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Sean Ryan Knows What Hard Work Can Do


It is generally an emotional affair when members of the New York Jets visit the boys and girls at hospitals and rehabilitation centers throughout Jets nation and beyond.

But there were added emotions for tight end Sean Ryan when he, running back Leon Washington and cornerback Drew Coleman stopped in to visit patients Vincent Nollman and Blake Hunt at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan on Tuesday.

"I enjoy sharing my story with people," he said. "It puts life into perspective."

In 1985, Joseph Ryan, Sean's father, was training for a triathlon when he flipped over the handlebars of his bike and landed on his neck after colliding with a barricade.

The 42-year-old had fractured his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae. His body appeared lifeless.

"His helmet saved his life," said Ryan, who was 5 at the time of the accident.

Nollman and Hunt also were wearing helmets when they were paralyzed earlier this fall. Just eight days and 13 miles apart, each young man's life took an unexpected yet similar detour.

Hunt suffered his injury during a scrimmage on Sept. 1when his Flushing High School Red Devils took on Erasmus Hall. The linebacker/defensive back went in to make a tackle but was struck on his helmet by the running back's knee, snapping his head backward before hitting the ground.

"I was still conscious," he recalled, "but I couldn't move."

Vinny, as Nollman's friends like to call him, suffered fractures of his C-4 and C-5 vertebrae when he lowered his head while attempting to block a linebacker on Sept. 9.

"I hit him from the side," Nollman said. "My head just went back, I fell back. It wasn't a hard hit."

"His helmet took the brunt of the force," said Felix Pagan, Vinny's coach. "He didn't move when he fell, and this kid is strong. He looked up at me and asked, 'Coach, am I paralyzed?' A part of me wanted to quit after this."

The 17-year-old fullback was playing for the LynVet Gladiators, a semipro team in the East Coast Football League. The ECFL is designed for high school graduates and dropouts who are hoping to catch the eyes of college recruiters and scouts in hopes of furthering their athletic and educational paths.

"Vinny's been playing since he was 7," said his father, Mark. "He wanted to give football another shot. But in a fraction of a second, everything changed."

'These Two Guys Are Fighters'

"Obviously, it's a scary thought, but at the same time you can't be thinking about it out there," said Washington. "It's an incredibly unfortunate situation but you can tell these two guys are fighters. They were in great spirits."

Nollman resides in Howard Beach, N.Y., and is enrolled at ADI Technical College in pursuit of a career in diesel mechanics. In 2004 he won the Pat Tillman Award for All-Around Excellence from his team at the time, the Ridgedale A.C. Brewers.

"You could tell he knew his stuff," Coleman said after the visit. "He was even giving us advice and just talking football. It was impressive and cool."

While both 17-year-olds offered the three professional football players some helpful tips, it was Ryan's advice in return that may have been the most significant.

"It all comes down to working hard," Ryan said. "I told him about the situation with my dad and what he did and how he did it. I'm coming from a situation where I know that the amount of hard work really does matter and really makes a difference. The harder you work and the more determined you are, the better you're going to make it for yourself.

"It's tough, but when looking into both of their faces, they are both determined to get better and work past it. That's the most important thing — make the best of the situation you're in. Any day can change, and if it does, you have to deal with it and move on."

Tuesday's visit seemed almost refreshing for Ryan, who worked in a rehabilitation clinic during his summers before eighth and ninth grades.

"You see some people that just aren't motivated to do it and people have to motivate them," Ryan recalled from his days at the rehab center. "But then you see other people that are just over-the-top motivated.

"It was then and there where I realized that my dad was one of these over-the-top motivated people and that this kind of thing wasn't going to hold him down. And obviously it didn't."

Over the years, Sean was able to appreciate his father's miraculous fortitude more and more. Joseph missed just two games of Sean's Boston College career (one was in Hawaii; for the other, he and his wife, Sean's mother, Eileen, were snowbound in upstate New York). And he went back to work to help better the lives of others who were in his situation.

Hard Work, Self-Reliance

Joseph eventually took a job with the city of Buffalo in the community development department. There, he helped out on handicapped issues and has kept in contact with the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association of the United Spinal Association and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. The Miami Project has become well-known for the hypothermia technique that paramedics used with Bills tight end Kevin Everett, who suffered a fracture and dislocation of his cervical spine this season.

"You can ask anybody in Buffalo about my dad and the first thing people will say would not be 'He's in a wheelchair.' They'd say, 'He's this guy, he's out there, and he's doing stuff for these people.' There's so much stuff that defines him other than that he's in a wheelchair," said Ryan, who is an only child.

"So I look back and appreciate it more because at the time I thought this was just natural," added the 6'5", 265-pounder. "He was working hard and getting better every day, and there was something new almost every day."

Ryan's father was so determined that he would not even let his family help him unless it was entirely necessary. During the 18 months he spent rehabbing at Castle Point in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., one major goal he had was to get out of the electric wheelchair and into a manual chair.

"He got a manual chair because he didn't want to rely on someone else," Ryan said. "He wanted that independence. Anything he could do on his own, he did. Even to this day, my parents are both retired and they go down to Florida and he'll leave the house, go to the library by himself and do whatever he has to do or wants to do on his own.

"Some people would rather just say 'Why me?' He just wasn't one of those people."

It appears Blake and Nollman have the same mentality.

"Vinny says he's going to walk out of here and I believe him," Mark Nollman said of his son.

Ryan believes him, too, for he has seen it first-hand nearly every day since he was 5.

"It's amazing," he said, "the amount of things that people can do and prove when they are in these situations."

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