Tragic crash brings ex-Notre Dame teammates Greer Martini, Dillan Gibbons back together
SOUTH BEND — During his time as a linebacker at Notre Dame, including a captaincy in 2017, Greer Martini was revered for his toughness and determination.
Through Laura Fisher, his girlfriend of almost four years, Martini has learned there is another level of personal strength that goes well beyond football.
“She’s so strong,” Martini said this week in a phone interview. “She has incredible willpower.”
On Jan. 31, as she was seated at an outdoor promotional tent for a new fitness location in Nashville, Fisher was struck by a light utility vehicle that had been knocked off course by a collision with another vehicle. A 67-year-old driver making an illegal left turn struck the SUV as it traveled through the intersection, according to the crash report filed by the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.
This was a few minutes before 4 on a Monday afternoon, near the busy intersection of Charlotte Avenue and 42nd Avenue North. Vanderbilt University, where Martini now works as a quality control assistant on the staff of former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea, is a short distance away.
Fisher, 27, never had time to react. The impact from the vehicle launched her backward 15 feet, and she lay motionless for nearly 30 seconds as at least three co-workers rushed to her side.
Thankfully, Fisher was the only person injured. Incredibly, she survived.
Rushed to the trauma center of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Fisher spent the next 15 nights in the hospital as five different specialists performed six different surgeries. Two rods were inserted in her broken arm, eight reconstructive plates were needed to stabilize 14 fractures in her orbital bone and nine pins were used to set a broken clavicle.
She also suffered a concussion, lost her four front teeth and had two spinal fractures in her upper and lower back.
“Those will heal on their own, which we’re pretty thankful for,” Martini said during a break in spring football practice for the Commodores.
Two months later, as she recovers at the home of Martini’s parents in Cary, N.C., Fisher is still dealing with post-traumatic stress from that freak accident. The rehabilitation process is slow and painful, and it’s easy to lose hope.
“One of the biggest things for Laura right now is being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Martini said, “ just because of the number of months it’s going to take her to get back to feeling normal, whatever normal is really.”
It’s the mountain of outstanding medical bills — more than $800,000 to this point — that can seem most daunting for the couple.
ISI Elite Training, Fisher’s South Carolina-based employer, wasn’t required to carry worker’s compensation insurance under Tennessee law, and the marketplace health plan she had as a certified personal trainer covered only 60 percent of her medical costs.
Those two rods in her broken arm cost $75,000 to install.
“It’s a flawed system to me personally that you can be at work, get hit by a car, suffer all these injuries and then be in debt,” Martini said. “That just doesn’t make sense to me.”
'Never seen anything like this'
As soon as he heard about the accident, Dillan Gibbons knew he had to help.
His “Big Man Big Heart” foundation had raised more than $275,000 since its launch last August as part of a charitable initiative under the NCAA’s Name, Image and Likeness program. The “Take Timothy to Tally” fundraiser garnered national attention as an 18-year-old Fighting Irish fan named Timothy Donovan and his family were able to travel from Ohio to attend Gibbons’ Florida State debut last Sept. 5.against Notre Dame, his former team.
Donovan is wheelchair bound and suffers from multiple rare illnesses that have required more than 50 surgeries. Thanks to a partnership with GoFundMe, “Big Man Big Heart” was able to help the Donovans purchase a new specially outfitted vehicle that will allow them to take their ailing son to many of the Seminoles’ games next fall in Gibbons’ final season as a starting offensive lineman.
After reaching out to Martini, his teammate for one season at Notre Dame, Gibbons and his team went into overdrive to figure out how they could assist. A GoFundMe was launched Sunday night with an initial goal of $100,000 to help defray Fisher’s medical debt.
Within 24 hours, thanks to a strong social media push from the extended Notre Dame network, online pledges had accounted for nearly a quarter of that goal, closing in on $28,000 by Tuesday morning.
“I knew already Dillan did amazing stuff, but now just to have it be part of my life is huge,” said Martini, who remembered the Donovans’ story from last fall. “Dillan and I were a couple years apart at Notre Dame. He didn’t have to go out of his way to do this, and it just speaks to his character. I’m so appreciative that he even thought of us during this time.”
Gibbons never hesitated to add Fisher and his former teammate to his ever-expanding roster of good works. He hopes his growing foundation will get the word out about Fisher’s plight.
“She’s gone through an incredible amount,” Gibbons said in a phone interview. “My family are all attorneys for the most part. They had never seen anything like this.”
There are no guarantees Fisher will be able to return to her chosen profession.
“Fitness was her passion growing up and what she did for her job,” Gibbons said. “She may not be able to get back to the level of fitness that was required to work with people and instruct as she once did.”
According to her LinkedIn bio, Fisher is a 2016 graduate of Fairfield (Conn.) University with a degree in communication. She and Martini first met in South Bend at the summer 2017 wedding of Jake Golic, a former reserve tight end for the Irish and later her boss at an Orangetheory Fitness location outside Boston.
Martini had brief training camp stints with the Green Bay Packers (2018) and Minnesota Vikings (2019) while also playing eight games for the Salt Lake Stallions in the short-lived Alliance of American Football. He hooked on with the Dallas Renegades of the XFL before the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19.
Now 26, Martini has been part of Vanderbilt’s coaching staff since February 2021. Starting salary for a quality control assistant is modest, so his financial ability to help Fisher is limited.
That’s where “Big Man Big Heart” comes in.
“They’re a young football family,” Gibbons said. “There’s a lot of football coaches out there, and they understand the financial struggles of that time in your coaching career. I just feel so bad for them.”
Expanding his network of campus ambassadors, Gibbons added Vanderbilt linebacker Anfernee Orji to his charitable team. The hope is that Orji and his teammates will be able to spread the word about Fisher’s situation throughout the Vanderbilt community, which has already delivered in so many ways.
Martini will never forget the text messages he received from Commodores athletic director Candice Storey Lee in those first uncertain hours after the accident. Fellow staffers and their family members would later stop by with prepared meals, and Lea has encouraged Martini to fly back home to Cary whenever he needs to be there for Fisher.
“Coach Lea has done an amazing job of making sure that I’m taken care of,” Martini said of the second-year Vandy coach. “Everyone keeps asking me what they can do, how they can help. From the top down, it has been incredible.”
Repaying his mentor
Five years ago, Gibbons found himself struggling through his freshman season at Notre Dame. A 6-foot-4, 309-pound lineman from Clearwater, Fla., Gibbons spent the fall on the scout team with the likes of future starters Aaron Banks, Josh Lugg, Avery Davis, Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
With Martini’s senior encouragement and guidance, Gibbons made it through the challenging process. That December he was named Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year.
“I’ve gotten to play football with a lot of wonderful athletes,” Gibbons said. “He may not have known it at the time, but Greer Martini is one of those guys I’ve always looked up to. When I was grinding away on the scout team, Greer helped me through some tough times.”
A fellow graduate of the Mendoza College of Business, Martini was among team leaders that showed Gibbons the possibilities when it came to community outreach and charitable endeavors.
“Even back then, when we had limited capacity with our name, image and likeness, we were allowed to support different causes throughout the year and help Notre Dame in running a ‘Lift For Life’ or whatever it might be,” Gibbons said. “I know if he had the tools of Name, Image and Likeness when he was playing in college that he would have done some incredible things.”
Martini’s calling card at Notre Dame included a reputation for being able to decode the vaunted Navy triple-option offense. As a blur of confusion swirled around him, Martini, better than any other linebacker in the Brian Kelly era, was able to maintain his poise and make the play that had to be made.
► Pod of Gold podcast:Greer Martini on his AAF experience and playing linebacker for Clark Lea
Time after time, he found a solution amid the madness.
Shaped by Martini’s kindness as a Notre Dame freshman, Gibbons is doing his part to help his old teammate come through once again.
“It has been an absolute honor,” he said.
'I'm so sorry this happened'
Rather than focus on the randomness of the accident or the inequity of the financial fallout, Martini takes his lead from Fisher and vows to stay positive.
There is no paralysis, he reminds himself, despite the fact she was forced to wear a neck brace for days and kept being rushed off for MRIs on her spine.
There is no cognitive damage. Her brain and her personality remain intact.
There is so still much for which to be grateful.
Martini will never forget rushing over from the Vanderbilt football office to meet Laura at the hospital’s trauma unit on that Monday afternoon. The former linebacker tried not to let his eyes betray the fear that filled his heart.
“I grabbed her hand,” Martini said. “I told her I loved her.”
Still in a state of shock, Fisher kept apologizing.
“Laura is one of the sweetest human beings in the world,” Martini said. “When I walked in there, she kept saying ‘sorry” to me. She was like, ‘I’m so sorry this happened. I’m sorry you had to leave work.’ She’d been hit by a car, had suffered all these injuries to her body, and the thing that she says first to me is, ‘I’m so sorry you have to be here right now.’"
The emotional rollercoaster never seems to slow.
“Right now she looks in the mirror, and I just don’t think she sees the Laura that she was before, even though I see it,” Martini said. “We’re just working through some of those things. This is not just something that happens overnight. It’s just becoming comfortable again with what she sees in the mirror.”
And what does Martini see when he looks at Laura now?
“I don’t want this to be a soap opera or anything, but to me personally it was never about the looks,” he said. “What attracted me so much to Laura was her personality, her ability to love no matter what and her overall energy. She just recycled positive energy daily.”
All of those qualities remain untouched.
“To me I just see the same Laura,” Martini said. “I’ll love her regardless of what she looks like, but I think as a woman these things bother her and rightfully so. If my face had changed and I had eight plates put in my face, I would be a little bit self-conscious, too.”
Just as quickly as the anger crept into his rising voice, it subsided. Now he was back to calmly game-planning for the future, back to problem-solving.
“She’s just trying to stack small wins every single day,” Martini said. “She’ll get herself back to being active and feeling normal and training and doing all these things. It’s just about how we can get her back to being extremely confident like she was before. Because she is a confident person and she deserves to feel that way.”
Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.