Steve Herbst of Palatine was one of three winners across two nations announced Friday in the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association's "Local Heroes" contest for awards of wheelchair-accessible vans.
Herbst, 46, is among the co-founders of the Gridiron Alliance -- a not-for-profit organization that aims to improve the lives of catastrophically injured young athletes -- along with Deacon Don Grossnickle and the late Rob Komosa.
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Herbst, who became a quadriplegic after a football injury at Palatine High School in 1980, is a husband, father of twins and technology manager for Allstate Insurance in Northbrook.
Though semifinalists were determined through public votes, a panel of health care professionals ultimately picked the three winners, said Dave Hubbard, executive director and CEO of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association.
The judges looked not only at how well the semifinalists had done in overcoming their disabilities, but at the impact they subsequently had on the lives of others -- hence, "Local Heroes."
The other two winners live in Lexington, Ky., and Victoria, B.C., in Canada.
Herbst has long been able to drive himself using mechanical controls for his hands, but recently lost the hand strength for that particular system.
Grossnickle said the upgraded system Herbst requires to continue his independence is beyond the financial means of most people when coupled with the cost of the wheelchair-accessible vehicle he needs to put it in.
But having won the Honda van with an $80,000 retail cost is a huge step in the right direction.
"Steve Herbst is a local folk hero in Palatine," Grossnickle said. "Everybody loves him. His comeback story is inspiring and earth-shattering. We couldn't bear the thought of Steve and (his wife) Sue in defeat."
Herbst was notified of his win before Friday, but was sworn to secrecy -- even from his closest friends -- as he made his way down to Florida for the announcement of the winners.
The only clue Grossnickle said he had was an automatic email reply from Herbst saying he was out of town when Grossnickle hadn't expected him to be.
Hubbard said his association began the now annual contest in 2012, in conjunction with National Mobility Awareness Month, to provide an educational opportunity on the ways new technology can help people overcome different physical limitations.
"Our biggest problem is that people don't know these solutions are available to them," Hubbard said.
Herbst could not be reached for comment in Florida Friday.