Jon Tevlin
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It was Feb. 19, 2008, when a woman in a van barreled through a stop sign and hit a school bus, knocking it on its side near Cottonwood, Minn. As paramedics scrambled to free the students from the wreckage, Sawyer Stevens, who was gravely injured, told them he didn’t want to go to the hospital until his older brother and younger sister were accounted for.

Sawyer and his brother, Reed, had been so inseparable that their sister, Erin, called them by one name — Reedsawyer.

When Kandy Noles Stevens got to the hospital to see her children, “the first thing Sawyer asked was if his brother and sister were OK,” she said this week. “He was in such bad shape, we didn’t want to tell him.”

Reed was one of four children who died that day. More than a dozen children under age 13 were injured. The tragedy hit the community hard, and the crash became a political issue when it was learned that the woman responsible for the accident was in the country illegally.

Sawyer had a double burden, grieving for his brother while recovering from serious injuries. He had broken bones, bruised lungs and nerve damage that kept him in and out of the hospital for 12 weeks. He missed most of the rest of the school year and had to use a wheelchair for several years because he couldn’t walk.

“We would do anything to have Reed back,” said his mother. “But I know helping Sawyer to heal became our rallying cry. We focused all our energy on him, and with a strong faith, helped him to go forward. We could have chosen to live every day sad and bitter, but as bad as our lives were then, we realized there were others who had it worse.”

Sawyer, now a junior at the University of South Dakota, made some news last weekend by winning a football-throwing contest that earned him a $100,000 scholarship. To win the prize, he threw more footballs through a hole in a giant can of Dr Pepper, the contest sponsor. That was nice, but the back story of his rise from the bus crash is much, much better.

Sawyer has never forgotten the medical professionals who saved him and cared for him during more than 30 surgical procedures, and he’s absorbed and marveled at the kindness of friends and neighbors.

“I’ve always known I wanted to help people,” Sawyer, a medical biology major, said in an interview. “In a lot of ways, I want to pay back for the great care I got.”

When Sawyer set off for college, he told his parents he had a plan and goals. One was to be a campus leader, and he quickly checked that box by becoming one of the youngest presidents of a fraternity. Sawyer used that platform to do philanthropic work in the community, particularly good deeds that cater to children.

It was during a leadership conference that he chose to spend time at St. Jude’s Medical Hospital for Children in Memphis, Tenn. After the experience, he excitedly called his mother.

“He said, momacita — he calls me momacita — can we talk?” said Noles Stevens. “It was unlike him. He poured his heart out to me and his voice cracked. He said, ‘Mom, I just spent the day at St. Jude’s Hospital, and realized this is where I need to be.’ ”

Sawyer said the day was life-changing. His goal now is to become a neurosurgeon and work in a pediatrics unit. He knows it will be a long slog, “but I’ve always thought that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it,” he said. “When I was [at St. Jude’s], I just felt a calling and an affirmation of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.”

Asked if memories of his brother motivate him, Sawyer quickly replied: “Absolutely. I love my brother and I think about him every day.”

Sawyer’s mom, a professor at Southwest Minnesota State University, said Sawyer’s new best friend is his little sister, Cloie, and he’s never been embarrassed to hang out with her or go to school functions.

“He’s kind of a pied piper around kids,” Noles Stevens said. “So when he said he wanted to be a pediatrician, I thought it was perfect.”

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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