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Harry Frezza Jr.: Riccio believes one day he'll walk again
Watchung Hills High School graduate was paralyzed in 2003 while wrestling
Bridgewater Courier News

Carl Riccio will turn 21 Monday, and he'll celebrate by going out with a few friends to an establishment near the Villanova University campus. He'll savor the few hours away from his studies just like any other book-weary student.

But Riccio is not an ordinary student. He has been a quadriplegic since Feb. 22, 2003, when he was injured in a late-season wrestling meet while competing for Watchung Hills High School at a match in Newton.

There is something very important to know about Riccio: He hasn't missed a beat, really. He didn't let that horrific injury get in the way, graduating on time with Watchung Hills' Class of 2004.

He went to as many athletic events as he could, watching his brothers, Tyler and Shane, and cheering on his friends on the Warriors' athletic teams -- just being out and about. And in June 2004, he was a proud, smiling graduate, wearing his gown.

"I actually didn't lose any time," he said. "A month after I got hurt, I started school at the Kessler Institute (for Rehabilitation in West Orange). My teachers from Watchung Hills came up and helped me. I didn't want to miss any school or the stuff that went with it."

He is now in the second semester of his junior year at Villanova, and he eagerly is looking toward a career in finance -- and maybe law.

"I did a little trading and followed the (stock) market a lot. I'm interested in the stock market," he said. "I'm definitely going to try something like that."

He goes to parties, is a spirited fantasy football player, blogs on the Internet and attends Villanova basketball games -- including Saturday's 76-69 upset of No. 21 Texas at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.

Riccio is just like any other young adult, but he might have an edge in the energy department. Idle time is not to be wasted in his world, and Riccio is waiting for the day he can get out of the wheelchair.

"I want to be ready when that day comes," he said.

At school

These days, Riccio is assisted at school by Noah Jembere, who helps him in his dormitory. Jembere lives with Carl in the two-bedroom dorm and drives him to and from school. He also helps with his exercise, gets Carl his meals, wakes him in the morning and puts him to bed at night.

"I definitely consider him a friend. We talk a lot," said Riccio, who's been friends with Noah since last July. "I'm with him every day. It's a good relationship. He helps me with whatever I need."

Riccio came into the semester with a 3.4 grade-point average. He is taking five courses: financial institution, portfolio management, required classes in biology and an elective in gerontology, the scientific study of the aging process.

"I know the (gerontology) teacher," Riccio said. "He's a pretty cool guy, and I wanted to take a class he taught."

Riccio's classes begin at 11 a.m. in the business building adjacent to his dorm. All of his classes are in that building. Riccio's older brother, Peter, is a graduate student in business, and the two see each other often. The Riccios also have two cousins who attend Villanova.

"We're always in the same building," said Carl Riccio, adding that Peter will graduate in the spring.

Carl Riccio said he reads a lot about finance.

"Everything I really need is in the classroom, but most of the lectures and teachings are on the PowerPoint," he said, "but I still have to by the books, and there are a lot of lectures."

Keeping ready for a cure

During the holidays, Riccio and his mother, Tricia, spoke in Trenton as Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed a bill to fund the building of a stem-cell institute in New Jersey.

"Right now, they (stem cells) are the only cells found to grow in the central nervous system -- embryonic stem cells," Riccio said. "It can benefit a lot of different people, not just people with spinal-chord injuries."

Carl's grandfather, also named Carl Riccio, died Dec. 31 after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease, another illness that could be helped with stem cells.

"I saw how a disease like that can diminish you," he said. "Stem cells could help so many people. Its an important part of my life right now. It's one of my biggest goals to eventually being involved in the finding of the cure and eventually be cured myself."

Riccio wants to throw a football, to surf, to play catch with his brothers. To live a normal life. He said there has been no improvement in his movement, but that doesn't mean there won't be soon.

His health has been strong, and he has maintained his weight at around 200 pounds.

"I haven't gone backwards," he said. "No sickness or nothing life threatening. I have had the normal colds, but that's been it."

Riccio rides a specialized stationary bike for 10-11 miles twice a week. He wears bicycle pants that have electrodes to help work out his hamstrings and legs.

"I get electrical stimulation which helps my muscles contract and helps me pedal the bike," Riccio said.

He also works out in a gymnasium for disabled students, where he focuses on his upper body and also rides a bike called the ergys.

"It's universal machine for people in a wheelchair," Riccio said. "It's called an upper tone."

And earlier this week, he stood with the support of a standing frame for an hour while he watched television.

"It puts pressure on all my joints, and it definitely feels good," Riccio said. "It keeps the bones bent. If you don't stand, your bones will become weak. It helps my bones get stronger."

Riccio wants to be prepared for that remarkable day he vows will come: when the cure comes.

"I want to be one of the first guys to walk again," he said. "I've been told that the more I work out now, the easier it will be for my legs when I regain my movement. The hope is I will recover that much faster if I keep my legs in shape now."

Reflecting, learning

It will be four years Feb. 22 that Ricco was hurt in a 189-pound match against Konrad Dudzinak of St. Peter's Prep. He was operated on later that night at Morristown Memorial Hospital.

At the time of his injury, Riccio was unbeaten, with hopes of placing that year in the state tournament. The anniversary of that day always is a tough one to get through, Riccio said.

"February 22 is always a sad day for me. It's never going to leave my mind, and I probably do think about it every day," he said. "I don't cry about it every day. I don't think it's unhealthy thinking about what life would be like without being hurt."

Riccio, also a standout shortstop and third baseman in high school, probably would have been playing baseball at Villanova. Sometimes, when he's sleeping, he has dreams of playing sports and being able to walk.

"Sometimes I'm healthy, and sometimes I'm still in the wheelchair," he said of the dreams. "The first thing I would want to do are the things I love -- to swing a bat, go swimming in the ocean and surf ... even get on a mat and go at it with my brothers. I used to be able to hold both Tyler and Shane down at the same time, but now that's not possible."


  • Staff writer Harry Frezza Jr.'s column appears Sundays in the Courier News. He can be reached at (908) 707-3166 or at

  • © 2006 Carl Riccio Special Needs Trust