The big picture for John Rotche has never looked brighter

Published: May 9, 2004
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A devastating injury ended his football career, but life’s turns are bringing him great joy and success

It doesn’t take much for John Rotche to remember how lucky he is. All he has to do is see a young man in a wheelchair, hear about an injured athlete, or think about the doctors who gave him little hope of walking again.

“I sometimes wonder if my determination contributed to the recovery, or if there was some divinity that came into play, or perhaps a combination of both,” said Rotche, sitting in his Pittsfield Township office.

Rotche’s dreams of playing football for the University of Michigan were crushed the day a neck injury during high school football practice left him a quadriplegic back in 1985.

He had just been recruited by U-M and was entering his senior year at Lane Tech High School in Chicago when he and a teammate got tangled up and fell sideways. Rotche, whose neck had already been injured, broke his fifth Cervical Vertebrae and bruised his spinal cord. He woke up a few days later, not realizing he was paralyzed until he tried to reach out to comfort his crying mother at the hospital – and couldn’t.

Doctors warned the family that his chances of regaining the use of his arms and legs were “basically none.”

“I experienced a vast variety of emotions, everything from feeling sorry for myself, to acceptance, to determination, but mostly (I was) quite afraid as to what the future would hold,” he recalled.

Then, about four months after the accident, he tried to swat a fly and saw a finger move. By that morning, he could move his hands and by afternoon, he had feeling again in his upper body.

As the swelling of his spinal cord continued to shrink, Rotche was disappointed that he still could not move his legs, and figured becoming a Paraplegic was God’s idea of a compromise.

But four days later, feeling returned to his legs. After receiving extensive Physical Therapy, he was released from the hospital with strict orders from doctors to avoid contact sports.

Although football was no longer an option, he applied and was accepted to U-M, and his application was filled with letters from coaches and counselors asking that he be allowed a chance to somehow get involved with the football program.

Rotche was made a strength and conditioning coach for the football team and spent three years with the program. Although he never played for the team, he received a 1987 Rose Bowl ring.

After graduating in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management and communication, he stayed on with U-M’s athletic department for a while.

“Then I went to where a lot of ex-athletes go to die,” he joked. “Domino’s.”

He spent six years there, eventually working directly for Tom Monaghan, running the six Ann Arbor Domino’s Pizza shops and breaking national sales records.

After becoming director of operations in charge of all corporate stores in Michigan and Ohio, he was recruited by Krispy Kreme to be its chief operation office’s Midwest division. He also got married, and he and his wife, Amy, bought a house near Michigan Stadium.

Although people said he was crazy to leave Krispy Kreme, he decided to go into business for himself and bought an air duct cleaning company, A2 Air, changing the name to Alpine Air. The company took off and he eventually decided to apply his 10 years of experience in franchising into starting his own franchise.

So he met with Bob Ufer, president of Service Brands International, who is approached every month by dozens of people hoping for a partnership. Rotche sold Ufer on the possibilities of DUCTZ, a residential, commercial and industrial air duct cleaning service. They formed a deal, and Rotche moved in-house with Service Brands, while predominantly running his own business serving southeast Michigan.

Ufer, whose father was the legendary Wolverine football radio announcer Bob Ufer, said he was immediately impressed with Rotche’s “phenomenal enthusiasm” and attention to detail.

“He’s one heck of a leader,” said Ufer. “Part of our business is try to bring people together we describe as champions … He epitomizes the kind of person we’re looking for.”

DUCTZ, which has become a rapidly-growing franchise, is doing remarkably well, Ufer said.

Rotche said he’s gone from the glamorous world of pizza to doughnuts to the glamorous world of duct-cleaning. And he couldn’t be happier.

He’s had surgery for some herniated discs doctors believe were related to the trauma that had occurred in his spine, and he’s still careful to avoid contact sports. But other than that, there are no lingering effects of his football injuries. He and his wife, Amy, ran the Detroit Marathon in 2002 and plan to run the Chicago marathon in October.

But for this Chicago native, Ann Arbor is home.

“I continued to find my place here in Ann Arbor,” he said, “whether it was through the football department, Domino’s Pizza, starting my own business, and then finding Service Brands, which is really just fate that they’re based here in Ann Arbor.”

He still wishes he had gotten to play football for Michigan. But when he looks at the big picture, he’s very grateful.

“I was able to walk out of the hospital and eventually run out on the field at the Rose Bowl, although in coaching gear,” he said. “I consider myself incredibly fortunate.”

Jo Collins Mathis can be reached at jmathis@annarbornews.com or (734) 994-6849.

BY JO COLLINS MATHIS
News Staff Reporter