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SWAT member who lost lower leg after being run over by fire truck at Nuggets parade stages comeback

Nuggets Officer’s Recovery Basketball
Nuggets Officer’s Recovery Basketball
Nuggets Officer’s Recovery Basketball
Posted at 10:48 AM, Jun 30, 2024

The final fire truck rolled through the streets of Denver for the Nuggets’ celebratory parade a year ago, carrying Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the franchise’s first NBA championship trophy.

The truck suddenly stopped following a right turn around a corner. An instant later, chaos.

On the concrete, amid the noise and celebrations, police Sgt. Justin Dodge found himself fighting for his life, his left foot run over by the front wheel of the 80,000-pound vehicle.

There, in the street, he made a vow — that if the tourniquets held and if rescue workers got him to the hospital in time aboard an all-terrain vehicle, he would stage an epic comeback.

He has, too, after eight surgeries including one that amputated his leg inches below the knee. A year after the June 15 accident, he is back full-time on the job as a SWAT team supervisor, has become a motivational speaker and the subject of a PBS documentary and is a phone call away for anyone going through a similar difficult time.

“That day was pretty rough for me,” Dodge said in a series of interviews with The Associated Press. “But because of the things that are happening and the positive story that I’m trying to create, and that people are seeing, I’m having the ability to hopefully impact people in a way that I never would have been able to impact them before.”

His new motto is, “Crush the Hard.”

Really, though, he has always operated in that manner. That’s how he became an elite goaltender as a kid, including a stint with the St. Paul Vulcans of the United States Hockey League. That’s how he rose to the ranks of second-degree black belt in the martial arts discipline of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

And that’s how he returned to full duties with the SWAT team four days before the one-year anniversary of the accident.

“People root for the underdog,” said the 51-year-old Dodge, who has been with the Denver Police Department for 27 years, including 18 with SWAT. “Based on my situation, I feel like they’re cheering for me.”

Parade day

An estimated 750,000 fans had assembled along the parade route — and at Civic Center Park — to celebrate the Nuggets beating Miami and bringing home the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time.

Dodge provided security by walking along with the last fire truck — the one carrying Jokic and Murray, along with team owner Stan Kroenke and president Josh Kroenke.

Nearing the end of the route, the truck turned and the tire caught Dodge’s foot. It dragged him under the wheel but he was able to maneuver in a way — he credits Brazilian jiu-jitsu — that it didn’t roll over his knee or hip.

All around there were shouts for the truck to brake. But the noise was so loud.

The truck stopped on his leg before backing up. It lasted only seconds “but felt like an eternity,” Dodge said.

Fellow first responders sprang into action. Two tourniquets were applied. Given the crowded streets, they didn’t wait for an ambulance but instead loaded him onto an ATV and raced him to Denver Health.

Immediately, he went into surgery in an effort to save both him and his lower leg.

Three weeks after the accident, his lower leg was amputated.

As he healed, many visitors stopped by the hospital to wish him well, including Murray. Another was the driver of the fire truck. They’ve become good friends.

“There’s never been a day that I just sat there and went, ‘Why me?’” Dodge said. “Not one day. Because you can’t look back.”

Rehab

Former Nuggets director of performance Steve Hess reached out to offer his help to Dodge. Hess, who runs his own fitness company, is known for his infectious energy.

It was the perfect pairing. They designed a blueprint to take Dodge from a wheelchair to back to his line of work using his prosthetic leg.

“Justin looks at everything as an opportunity,” Hess said. “He’s limitless, because he doesn’t buy into any restrictions.”

There were tough days. Simple tasks early on, like taking a shower or scooting his way up stairs, were so draining.

“Sometimes, I would just literally lay my head on the floor (at the top of the stairs) and just openly cry with my kids surrounding me,” Dodge said.

Those moments only fueled him.

“He’d come to workouts hyped and I’d be like, ‘You do know that I’m about to kick your (butt),’” Hess said with a laugh. “There’s no off switch.”

That’s what it took to get him back to SWAT, where he’s part of a team called in for hostage rescues or situations involving active shooters. To get him into elite SWAT shape, Hess had Dodge climbing over walls and performing heavy squat lifts and pushups.

When Dodge tested to return to his unit, he was stronger than before during an exercise in which he ran 400 meters with 25-pound weights in each hand and while wearing a gas mask.

“Nothing slows him down,” Hess said. “He rises above it.”

Motivational speaker

These days, Dodge does numerous speaking engagements with an emphasis on resiliency and wellness. He makes time to talk to anyone who reaches out and is going through a similar experience. One of the questions he always asks: What are they doing today to be better for tomorrow?

“With the truck still on top of me, I was already starting my mental rehab,” Dodge said. “I knew my course of life had changed in an instant. But I told myself, ‘If I live to get to the hospital, I’m going to make an epic comeback.’”

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