Written by Teresa Akersten
Gabe Hurley may not recall the details of the car crash that left him disfigured, blind and with no sense of smell at the age of 24.
Years later, Hurley says there’s only one thing worth remembering: the crash was no “accident.” His life was forever changed as the result of a teen driving recklessly.
The 29-year-old from Middlesex has embarked on a mission to share his story about the importance of responsible driving. He has brought his message around the state from Blairstown to Cumberland to more than 80 groups, mostly high school students on the verge of getting their drivers’ licenses.
“I like to think that they’ll be safer drivers,” Hurley said Wednesday after speaking to an auditorium full of juniors and seniors at Montclair High School.
Dressed in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, jeans and cap, connecting with teens comes easily to the youthful looking Rutgers grad who worked in IT for Virgin Mobile. It doesn’t hurt that he plays a mean guitar, and performs a rock medley as part of every presentation.
He tells the students he had an enviable life before the crash. A girlfriend. A nice car. A good job. And, the band he started with high school friends in 1999, The New Black.
For the PowerPoint he uses during his talks, he chose photos that illustrate the lifestyle he once lived.
“It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor,” Hurley said. “This can happen to you.”
The positive young man, known as the glue between his friends, chose not to live a life of self-pity.
“I from day one decided I wanted to learn how to relive life in every facet,” he said.
That meant learning to live without sight and relearning how to use his left hand where he suffered broken bones so he could return to playing guitar. It took him six months of therapy just to make a fist.
“You can have everything taken away and have a productive life and be happy," Hurley said.
Teens often come up to him after his talks and tell them they learned something. Young people also entrust him with stories of their own personal hurdles, whether it be their parents’ divorce, a death in the family or enduring bullying.
One senior at Montclair High confessed he and his friends weren’t the most responsible of drivers.
“Seeing your presentation and what you have been through,” he told Hurley, “has changed things.”
Things are changing for Hurley, too.
At the Nikhil Badlani Foundation's third annual 5K Run/Walk in West Orange last year, Hurley was presented with an "Inspiration Award."
The non-profit was started in memory of Nikhil Badlani, an 11-year-old who was killed when a driver ran through a stop sign.
See Hurley perform live: The New Black will appear at 10th Street Live in Kenilworth on Saturday, Jan. 18.