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Family hopes for wrestler's recovery
By MATTHEW J. DOWLING, Star Ledger Staff
The Star Ledger - Warren Twp. teen remains 'critical'.

Carl Riccio started wrestling when he was 4 years old. The third of five children in a sports-centered family, he showed a tenacious desire to learn and win at a young age in the physically demanding sport.

"He was always a tough kid," said Jeff Woerner, Riccio's childhood wrestling coach. "He was relentless and he took wrestling very seriously."

That persistent attitude paid off when he moved on to wrestle for Watchung Hills Regional High School. Riccio had won three consecutive Somerset County championships, and this year was 26-0 and ranked seventh in the state in the 189-pound weight class heading into this weekend's district tournaments.

But a rare accident while he was attempting a move during a final regular season meet on Saturday sent the Warren Township teen to the hospital with a severe neck injury that has left him without movement in his arms and legs.

Now his family and friends are holding out hope for his recovery, which could take weeks before even the first sign of progress. He remained in critical condition yesterday at Morristown Memorial Hospital.

"Everyone's prayers are appreciated as Carl continues to heal," the Riccio family said in a statement released yesterday. "The Riccio family would like to express our sincere appreciation for the outpouring of support and well wishes from family, friends and the wrestling community."

At the high school yesterday, where Riccio is a junior, many of his teammates wore makeshift bands bearing "189," Riccio's weight class. The team met yesterday morning and decided to press on with practice in the afternoon in preparation for the district tournament, though some members were excused.

"He would really want our team to continue on as best we could," Watchung Hills coach Danny Smith said during a brief break from yesterday's practice. "It's tough right now. It's almost like the kids are in a trance."

Riccio's brother, Shane, is a freshman on the wrestling team. His youngest brother, Tyler, wrestles in the eighth grade. Both were at the match in Newton Saturday along with their father, Peter, when Carl was injured.

Concern for Riccio radiated throughout the school yesterday and counselors were made available at each of his classes. Watchung Hills is still reeling from the death last week of sophomore Jason Oh, who succumbed after a long battle with leukemia.

"This school has a feeling of a family and everyone is processing it that way," Superintendent Gary Reece said. "The mood is not somber. Everybody wants to do something."

Reece said he's already collected dozens of handmade get- well cards for Riccio.

"He's a very popular kid," Reece said. "The kids are also working on a banner."

Reece said school officials stressed patience when speaking to students yesterday about Riccio's recovery. It frequently takes weeks or months to determine the true severity of the damage from a spinal cord injury.

"It's very unpredictable and very individual," said Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. "There's no pattern."

Word of Riccio's injury spread quickly through the close-knit wrestling community, Smith said. Less than 30 minutes after Riccio was taken out by ambulance from Saturday's meet at Newton High School, parents and wrestlers from a team state championship meet in Trenton were calling to find out his condition.

"There's a lot of support for Carl and his family," Smith said. "He's a great kid. Carl is a leader on this team with his work ethic and the effort he puts in with his matches."

Smith said Riccio was attempting a headlock maneuver on a wrestler from St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City that required him to lift his opponent off the mat. As he executed the move, Riccio lost his grip and the weight of both wrestlers came down awkwardly on his head and neck.

"It was a totally freak kind of thing," Smith said. "It was just the angle he hit and the weight he carried on him. I knew Carl was hurt because of the noise it made. I've never seen anything like this."

The rarity of such a severe neck injury in wrestling was echoed by those with longtime knowledge of the sport.

John Fuller, a spokesman for USA Wrestling, the governing body for the Olympic wrestling team, said he started receiving reports on Riccio's accident at his Colorado office yesterday morning.

"I've never seen that type of injury on the international, collegiate or high school level," Fuller said. "If something happens in wrestling, chances are we know about it. It's definitely very rare."

Wrestlers from around the state posted get-well messages for Riccio on several different Web forums for the sport, including the Watchung Hills wrestling team's Web site.

Other wrestlers who are close to Riccio, such as Woerner's son, Jason, plan to honor his dedication to the sport in other ways. The childhood friends faced off against each other in a match earlier this season.

"My son is going to dedicate the rest of the season to Carl," Woerner said. "He told me that through his tears (Sunday) night."

© 2006 Carl Riccio Special Needs Trust