Cole Vernard

Cole Vernard 

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Cole Vernard was fine being on the sidelines at the Monster Jam shows. As a crew chief, he would fix the engines and put the parts back together after the drivers put on the show.

But when he looked at the star-drivers and the oversized trucks and the lights night after night, he thought: “I could do that.”

“In the back of my mind, I just wanted a chance,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to drive, it was always an ‘I wish’ kind of thing, kind of a faraway thing.”

From day one, when they picked Vernard up at the bus stop a few miles from his South Dakota home, they told him he wouldn’t drive.

“They told me I’m too good of a mechanic,” he said. “I was all right with that, but sometimes, I wondered if I would ever get that shot.”

Vernard had always been a wild child — that’s what his mother tells him.

“Growing up, I really liked any kind of bike and was always racing something,” he said. “I like to push the limits and chase that next big rush.”

He even liked getting knocked down, so he could bounce right back up. 

During an off weekend in 2010, Vernard got into a motorcycle accident that shattered his left foot and broke his right shoulder. His foot was later amputated.

It was the worst he had ever been knocked down, but he remembers making a decision not to feel sorry for himself. 

“For me as a person, I didn’t want to be different at all, and I didn’t want to be slowed down,” he said. “I wanted to pick up and go right where I had been.”

He was different, however. Physically, he had to relearn to walk, drive and climb stairs. But mentally, he hadn’t lost a thing.

“I was better even,” Vernard, who is 29, said. “I gained something, I gained this resolve to prove something.”

He proved that he could do just about anything the same way — even ride his motorcycle and dirt bikes — with a prosthetic foot. He went back to being a crew chief and earned a Technician of the Year award.

He also proved that he could drive.

One night last year, the driver's seat of Monster Jam's Grave Digger truck was open. So, Vernard subbed in.

“Oh, man, it was a big moment,” he said. “I was really focused on not doing anything stupid or showing off — just driving real naturally like I had always dreamed of.”

And it worked. Vernard got picked up to drive the same truck he had worked on for so many years. For the first time in more than a decade, he gets to put on the show. 

This season is his first as an official driver for Monster Jam.

“It’s so surreal now that it’s actually happening,” Vernard said. “To do this now as a driver is my dream, and I’m loving every minute of it, because I get to be the one who drives — that's what I always wanted in some way." 

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).