Captain is brave: Denver superhero vows to drive again after crash | Subscriber Content
Colorado captain is down but not for the count.
Denver’s Matt Gnojek has raised nearly $30,000 for pediatric cancer since 2016 by riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle across the country dressed as a star-studded hero, giving dollars and smiles everywhere.
But just like Captain America, Gnojek has faced his share of dangers (and dastardly villains!) over the years, riding to and from hospitals, rallies, conventions, and parades to raise money to support charities that needy families as well as veterans and veterans help refugees.
On July 26, Gnojek returned to Denver from a San Diego convention in his full Colorado Captain regalia — often prompting friendly car horns and inquisitive waves of excited kids in passing cars — as he cruised at 80 miles per hour toward West on I-70 near Moab, Utah. Gnojek has no memory of the crash, but one thing he knows for sure: “It’s a miracle that I’m alive,” he said. “I’m the luckiest son of a gun I know.”
There were no witnesses, but Gnojek believes he must have clipped a trailer truck traveling in the same direction. He was found unconscious on the side of the road and flown by helicopter to St Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where he was treated for multiple head injuries.
“I broke the whole left side of my face,” said Gnojek. “My face looked like a swollen, angry water balloon mixed with a Gallagher watermelon.” (It’s not just the painkillers talking. He was referring to the famous prop comic known for smashing watermelons as part of its plot .) The surgeons had to wait two weeks for the swelling to go down before performing an operation to put the bones in his face back in place. But miraculously, there is no immediately known brain, neck or spine trauma. However, there is nerve damage in his face.
Gnojek likes to say, “I truly believe that the power of a smile can go a long way in healing the human heart.” But because of this nerve damage, no one knows when he’ll be able to flash that signature Colorado captain’s smile again.
“I’m laughing and smiling from half my face again,” he said. “And the other half is… well, come with me.”
But this story is not a tragedy, said Gnojek. “It will be a success story … because I will be driving again. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t more good work for me to do.”
Friends and families who have been touched by Gnojek’s open heart consider him a hero in our midst. “Matt gives without a second thought, he cares with all his heart and he feels with his whole soul,” one wrote. But Gnojek considers himself more like Fred Rogers than Steve Rogers.
“Mr. Fred Rogers said the best gift you can give someone is your open and honest self, so everything I do is based on encouraging the love, joy and excitement that one gives to one another”, he said.
Gnojek is part of a group called “Cosplayers with a Cause,” and he uses his intermittent acting experience in the Denver theatrical community to create his comic book persona, which he calls a recreation of Captain America.
Inevitably, to pursue the work he loves, Gnojek lives a gypsy life, working part-time at Starbucks in Larimer Square and as a mixologist at Green Russell — jobs that allow him to take up to two months off each summer to support his charity to support work through the non-profit organization Cap for Kids, which he founded.
That summer, Gnojek had just embarked on a seven-state tour, visiting hospitals and attending events in San Diego, Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Sturgis, Seattle, Atlanta, and more. He is particularly devastated at not being able to attend the Realities Ride and Rally in Loveland next weekend, which is raising money to help vulnerable children who have been abused or neglected. Over the years it has expanded its mission to include the protection and promotion of human and civil rights.
“My job isn’t just about captaining Colorado anymore,” Gnojek said. “It’s about building a community motivated by an outstretched hand to help, not a raised fist to shake.”
But it wasn’t easy. In October 2017, Gnojek was struck by a blown truck tire while driving home from his recent charity drive, leaving him stranded in Peoria, Illinois with a broken ankle and subsequent surgery that left him unable to work and walk or three drive months.
In 2020, Gnojek’s Harley froze, but that didn’t stop him from completing his planned Memorial Day “Parade for Heroes” on a bike rented with his own money. The Colorado captain, along with supporters, drove through neighborhoods of Fort Collins to Castle Rock, known to be home to children with cancer.
Not owning a motorcycle at the time, friends lent him a car to get to and from his part-time jobs. Yet some creep broke into that vehicle and stole his Colorado Captain’s suit, mask, shield, gloves and boots. Three days before the latest crash, his mask was stolen – yet again – in San Diego. A nice fan read about it on Facebook and drove 90 miles to give Gnojek a replacement.
But this recent accident leaves him close to number one. His insurance paid $2,600 to restore his $17,000 motorcycle. But the superhero suit he was wearing at the time of the accident is super burned now, and he estimates it will cost about $900 to put another one together.
Gnojek typically believes his superhero suit saved his life — or at least from a far more serious road accident. But he also learned the hard way that the Colorado captain’s silicone helmet isn’t a real motorcycle helmet. “It’s a mask,” he said. And wearing it on the freeway was a mistake.
“I will continue to do what I do for children,” he said. “But I will no longer drive long distances without a helmet.”
First, he needs time to heal, recover and rebuild. Meanwhile, cosplayer friends step up to take his role and visit children in hospitals. He hopes his story will inspire others who are going through difficult times.
“I keep telling kids that you can be the hero of your own story, and now I must be the hero of mine, with the help of so many wonderful friends and loved ones,” he said. “Life has this wondrous way of pushing you to the abyss just to remind you how wonderful the gift of community can be.”