Brandon Zimmermann understands diesel engines, how that perfect mixture of fuel and air, compressed to exactly the right pressure, can ignite with enough force to turn the crank shafts of the machines that move the world.

They make sense to him.

Not everything else does.

Brandon was 6 months old when doctors at Phoenix Children’s Hospital said he suffered a cerebral stroke. 

“Old people had strokes,” his mother, Nadine, thought.

A part of Brandon’s brain was damaged, weakening his left side and leaving him with no left peripheral vision. Doctors predicted he’d be slow to speak and walk. He needed physical, occupational and speech therapy and extra help at school.

Learning was difficult in the traditional sense. He needed more time. His fifth-grade teacher noticed he had problems doing algebra on paper, so they used blocks.

Brandon learned best with his hands. He learned to drive.

Nadine wondered what her son would do for a living. He liked to cook. A chef maybe. She took Brandon to a job fair for people with disabilities when he was a freshman at Mountain Ridge High. One of the jobs was folding pizza boxes.

“He has more in him than that,” Nadine thought.

Brandon, it turned out, wanted to work on diesel engines.

“I like how engines use different kinds of energy and then transfer that energy into a mechanical power to drive a vehicle forward,” Brandon said.

Brandon attended West-MEC, a technical school, where automotive students learned by doing. He finished that program in two years and enrolled at Universal Technical Institute in Avondale. 

Now 21, he graduated on April 23 with a 3.87 grade point average.

After the ceremony, Brandon and his family were invitedto meet Fritz Pfauth, regional service manager at Sunstate Equipment, who offered Brandon a job as a diesel technician. He’d start as an apprentice. 

“It was a huge surprise,” Brandon said. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Finally, it made sense.

Reach Karina Bland at [email protected]. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @KarinaBland. Sign up for her newsletter at

Support local journalism. Subscribe to today.

Read or Share this story: