Aaron and Peter Berry grew up in Houston, TX, with their little sister Willa and their parents Robin and Josh. At 17 and 18 respectively today, both Aaron and Peter recall their childhood fondly, growing up in a home full of love and encouragement. Early in life, their parents got the two brothers active in sports, and they regularly brought them to team practices and games.
On the field, the Berry brothers were truly in their element. They particularly thrived in sports such as baseball and football. While everyone recognized the boys’ innate talent, their parents were their biggest cheerleaders.
The Unthinkable Happens
In the summer of 2011, the Berry family went on a road trip vacation to Colorado. After a week of fun, they began heading back. On July 2nd, they were traveling down a two-lane highway just 500 miles from home when a distracted driver in an oncoming car drifted across the center line and struck their minivan head-on.
Peter says, “It was 11:45 at night when our lives changed forever.”
Josh and Robin, who were in the front seat, didn’t survive this horrendous accident. However, in the rear of the now unrecognizable minivan, their children were hurt but still alive. After using the Jaws of Life to get the kids out of the car, first responders airlifted them to a nearby trauma hospital in Lubbock.
While little Willa suffered multiple broken bones, Aaron and Peter Berry were in much worse shape. Doctors knew they had no time to waste and began life-saving surgeries on the two boys.
By the next morning, news of the accident reached the children’s uncle Matt Berry and his wife Simone. “We woke up to the most devastating call,” said Simone in an earlier TV interview. “You hear those words, and you just go into a state of shock.” Despite their shock, they sprang into action and headed to the hospital where they received more difficult news.
Peter and Aaron had both suffered almost identical spinal cord injuries to their T10 vertebrae, leaving them paralyzed from the waist down.
The Houston Community Springs into Action
As word spread to their friends, extended family, and synagogue in Houston, people in the community rallied to help the Berry family. While the children recuperated in the hospital, an outpouring of kindness began in their hometown and soon spread across the nation. People began raising funds through 5K walks, bake sales, basketball nights, and more to help contribute to a trust for the children as well as pay for their medical bills. A trend to “show your hearts for the Berry family” began, and even 180 Medical joined in.
Houston Texans professional football player JJ Watt also heard about the accident through the trending topic on Twitter. He wanted to do anything he could to help take the kids’ minds off of what happened to them. He surprised them at the hospital with a bunch of Texans gear, since he heard they were fans. That first visit turned into multiple visits, and to this day, they’re all still close friends.
Recovery and Discovery of a New Passion: Wheelchair Basketball
After 3 weeks, the boys transferred to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago to begin rehabilitation therapy.
“I had to relearn how to do things like getting dressed, getting out of bed, getting into my new wheelchair. This was my new life…just trying to survive,” Peter says.
Luckily, the brothers had one another for support and comfort as they were miles away from home and still processing what had happened. Also, they soon discovered a basketball court right in the middle of the hospital. They started heading to the court every day to practice shooting hoops in their new wheelchairs.
Finally, they returned to Houston to move with their sister Willa into their aunt and uncle’s house. While it was an adjustment with a new home and new siblings, they also had a new passion for basketball.
“We had a friend in the Jewish community who had an older brother with spina bifida. They had recently moved to Houston from Birmingham, Alabama, and our uncle took Aaron and me to watch a game,” says Peter.
The boys were blown away by the sheer physicality of the game as they watched the players tumbling, rolling, and getting back up with ease.
“Once we found wheelchair basketball,” Aaron says, “we fell in love with it.”
As soon as their doctor gave them the okay, the boys joined the TIRR Memorial Hermann Junior Hotwheels wheelchair basketball team. They began training together 5 days a week, pushing each other both on and off the court.
Pretty soon, Aaron and Peter Berry were considered 2 of the top players on the team. Under the leadership of their coach, Trice Ham, the team clinched the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s national championship title not once, but three separate times!
Looking to the Future
Peter graduated from high school this spring, and his future looks bright. Recently, at the 2020 Houston Sports Awards, Peter received the prestigious Insperity Inspiration Award. Also, he was the number one recruit in wheelchair basketball in the United States during his senior year. This fall, he plans to attend the University of Alabama on a full scholarship to play for their two-time defending national champion wheelchair basketball team.
When asked about what’s next, he admits, “Leaving home is going to be bittersweet. I’m a little nervous, but I’m also excited to open this new chapter. Plus, I’m looking forward to meeting new people, creating a new network of support, and evolving as a basketball player. I’m ready to improve myself not only as an athlete but as a human being.”
He hopes to eventually earn his Master’s degree, get married, and have a family someday too. “I understand not all these things are going to be easy,” he says, “but I’ll have to work hard and make the right decisions.”
In the meantime, he spends his time doing some of his favorite things, like playing video games, going out to eat, and heading to the gym. Plus, he loves hanging out with friends, family, and his dog. “Additionally, every summer, my brother and I spend about 2 months in North Carolina with our family. We love it there,” says Peter. “I enjoy taking a break from reality and escaping into the mountains!”
While Aaron will miss his brother this fall, he also eagerly anticipates an exciting future. He is the starter and team leader for the Houston Hotwheels. Now, he’s heading into his senior year of high school with big hopes of being recruited too. Plus, he’d like to play wheelchair basketball with his brother for Team USA and travel overseas.
However, more than anything else, he says, “I’m looking forward to becoming more independent and living a successful life.”
Outside of school and basketball, Aaron loves making music, exercising, and hanging with friends and family.
Living and Thriving with a Spinal Cord Injury
Aaron and Peter Berry have faced plenty of social, mental, emotional, and physical challenges since the accident. However, they remain determined to thrive with their spinal cord injuries. They push themselves on the court, in the gym, in school, and in their personal lives. Even with a spinal cord injury, the boys can rope climb and do pull-ups!
Another thing they’re passionate about is connecting with and helping others living with spinal cord injuries. When asked what they’d say to someone who is curious about trying adaptive sports, Aaron says, “As soon as you try it, you’re going to fall in love with it. Wheelchair basketball has opened up a second life for me. It’s given me so many opportunities.”
Peter agrees and advises, “Go to a gym where you know adaptive sports are taking place and watch a practice or a game. Please talk to the players afterward and ask them questions. I see so many kids who are shy or scared to try sports, and it pains me every time. So many adaptive sports are out there for people with disabilities, and they can change your life! Adaptive sports have brought me a kind of happiness I never felt before. They have also introduced me to some of the most inspiring individuals and opened some pretty awesome doors. For example, it’s because of wheelchair basketball that I can say I am attending the University of Alabama to play and pursue a Master’s degree.”
The Berrys’ Positive Influence
Aaron and Peter have found hope and support through friendships, family, and mentors. Over the years, a few people have truly stood out as friends and mentors in their lives, including JJ Watt, their Hotwheels basketball coach Trice Ham, and 180 Medical Patient Advocate Steve Kearly.
Steve says they’ve been even more of a positive influence on his own life.
“I met Peter and Aaron in 2013 through a mutual friend,” Steve recalls. “Initially, I reached out to their Aunt Simone via a phone call. From that day forward, our families have been closely connected. I was able to show them how I drive and load my wheelchair, answer all of their catheter and medical supply questions, and help with any of their wheelchair and adaptive sports equipment. Personally, watching them mature and grow as young men both on and off the basketball court, I’ve been inspired to be a better me. Although our injuries are similar, the circumstances surrounding theirs is much more tragic. Their resilience has been nothing short of amazing. They remind me that through hard work, dedication, and friendship, we can conquer any challenge we face.”
The Berry brothers are, without a doubt, incredible human beings who have overcome great odds. They know firsthand how difficult living through a tragic accident that results in a spinal cord injury can be. However, they’ve never given up or given in, even when things get tough. When asked what advice they would give others who are new to living with a spinal cord injury, both Aaron and Peter Berry echo the phrase, “Keep pushing.”
“It might seem like everything sucks at the moment,” Aaron says, “but I guarantee that if you keep pushing, everything will get better.”
Peter agrees. “Be brave and be proud,” he says. “You have gone through something in your life that most people will never go through and can’t understand. Life knocked you down. Please keep your head up, take it one day at a time, and know that everything will work out in the end. With a positive attitude, support, and hard work, you can do anything you want. Sure, that process might take longer or be more difficult, but remember this is what you’re built for. Once you come to terms with that fact and stop complaining, you will find you have more power than you thought. Also, in most cases, you’ll find you’re stronger now than you were before you acquired a disability.”
Rather than focus on their challenges, they continue to believe in themselves, chase their dreams, and work on being better people every day. The way they live their lives is proof of the power of courage, perseverance, and compassion for others.