruise ship house band. And then, in July of 2008, came his second Blast! tour of Japan. While in the city of Matsumoto, he decided to go on a regular two-wheeled bike ride with a couple of other cast members. While riding in the foothills outside town, the brakes failed on a descent and he lost control when he couldn't slow down to turn, planting his face on the ground at 30 miles-per-hour. After riding a unicycle across the tundra and down a mountain, he was done in by a device he's ridden since he was a small child.
There was so much pressure on his spinal column that the compression shattered two of his vertebrae in the middle of his back, resulting in spinal cord injury. After just one day in intensive care, he stayed in a Japanese hospital for two weeks, during which time titanium hardware was implanted to stabilize his back. He later flew home to the States where he was released after six weeks in a stateside hospital. Mike recalls after the accident, "I might have felt down for a couple days, but it became apparent my life could be normal. I'm in a wheelchair now, but I plan to walk again. I got hurt at the right time. The research is happening now, involving therapies with bone marrow stem cells from the hip that could help me walk again by growing new nerve cells in the spinal cord. Axons reconnect and connections re-form. It's not out of my hands." To this end, Mike is currently attending Loyola University in Chicago, majoring in biological neuroscience. He is in a medical scientist-training program that will also see a PhD conferred upon him, allowing him to do research toward finding a cure for his malady. He says that as soon as a treatment is available, "I'll go for it."
One of the first people Mike saw in the hospital, about eight hours after he shattered his spine, was Jim Mason, CEO of Mason Entertainment Group, the former director of Star of Indiana and one of the creators of Blast!. He asked Mike what he could do to help him become more comfortable. In a medicine induced daze, Mike blurted out, "Gummy Bears." Jim showed up a few hours later with a huge bag of Gummy Bears, which aren't that easy to find in Japan. The show was going through technical rehearsals at that point and members of the cast would visit Mike three or four times a day, and each time one of them came by, they brought more Gummy Bears. The cast members of Blast! have continued to keep Mike in their minds, showing their continued devotion by putting together a benefit CD of original music composed by the various members. "One of Our Own," produced by Adam Rapa, a former member of the East Coast Jazz, is available through iTunes, Amazon.com and mikewelch.org. Mike hopes his drum corps family enjoys the CD. "It's awesome music," he says. "The album is diverse; music that would be hard to classify. Among the 20 selections are drum and bass tracks, jazz, folk, alternative, singer-songwriter stuff and even ethnic and experimental music. It really shows the creativity of the Blast! members off the stage." Mike even played bass trombone on one of the tracks. Adam Rapa sent him the music for the last track on the album and told him to find a recording studio. Mike found one on Craig's List and called to ask if the studio was large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. He was told it was, and so he went to the address and discovered he would have to drag himself up two flights of stairs first, which he did.
So far, $28,000 has been raised to help Mike with his living and medical expenses. The group has a goal of raising $50,000, but would certainly love to do better than that. All money goes directly to Mike's needs; and not a single dollar was spent to record and produce the tracks. Mike points out that some of his expenses aren't covered by insurance, such as a new heavy-duty wheelchair to replace the one he's used for 18 months, increasingly hampered by rusty parts due to the Chicago weather. "The love and efforts of the Blast! cast mean the world to me," says Mike. "They took up a collection to buy me this wheelchair and to outfit my parents' house so I could enter and exit without any trouble." He still gets a multitude of e-mails from the Blast! cast and says that being part of the production is like being in a drum corps. While traveling and living together for so long, everyone becomes part of a family. Mike keeps his spirits up by maintaining a healthy sense of humor. "There are certain hilarities of being in a wheelchair. People want to get the door for me, and I say, 'No, thank you. Let me get the door for you.' And it blows their minds. People in wheelchairs have an off sense of humor!" Mike's goal is to walk unassisted, with a full return of motor and sensory functions. You would be foolish to bet against him. For more information on Mike's incredible story and the "One of Our Own" CD, visit MikeWelch.org.
Michael Boo was a member of the Cavaliers from 1975-1977. He has written about the drum corps activity for more than a quarter century and serves as a staff writer for Drum Corps International print and Web projects. Boo has written for numerous other publications and has published an honors-winning book on the history of figure skating. As an accomplished composer, Boo holds a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in music theory and composition. He resides in Chesterton, Ind.