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March 5, 2024

From Coma to Comedy: Bryan Stow’s Second Act

12 years after brutal attack, Giants fan embarks on anti-bullying initiative

Bryan Stow is the face—and body—of courage, grit and determination. His skull is partially sunken, his scalp is criss-crossed with surgical scars and he walks with the aid of crutches, yet Stow (not so humbly) embodies the characteristics that people admire, his wicked sense of humor and rapier-like wit not withstanding—and yes, he made this reporter promise to write that.

Starting in 2001, the Santa Cruz native was a paramedic with AMR, responding to traumas, stabbings, medical emergencies and providing care to those in need. Stow loved his work, his coworkers and had a passion for helping others.

On March 31, 2011, Stow, then 42, two fellow paramedics and a third friend attended the opening day game between the San Francisco Giants—Stow’s team—and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodgers’ Stadium in L.A. After the game had ended, Stow and his friends were walking through the parking lot when he was jumped from behind.

“I heard someone approaching us and I turned around halfway when I was hit in the side of the head by a fist and knocked unconscious,” said Stow, gesturing to the left side of his skull.

Stow was beaten mercilessly until his skull was split open; during the assault, Stow’s medic partner dove on top of him to protect Stow from the blows and kicks.

In the blink of an eye, the tables turned, and Stow became the patient. He was in a medically induced coma for nine months following the attack and underwent multiple surgeries, including emergency brain surgery and a tracheotomy.

“You name a body part, I’ve had surgery on it, just so I can try and return to normal,” he said.

Upon his discharge from the hospital where he survived on artificial life support in a bed-bound state, Stow was weak, rigid, wheelchair-bound and unable to speak. His physicians and surgeons were unsure which version of Stow would emerge—would he be angry and defensive, or would a softer side of the Giants fan shine through?

“Honestly, I was funny then and I’m even funnier now, just ask me,” said Stow as he sipped on his favorite white mocha concoction at Starbucks. “I could be bitter and sulking at home, but it’s better to be funny and make the most of it.”

Stow, now 54, accomplishes the latter by speaking to kids and youth groups nationally about anti-bullying initiatives and the scourge of fan-on-fan violence at sporting events.

“I usually give speeches to kids, and I think it’s helping,” said Stow, who has given 369 presentations in the last 5-1/2 years, including at the juvenile hall facility in Felton and in Baltimore, Md., where he gave eight presentations in three days.

“I’d really like to travel elsewhere to speak if anyone can hook me up,” said Stow, who may have been joking, but it’s tough to tell. “I’ve spoken to all ages—from kindergarteners to the elderly—about this topic. I’ll go wherever they’ll have me.”

After his presentations, Stow tends to follow up with the schools to determine the impact of his speech.

“One, because I’m nosy. But two, because I really want them to know that someone is looking out for them. Someone cares,” he said.

Stow is certain that fan violence needs to be addressed at all levels, and that’s part of the drive of the Bryan Stow Foundation. Established in 2015, the Foundation helps to fund his national speaking engagements, where he opens up about his experience with sincerity, straight-talk and a large dose of humor. 

“I get asked all kinds of questions from the kids. They want to know who’s my favorite football team, my favorite band or if I have a girlfriend. One kid asked me who my favorite soccer team is, and I said, ‘Is soccer a sport?’ Luckily, I haven’t found any of those questions offensive,” said Stow with his trademark glibness.

SURPASSING EXPECTATIONS

In addition to his more low-key talks, Stow was also featured on the television show “The Doctors” in 2017. Flanked by his family, Stow’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Gabriel Zada, appeared on the show as well and remarked on the resilience of his patient, whose life hung in the balance following his attack.

“Bryan has really surpassed all expectations, all predictions, all statistics. If you believe in miracles, this is as close as it gets,” Zada said.

“His speeches have changed so much in the past several years,” remarked his sister, Erin Collins, 48. “His presentations are very different now than from when he began. He gave his first talk to kids in 2013, and it was part of his cognitive therapy.”

Stow’s therapy has continued in a myriad of ways and his efforts are supported by people like Tim Flannery, former third base coach for the San Francisco Giants (2007-14). Flannery and his band, The Lunatic Fringe, have played several benefit shows for Stow, and the San Francisco Giants have made Stow an honorary member of their baseball family, even providing the Stows a suite during the World Series in 2012. 

At another game, Stow was invited into the team’s locker room. His son, Tyler, pushed him into the room in his wheelchair, and the entire team stood and applauded—Stow still gets chills at that memory.

He even threw the first pitch at the Giants home opener in April 2021 against the Colorado Rockies, and Stow has been honored to start several games for the San Jose Giants, the single-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. He’s collected signed bats from Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, “which are for sale for the right price,” said Stow as a joke.

For all he’s been through, Stow keeps looking forward with a dose of humor, positivity and hidden humility that is contagious and endearing. His regular speaking presentations have morphed from one on paper to one from memory, and he knows that his words have an impact on the kids who really need to hear his message.

“When I go to some of these engagements, people stand and clap for me.” Turning his gaze toward me, Stow added, “I would have liked for you to stand and applaud when I walked in here today, but you didn’t.” This reporter hangs her head in shame but looks forward to redemption in the future—just like Stow.

Bryan Stow’s speaking engagement calendar is already filling up for 2024. If you’re a member of an organization that could benefit from hearing his story and anti-bullying message, visit bryanstowfoundation.org to book a presentation.

Christina Wise
Christina Wise
Christina Wise covers politics, education, art & culture, and housing issues. She has a degree in Communication from San Diego State University, and has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley since 1996. She's a community advocate and a mother of two.

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