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August 15, 2014 3:30 PM, EDT
Not Even Cancer Can Keep YRC’s Messmer From Competing in NTDC
John Sommers II for TT

YRC Freight driver David Messmer’s name was on the list of competitors for the Arizona Truck Driving Championships, but the day of that event all eyes were on the doors as they began to close for the start of the competition.

“We thought he’d decided not to come,” said Messmer’s friend and fellow YRC driver, Gregory Nauertz, recalling that day.

Five weeks earlier, doctors had cut a tumor from Messmer’s brain, and the week before the championships, he’d started chemotherapy.

At the last minute, though, in walked Messmer.

Photo: David Messmer wearing a dark cap surrounded by family and friends at NTDC including his mother, wife Tricia and daughters Kylee and Megan.

“He just doesn’t have any quit in him,” Nauertz said of his friend.

Messmer did more than show up — he won first place in the 3-axle division, which sent him to the National Truck Driving Championships this week in Pittsburgh.

“This is my fifth time in the nationals,” said Messmer, 45, who despite medical treatments still to come, completed all the competition, the written test, the pre-trip check and the driving.

Ask Messmer how he’s found the strength, despite an infection that recently hospitalized him, to continue competing and he’s modest about the bar he’s set for determination and courage.

“It can be anybody’s day on the course,” he said. “All these guys are professionals. You can practice all you want, doesn’t mean you’re going to score high. Or you can practice not at all, and you can score high.”

At the nationals, though, Messmer’s example of determination has clearly touched the trucking community.

He can’t stand in a hotel lobby or on the Pittsburgh convention center floor without passing truckers patting him on the shoulder or saying an encouraging word as they go by.

“Everyone in Arizona who’s competed on the local level adores him,” said Sean Saxon, a FedEx driver who isn’t competing this year but attended the national championships. “We’re all pulling for him.”

Another Arizona team member, Ina Daly, a Con-Way Freight driver who last year became the first woman to win a division championship, called Messmer “my inspiration.”

Messmer’s strength in the face of adversity has surprised even those close to him.

On the day of the state competition, a friend phoned his wife, Tricia Messmer, from the event to say that her husband had won a first place and “I was like, yeah, right,” she said about the call she thought was a joke.

Tricia and the couple’s daughters, Kylee, 12, and Megan, 9, and Messmer’s mother, Evalyn Ehlen, all traveled to Pittsburgh to watch him compete.

The girls have spent many a delightful summer vacation watching their father compete, and they were busy at the event collecting and trading state pins, a traditional practice among the fans every year.

Messmer started his career in the trucking industry 24 years ago, working in Arizona for Roadway, the national trucking company eventually bought by YRC. So YRC is like family to the Messmers, they said.

“They’ve been so supporting, from the top down,” Messmer said.

At the Phoenix terminal with its 92 drivers, Messmer’s progress, during his illness and in Pittsburgh, has been closely watched.

“My phone’s been ringing nonstop with people asking how he’s doing,” said Kimberly Jundt, who was attending the nationals to watch her husband, Mike, another YRC driver on the Arizona team, compete.

“They’re all like big brothers there,” Jundt said.

At the Phoenix terminal, the drivers and their families have held fundraising events to help the Messmers survive financially, as Messmer has had so many days where he has been too ill to work.

One driver donated a special rifle for a fundraiser event, said Nauertz, who holds a division championship from national competition and was on America’s Road Team in the 2009-10.

“We sold raffle tickets,” Nauertz said.

He credits Messmer’s kids as a “great” motivating factor in pushing Messmer to compete in a year when he might not be at his best at the nationals.

In turn, those at the championships who know the family’s story are giving Kylee and Megan an extra special time.

On Saturday, at the parade of trucks, a traditional part of the championship festivities, officials have arranged for Kylee and Megan to ride in a truck — giving their father a chance to cheer them from the stands, as they’ve been cheering him for years.