By Brian Panowich
I can still remember the phone call I received from my oldest and dearest friend, David Kernaghan, to tell me about his symptoms.
I’d gotten used to getting phone calls from David about all his various injuries throughout the years. He’d always been a fan of extreme sports like BMX and Motocross growing up, and he even had to suffer through jaw surgery when we were teenagers after a world-class faceplant on his skateboard. The thing about it was, over all those years, and all those bruises and broken bones, he never let any of it deter him from pressing forward. He took his lumps with a wry smile every time.
This time was different. Something in his voice sounded off. He sounded shaken. In that call, David went on to tell me about how he’d started to have a lot of pain in his lower back and how, more importantly and infinitely more frightening, he’d also begun to lose all the feeling in his right arm. He couldn’t ride his mountain bike anymore—his newest outdoor hobby. He was worried and scared. Just hearing David admit to being scared of anything was enough to scare me, too. I’ve known this man my whole life. We share a 30-year friendship that in a lot of ways has defined both of us as the men we are today. We watched each other’s children be born. We watched each other’s parents pass away. The idea that something might be seriously wrong with my brother was a jarring hit to my own mortality.
It didn’t take long to find out what was wrong. David’s C5 vertebrae had herniated into, and was actually denting, his spinal cord. Surgery was imminent. So, in August 2017, I drove up to Atlanta to be there on the day my best friend underwent a procedure called an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, also known as an ACDF. That’s a pretty fancy name that doesn’t come close to sounding as scary as it is.
Let me break it down for you. David was going to be put to sleep, and then have his throat cut, so a doctor could remove the damaged C5 vertebrae and replace it with a titanium plate. This was a surgery that could quite possibly leave him paralyzed. And I could see the weight of that knowledge in his eyes right before they wheeled him back to pre-op. Now, I’m not a religious man, but that day I prayed.
As it turned out, those prayers were answered, and David’s surgery was a success. Healthwise, he was out of the woods, but in more ways than one. He was told that his days of riding his mountain bike were over.
That’s when that wry smile came back to my buddy’s face. He’d just been told he couldn’t do something. Almost immediately, David went to work on his body and his mind. Becoming better than he was before his surgery was the goal. After months of intense work and focus, David was on his bike again, but this time, it was with a renewed vigor that made it more than just a hobby. It was a mission.
In April of 2018 he rode his bike again for the first time, an 18-mile trail in Conyers, Ga. And in August, on the one-year anniversary of his surgery, he attempted the first 100 miles of the Trans North Georgia route, or the TNGA, a beast of a trail and a legendary accomplishment in the mountain biking world. He made it 50 miles of that first 100. Now, for a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be able to ride again, that should’ve been enough, but it wasn’t. David would get back to the TNGA, but for the next two years he’d build up to it by competing on a championship level. He placed third in his first race with the Georgia State Championship (GSC) two years after the surgery. By the time of the TNGA 2020, David was an accomplished championship rider who had pushed his wheels into every bit of dirt in the tri-state area. He had become a formidable opponent on the trails and a solid addition to the mountain bike community all over Georgia. And he still wasn’t done.
This past week, almost three years to the day of the surgery that could’ve stolen everything from him, my 47-year-old friend took to the woods of North Georgia to tackle the TNGA again. And this time he didn’t intend on just completing the first 100 miles of the route. He was taking on all 360 miles. It took him four days, nine hours and 24 minutes. And almost every bit of physical and mental strength he had. I was there with his partner, Jodi Adams, and a group of his fellow riders to hug him after I watched him cross the finish line.
So, when people see my friend in photos on social media out on some dirt track in the mountains, they are likely to just see David out doing what he loves. But me? I see a warrior. One who looked at the doctors, the experts and the rest of the world and said, “Here, hold my beer…”
Appears in the October 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.