By Scott Westcott / Parade.com
In case you missed this American Story in the June 9, 2013 Parade magazine, we reprint this inspirational testimony.
Brad Ray and his kids saved one man’s life. Turns out their own lives were saved, too.
The afternoon of March 28, 2012, was one of those roll-down-the-windows spring days in Fostoria, Ohio, as Brad Ray drove home from the county courthouse. Yet even the bright sunshine couldn’t lighten his mood. Brad, daughter Gabby, 18, and son Austyn, 16, were returning from a hearing where a judge had ordered Austyn to perform 16 hours of community service for punching a classmate. Brad knew the sentence could have been much harsher, but the court scene was just another reminder of the family’s troubles.
Brad, 37, and his wife, Jaime, 36, had recently been released from prison after serving several years for growing marijuana. Though the family was finally back together, times were tough. Brad couldn’t land steady work. Austyn got in frequent fights, and his grades were dismal. Gabby, who had gotten pregnant while her parents were in prison, was struggling to make it as a single mom in high school. And adding to Brad’s frustration that day: They were running late to pick up Jaime from work.
As their car rounded a sharp curve, Brad and the kids heard a loud bang and then came upon a horrific car crash. Brad slammed on the brakes and jumped out of his car. “This little black sedan looked like a dinosaur had stomped on the front end,” Brad says. “Somehow the driver had gotten out. He was sitting on the side of the road, saying, ‘There’s a guy in that truck.’ ”
Brad sprinted toward the smoking and mangled pickup. “I was thinking, no way this guy is alive. I yelled to the kids, ‘Stay back!’ ” says Brad, but Gabby and Austyn were right behind him.
Inside the truck, Matt Sterling, dazed and bleeding, was struggling against the crushed driver-side door. He had been headed to Kathy’s Korner, the restaurant in Arcadia, Ohio, that he runs with his wife, Rachel. After impact, his truck rolled twice before settling on its tires in a corn-stubble field.
At 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, Matt is a strong man, but he couldn’t budge the door. “It’s okay, we’ll get you out,” Brad told him, then bolted around to the passenger side, which was also jammed.
“Then I saw flames under the truck—the whole underside was on fire,” Brad says. “I knew we didn’t have much time.”
A former amateur boxer, Brad pulled on the door with all his might until it finally gave a bit and he could wedge his body in to pry it open. Then Gabby and Austyn scrambled in, grabbing Matt’s clothes and dragging him out. With a kid under each arm, Matt stumbled to safety. Brad followed behind, feeling a rush of heat as flames engulfed the truck. “Even together, those two kids aren’t my size,” says Matt, 49, his voice cracking at the memory. “No doubt, they saved my life.”
Later that night, the crash got Brad thinking about life, death, and fate. “When I came home from prison, I didn’t know how to make things right,” Brad says. “I prayed: Just give me a chance to show people I’ve changed … that I’m a good person.” As Brad replayed the rescue in his mind, he wondered, Could this be my chance?
Brad says the downward spiral for his family began in 2005 after the death of his grandfather. “He was more like a father to me,” Brad says. “Everything I knew about being a man and a good person, I’d learned from him.” He began self-medicating with alcohol, then drugs. His home-improvement business foundering, Brad started growing marijuana in his basement to make ends meet. When the cops came knocking one August morning in 2007 to bust him and Jaime, it was front-page news in tiny Fostoria.
With both parents serving prison sentences, the kids bounced from one family member to another. Meanwhile Brad and Jaime tried to hold their marriage together through handwritten letters and three 15-minute phone calls each year. “I had lost everything,” Brad says. “My only goal in prison was to rebuild myself and be the person my kids needed to succeed.”
Yet after Brad and Jaime were released, they found that no one wanted to hire an ex-con full time. Every day, Brad battled to stay sober and resist his old troubled ways. “I had to wake up each morning and say, ‘Today I am going to make some good happen,’ ” he says.
Then came the crash. As local news reports chronicled the heroic actions, Brad sensed a shift. Folks in town who’d previously whispered under their breath when Brad walked by now shook his hand and thanked him. Austyn says teachers and kids at school saw him in a new light.
“People seemed to respect me, and I started caring about my grades,” Austyn says. “I guess I realized that I finally had what I wanted—a dad I could be proud of.”
Meanwhile, an unlikely friendship blossomed between Brad’s and Matt Sterling’s families. Jaime got a job as a waitress at Kathy’s Korner, and when Gabby graduated from high school with honors last June, the Sterlings’ gift was a fully catered party.
“To be able to call Matt a friend has been huge,” Brad says. “A positive role model has been sent back into my life.”
Brad still hasn’t landed a full-time job, but in the meantime, he’s picking up more steady work, fixing roofs, laying blacktop, and putting up drywall. And he has used his newfound status to pursue his longtime dream—starting Fostoria Area Boxing, an after-school program that runs on a shoestring budget at a local gym. “A lot of these kids come from very tough situations, and I want to give them confidence and hope,” Brad says. “But as much as this helps them, it’s not half as much as it helps me. When I’m here, I’m not an ex-con. I am just Coach.”
Brad, Gabby, and Austyn have received “Certificates of Heroism” from the city of Fostoria and official recognition from the Wood County Sheriff Department. They appreciate the awards, but it’s the gold “guardian angel” pendants that Matt gave each of them that they treasure.
“It may sound strange to say that I’m glad to be part of this, but it’s how I feel,” Matt says. “Go through the story and you can only conclude that what happened that day was meant to change lives for the better.”
As for Brad, he’s now a firm believer that prayers can be answered in unexpected ways. “Turns out, we weren’t late the day of the crash,” Brad says. “We were on God’s time. We were exactly where we were supposed to be, when we were supposed to be there.”