Surrounded by members of the Air Force’s Thunderbirds ground crew and a few friends, Brendan Lyons suits up for the “ride of a lifetime” as this year’s Hometown Hero — his reward, a flight with the Thunderbirds.
Before climbing into the jet Thursday afternoon at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Lyons takes a moment to take photos in front of it wearing a cycling jersey for Look! Save a Life, the road safety awareness program he launched in Tucson.
After a quick photo shoot, he climbs into the jet and gets situated, with help from Air Force Maj. Kevin Walsh, Thunderbirds 7.
Lyons gives an enthusiastic thumbs up as the jet taxis to the runway.
WHAT MAKES A HERO?
Lyons doesn’t consider himself a hero, “not by any stretch.”
But, some would disagree.
“First of all, let’s talk about what a hero really is,” said Chris Nanos, Sheriff of Pima County. “To me, guys with badges is one thing, but when your badge is inside your chest, your heart . . . That’s what he is . . . He’s truly concerned about the well-being of others. That’s what makes him a hero.”
Lyons’ work with Look! Save a Life makes him deserving of the title in the eyes of his friend Troy Peterson.
“He’s big-hearted, selfless and determined,” Peterson said. “And sadly, it seems lately the justification of Look! Save a Life becomes more important, because, let’s face it, distracted driving is becoming worse, not better . . . And there’s gotta be somebody to be an advocate.”
The base received six other outstanding nominations for the flight, said Nicole Dalrymple, A D-M spokeswoman .
“What stood out with Brendan is his personal story of recovery and overcoming a terrible, life-threatening accident and how that further fueled his commitment to safety and his passion to make Tucson a safer community for cyclists and motorists,” Dalrymple said.
Helge Carson, close friend of Lyons, says everything he’s ever done — from volunteering with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to his work as a firefighter to working with Look! Save a Life — has always been about serving everybody else.
“He is all about helping other people,” Carson said. “That’s what Brendan is about. He just feel so strongly about that. It hurts him every time somebody gets hurt. He really feels that emotionally.”
Although, this isn’t the first time Lyons has been recognized — he was named El Tour de Tucson’s Dedication Recipient, Official Honoree and Man of the Year, and was recognized as one of Tucson’s top 40 Under 40 — it feels strange to him.
“While I’m extremely honored for the accolades, it feels strange,” Lyons said. “I feel like there’s more people that are so much more deserving. Not to minimize my gratitude. I’m extremely grateful. It’s just strange to be recognized for something I’d be doing anyways, without an award. It’s humbling.”
As long as Lyons could remember, he wanted to be a firefighter.
After a stint as an EMT, he decided if he really wanted to be a firefighter, he needed to get in shape. He started taking spin classes at the gym, sometimes twice a day.
He started cycling and rode in El Tour de Tucson to raise money for Tu Nidito and a young boy with leukemia.
“It became a huge passion and a major part of my life,” Lyons said. “I attribute getting into the fire department and losing 80 pounds to cycling.”
In 2009, while heading out for a group bike ride, a car pulled out in front of him, causing him to crash.
“I went head over handlebars into the asphalt,” Lyons recalled. “It tore up my chin.”
He ended up with six stitches, and went back to work.
Two years later, Lyons was inspired to start a campaign to educate others and create awareness on road safety, as well as form partnerships with lawmakers to create greater accountability for those who don’t follow the rules of the road.
That’s when he found Look! Save a Life, a nonprofit advocacy campaign, founded in Boise, Idaho. He instantly knew he wanted to start something similar in Tucson.
“It really resonated with me when I reached out to them because the message wasn’t a one-sided attack on motorists, but included cyclists following the laws, as well,” Lyons said. “Safety is everyone’s responsibility.”
The organization asked Lyons to head a Tucson chapter, which he officially launched at the 2012 El Tour de Tucson.
“Ironically, after continually sharing this message, one year later, on October 4, 2013, my girlfriend and I were on a ride on her birthday and were struck from behind at 45 miles per hour in the bike lane,” Lyons said.
Lyons was launched from his bicycle and suffered multiple injuries including traumatic brain injury and multiple fractured vertebra and pelvis. He spent nearly a month in the hospital and three months in a wheelchair.
“I was in a dark place because everything I had prepared for was for the fire department,” Lyons said. “And I was being told by this neurosurgeon that I probably wouldn’t be able to go back to a physically demanding career.”
Lyons then decided he needed to “move into life” and would go back to school to study public administration.
“What influenced public administration is working with Look! Save a Life,” Lyons said. “I didn’t know anything about nonprofits or marketing . . . I was always intrigued about the lives firefighters would impact. I could take that outside of being a firefighter into social change and bettering our community.”
During his hospital stay, his urge to make change was visible to those who visited.
“Brendan’s desire to facilitate change was apparent during my first visit with him at the hospital after his accident,” said Chief Jonathan McMahan, of Rural Metro Fire Department. “He took adversity and harnessed it. This made him a change agent that has produced deliverables which made the greater Tucson community a safer place for residents and visitors who ride bicycles.”
Once out of the hospital, Lyons was asked to speak at the El Tour de Tucson dedication dinner about bicycle safety in front of 500 people, one of which was NBA sportscaster, Bill Walton.
“He came up to me and said ‘Brandon, I’m Bill Walton and I want you on my team,” Lyons recalled. “I’m looking up at him and said ‘Bill, I’m in a wheelchair and I don’t play basketball.”
But, Walton wasn’t talking basketball. He wanted Lyons on his cycling team with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit that raises awareness and funds to help individuals achieve their dreams through sports.
“The team he was referring to was the Million Dollar Challenge in 2014 to ride 620 miles from San Francisco to San Diego,” Lyons said. “I was like ‘I’m afraid to get back on the road again.’ He understood and said ‘if you ever reconsider, keep my contact info.’”
In 2015, Lyons decided to get back on his bike.
“I had this almost epiphany that I wasn’t killed. I was alive. I could still walk. I still have my limbs and I embraced this mentality to live life to the fullest,” Lyons said.
So, he joined Walton’s team, and as fulfilling as this ride was for Lyons, the best part was seeing other challenged athletes — from paraplegics to quadriplegics — who were able to ride.
“We were climbing this pretty steep hill and I was next to this kid and he was a single-legged amputee above the knee without a prosthetic, pedaling with one leg up this climb and he was struggling, so I put my hand on his back-side and pushed him up this hill thinking I was helping him,” Lyons recalled. “Upon reflection, I wasn’t helping him, he was helping me. It was a tremendous honor . . . Here’s many athletes on this ride that make the most of their lives no matter what . . . It was extremely powerful.”
Since then, Lyons hasn’t let up on his mission to improve road safety. Through Look! Save a Life, he speaks at schools and at community events, using his shattered bicycle and helmet as a centerpiece.
His message to both cyclists and motorists: pay attention.
“He’s very determined,” said Lorena Evans, Lyons’ fiance. “Once he gets an idea in his head, he just doesn’t let go of it. With all these activities and getting out in the public and trying to make it safe for cyclists and drivers, it’s his passion. It’s like a part of him now . . . It’s almost like it’s got a part of him and he’s going with it and trying to keep up with the momentum.”
Lyons hopes to see Look! Save a Life become the catalyst for a cultural shift toward making distracted driving socially unacceptable.
He has recently formed a partnership with Sheriff Nanos to make that happen.
The two are working to draw up a county ordinance that says, “if you’re using county roads, you shouldn’t be texting. You shouldn’t be emailing,” Nanos said. “If you’re driving you shouldn’t be distracted. We’re gonna try to push that through here. I’m helping him. He’s the real spearhead behind this.”
Lyons sees his crash as “a blessing in disguise.”
“It allowed me to really reflect on what’s important in life . . . It’s crazy how much the bicycle has become such a tremendous part of my life.”
FLIGHT OF A LIFETIME
About hour after takeoff, Thunderbird 7 returns, with Lyons flashing thumbs up signal to his friends, family and ground crew.
The crew lines up to offer congratulatons and give Lyons a certificate.
“We got up to 9.4 g’s,” says Maj. Walsh tells him. “It was an honor flying with you. Thank you for taking time out of your day to spend time with us.”
They shake hands.
“It was a tremendous honor,” Lyons says. “What these guys do every day . . . I was nominated Hometown Hero. I’m no hero. These guys are.”
The crew lines up, each one taking a moment to congratulate Lyons.
Walking a little shakily, with one hand on his stomach, Lyons hugs his fiance.
“It was absolutely incredible. It’s so indescribable,” Lyons says. “Being able to hit 9.4 g’s was phenomenal. You just can’t describe it. It was such a privilege.”