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Poem by Renee Springhorne

Wrestling His Own Body

By MATTHEW J. DOWLING, Star Ledger Staff

Time was running out and Carl Riccio was losing. His perfect high school wrestling season was at risk. It was time for a desperation move.

Carl had his opponent in a tight headlock, and he tried to throw the other wrestler over his hip to the mat. But in midmove, Carl lost his grip. He fell forward awkwardly, the weight of the other wrestler on his back. He was unable to break the fall with his hand. He slammed into the mat forehead first, neck bent back. His body went dead.

In that moment, Carl Riccio's life changed. There would be no state wrestling championship for the high school junior. His dreams of going to college on an athletic scholarship were gone. So was his world of independence and normalcy. In that moment, 17-year-old Carl Riccio became a quadriplegic.

For the past 10 months, Carl -- a three-time county wrestling champ and a heavily recruited baseball player -- has fought to regain control of his body one muscle at a time.

After his spinal cord injury, Carl entered a lonelier arena. There were no fans filling the gym stands or field bleachers to cheer him, no box score in the high school sports section. It was just Carl against his body, just Carl and a therapist in the spinal cord gym at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange.

Years of sports training had prepared him for the rigors of physical therapy. Instead of bench presses, Carl exercised his neck muscles for weeks until he could support his head without a brace. Instead of spending hours perfecting his swing in the batting cage, he retrained the few muscles he controlled in his right arm until they were strong enough to guide the joystick on his electric wheelchair.

It was slow, and the improvements were at times minuscule. Still, Carl looked not at how far he had to go, but at how far he had come.

"He works so hard and stays for extra sessions," said Isa McClure, one of Carl's therapists during his 4 1/2-month stay at Kessler. "He makes it worthwhile for me as a therapist."

Even when some muscles took months to show minimal response to therapy, Carl pressed on. Every added ounce of strength or extra degree of movement meant progress.

After each exhausting therapy session, Carl studied with tutors to keep up with his junior year requirements. The more he improved, the harder he worked to get back among his friends for his senior year at Watchung Hills Regional High School.

This is an account of that struggle for him, for his family and for the community that rallied around them. They pressed ahead, not knowing if the future would crush their hopes or if Carl's strength of spirit would triumph.


Carl Riccio was a born athlete. His quickness and coordination were evident even as a toddler. By 3, he was swimming laps without water wings in the family's in-ground pool. At 5, he started wrestling, followed by Little League baseball, soccer, football and basketball.

Sports are a way of life in the Riccio family. No matter the season, all five of the Riccio children, separated in age by just seven years, were involved in organized sports. Some combination of Carl and his brothers Pete Jr., Shane and Tyler -- now 21, 16 and 15, respectively -- often played on the same team, and their sister Kerry, now 22, played tennis and was a cheerleader.

The family's Warren Township home, at the end of a cul-de-sac, has a spacious back yard with an automated batting cage, a swimming pool and a lighted four-hoop basketball area that doubles as a tennis court. The basement of the house is filled with weightlifting and aerobic equipment, and an area contains a wall-to-wall wrestling mat.

Family weekends were built around the kids' sports. Pete Riccio Sr. and his wife, Tricia, would split the kids and ferry them between games in multiple leagues, sometimes only meeting in parking lots midday for a quick bite and to trade kids.

"At one point, we had 13 baseball teams going," Tricia said.

The couple own a large pharmacy and adjoining deli in Dunellen (Pete Sr., a pharmacist, handles most of the day-to-day business, while Tricia manages the books), but both stores have managers, allowing the Riccios to almost never miss a game.

"I lived my life every day through what my kids did," Pete Sr. said. "I went to baseball games and wrestling matches for the last 10 years. I was the happiest person on the face of the Earth."

Carl's injury forced the Riccios to abandon their on-the-go lifestyle for new routines focused around caring for their son. Peter and Tricia took turns spending nights on a cot in Carl's hospital room. Tyler and Shane found after-school rides to the hospital to spend evenings with their brother. Kerry and Pete Jr. came home from college in Philadelphia on weekends. At almost every moment, at least one Riccio was at Carl's side.


Carl Riccio didn't have to wrestle Konrad Dudziak that day.

The matchup between the two wrestlers -- both ranked among the state's best in the 189-pound weight class -- was supposed to be the highlight of a three-school meet at Newton High School on Feb. 22. But Dudziak, of St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, failed to make weight by a pound or two. Carl was entitled to a forfeit or an easy match against a junior varsity wrestler, but that didn't interest him. He wanted to wrestle Dudziak to prepare for the upcoming state tournament. So both moved up to the next weight class and squared off.

Carl was 26-0 going into the match, but Dudziak was strong and equally determined. Deep into the match, Carl found himself trailing. As time ran down, he had to go for a big move.

Pete Riccio Sr. was cheering his son from the stands, with his youngest son, Tyler, at his side, capturing the match on video. Carl's brother, Shane, a freshman member of the wrestling team, watched from the bench.

When Carl crumpled to the mat, they knew immediately something was very wrong.

The crowd went silent, and Pete Sr. rushed to his son's side.

"I can't move," Carl told his dad. "I can't feel anything. I can't feel the rest of my body."

Tears welled up in Carl's eyes. He could only blink them away, and they streamed down his face. His father buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

"That's when my nightmare began," Pete Sr. said.

A few hours later, in a Newton Memorial Hospital room, Carl stared at the ceiling and listened as doctors explained the X-rays of his spine to his father, who later admitted he nearly passed out at the black-and-white images of Carl's zigzagged neck bones.

Carl heard the words "dislocated C4 and C5 vertebrae."

He heard the doctors, in hushed and hurried tones, tell his father that time was essential. The displaced bones were choking the delicate nerve pathways that control muscles throughout his body, they said, and the longer the pressure remained on the spinal cord, the more likely the damage would be permanent.

Carl was quickly moved to Morristown Memorial Hospital for six hours of surgery to repair the dislocated bones, using titanium rods and pins.

The family was cautioned that recovery would be slow and it would probably take months to know the true extent of the injury.

The reality of paralysis slowly started to grip the Riccio family. The term "quadriplegic" still seemed abstract -- not something that ever would apply to Carl. They continued to pray and hope for a miracle.

"If the devil came and said, 'Sell your soul and your son can walk,' I'd say great," Pete Sr. said. "I'd rather make a pact with God, but neither one of them have come to see me yet."


Two days after the operation, Pete Sr. was at the kitchen table, alone in the middle of the night.

"I was just sitting there. ... I don't know why," he said.

He heard Tyler coming down the stairs. His youngest son obviously had been crying.

"He went through his room and collected all of his money," Pete Sr. said. "He gave it to me and said, 'This is for Carl's wheelchair.'"

"This is for Carl" became a phrase the Riccios would hear many, many times over the next few months.

News of Carl's injury spread rapidly through wrestling and baseball Internet sites around the country. Hundreds of people left encouraging messages at a Web site made by one of Carl's classmates.

"Thousands of people were praying the very next day," Tricia said.

While no one but members of the immediate family was allowed to visit Carl in the intensive care unit after surgery, more than 100 people crowded the hospital waiting area each day.

"He had hundreds of visitors that never got to see him," Tricia said. "They wrote notes to him every night." It got to the point where the hospital administration had to discuss crowd control with Carl's parents.

Valerie Justice, mother of the wrestling team captain Derek Justice, arranged to have community members prepare and deliver home-cooked meals to the hospital for Carl and his family three times as week.

"We had people signed up to bring food through the summer," Tricia said. "Everyone was so amazing."

Actor Christopher Reeve, who had suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a horseback riding incident, visited after Carl was transferred to Kessler in West Orange. Reeve had been a patient there in 1995, and had the same room, 126, as Carl.

"He said to stay hopeful and within the next two years or so, there could be something good coming," Carl said. "We talked about the cure. It was good. It gave me a little bit of an edge. It gave me hope."

Handmade cards and letters wallpapered Carl's room at Kessler and covered the windows. Carl received baseballs autographed by Yankees greats Roger Clemens and Reggie Jackson. Another ball was signed by every player on the Toronto Blue Jays. Texas Rangers star Alex Rodriguez sent an autographed picture.

"Yogi Berra sent me a letter. I got stuff from people who just heard of me, I never met them," Carl said. "It gives me a lot of support, knowing people are praying for me and still thinking of me."

The Riccios began to be overwhelmed by offers of financial support from people who know a lifetime of medical supplies and treatment for a quadriplegic can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Much of the early cost -- the $35,000 surgery, the $150,000 stay at Morristown and the $400,000 bill at Kessler -- was covered by insurance. But, by the Riccios' estimate, they would have to spend $500,000 on their own for a lift-equipped van, major home renovations to accommodate Carl, and wheelchairs and exercise equipment for him after he left Kessler. The ongoing costs for medication, physical therapy and in-home aides would top $1,000 per week.

"People were starting to send us checks and we didn't know what to do," Tricia said.

Ed Kurowicki, the Riccios' accountant, volunteered to set up a nonprofit trust in Carl's name to accept donations. Marketing professional Denise Cappuccio offered to help publicize Carl's cause and organized fund-raising events. And Carl's cousin, Michael McCarey, a 25-year-old computer engineer, built a Web site ( to keep people informed of his progress.

Dan Gable -- a household name in wrestling circles -- was the featured speaker at a benefit dinner for Carl at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark Sept. 15. But Carl was unable to go to meet the former Olympic champ and legendary Iowa coach, because Gable's speech came the same day as a 200-person golf tournament held to benefit Carl at the New Jersey National course in Basking Ridge.

Another benefit dinner and sports auction, in May at the Mayfair Farms in West Orange, drew 600 people. Carl's high school friend, John Palla, organized a volleyball tournament in the Watchung Hills Regional gym that drew some 30 teams and raised $3,000.

At the state championship wrestling tournament in Atlantic City, a thousand "Carl Riccio, the Ultimate Warrior" T-shirts easily sold out. Hundreds more have been sold through Carl's Web site for $20 each.

The Somerset Patriots held a Carl Riccio Night Aug. 9. A portion of the ticket sales benefited Carl's trust. Carl took the field in his wheelchair before the game. His sister, Kerry, threw out the first pitch.

"Just a year ago, I played on this field, a game that came natural to me," Carl said in a short address to the crowd. "And now I am working hard on a different field with different goals, including the ultimate goal of walking."


When Carl was transferred to Kessler to begin rehabilitation, he still couldn't feel or move any muscles below his shoulders, and the few neck muscles he could control were terribly weak. His head was supported by a halo brace and he needed a tracheotomy -- a breathing tube inserted through his throat -- to help him draw air into his lungs.

The "trache" made it impossible for him to talk, so the family had to develop new ways to communicate with Carl. He made clicking noises when he was thirsty, and he spelled out words by mouthing the letters.

"It took us 20 minutes and he spelled out S-M-I-L-E," Pete Sr. said. "I couldn't believe his attitude."

Life at Kessler was all about routine. At 8 a.m., aides began the two-hour chore of getting him dressed, fed and ready for physical therapy by 10. He broke for lunch at 12:30 p.m. and was back to physical therapy in the spinal cord gym or aqua-therapy pool by 2. School tutoring came at 5. Dinner at 7. Every other night, there was a shower at 9. Visitors were squeezed in between studies and bedtime.

Carl was at home in Kessler's dimly lit spinal cord injury gym. Workouts were nothing new to him, and the routine provided him comfort.

All the muscles in his body needed to be stretched to maintain flexibility. Several mornings a week, Carl's leg muscles received electrical stimulation that allowed him to "ride" a specially designed stationary bike. He used pool therapy sessions to help learn how to balance.

His physical therapists focused on strengthening the muscles that still responded to his brain's impulses. For three weeks Carl built up those muscles, but there was no progress elsewhere.

"Then there was a flicker in my bicep," Carl said.

Doctors determined that Carl's brain was controlling the slight contractions. Hope for additional muscle control was renewed.

With months of therapy, his right arm bicep grew stronger, though he could not control his fingers or hands. But even the limited movement allowed Carl to steer an electric wheelchair equipped with a joystick, bringing him closer to the level of independence he would need to rejoin his classmates at Watchung Hills.


Carl was the youngest patient in Kessler's spinal cord injury wing. Normally, Kessler doesn't accept minors, even 17-year-olds, recommending them to pediatric facilities instead. The Riccios made a personal plea to the hospital administration.

Steven Kirshblum, the physician who directs Kessler's spinal cord injury program, was impressed with Carl from the start.

"Carl really showed a tremendous amount of maturity," said Kirshblum, who also treated Reeve. "He was going through a lot of emotions at the same time -- the point of acceptance, and dealing with what he had at hand. It's a credit to him and the immense strength he has.

"It's not common that someone will be able to bounce back the way Carl did. He understands there is a pathway and there are steps that must be overcome."

Most of the 11,000 people who suffer a spinal cord injury in the United States every year are like Carl: Eighty-two percent are males, more than half are between ages 16 and 30, and 14 percent are injured playing sports. Still, Kirshblum said no two patients handle the loss that comes with paralysis the same. He considers Carl's desire to improve remarkable.

"Carl is an inspiration for the people who have had a chance to work with him," Kirshblum.

At Kessler, counseling is offered to spinal cord injury patients as part of the treatment, but Carl politely declined. He instead sustained himself on short-term goals.

"At first, I was just looking forward to getting the trache (tube) out," Carl said. "I wanted to be able to talk. Then I wanted to be able to eat regular food. I got through all that."

Carl found first encounters with people after his injury to be the most difficult. Some couldn't hold back the tears. Others stared at their shoes, at a loss for words until Carl broke the silence. Often he had to comfort those who came to comfort him.

"I don't want my friends to come in here and see me sad," Carl said. "Once they come in and I start talking to them, they're like, 'It's the same old Carl.'"

"It was hard to see someone like that who had such great enthusiasm and great spirit," said his friend John Palla. "His laugh and his smile really relax you. He's the same person, but in a body that doesn't work as well."

Palla was among a half-dozen friends who were regulars most afternoons and weekends at Kessler. They piled into his room, ate pizza and talked like teenage boys do, about girls and sports.

But even though he didn't let on, conversations with his friends and brothers were often tough for Carl, especially around baseball season. His brother Shane was a member of the Watchung Hills team and occasionally filled in at Carl's old spot, third base.

"Every time, I think about: What would I be doing, where would I be playing today?" Carl said. Sometimes he fell silent as his friends recounted at-bats or big catches, but Carl refused to indulge in self-pity.

"Clearly, he can't do some of the things he did before," Kirshblum said. "But his strengths were internal as well as external. Where he stars now will be in a different direction."


Kessler is built for people like Carl. The rest of the world is not.

Four months after the injury, Carl had battled back enough to be allowed a one-day trip to the family's Warren Township home. His mother wanted everything to be perfect.

"I'm nervous for my own son coming home," Tricia said. "Carl was one of my three little guys. They're not my little guys anymore. Now I have the smallest feet and the smallest hands."

The smell of fresh blueberry pancakes -- Carl's favorite -- filled the kitchen. More than three pounds of bacon was kept hot in the oven, and three dozen eggs bubbled in three frying pans.

The sounds of the kitchen were in concert with the whine of saws and banging of hammers elsewhere. Contractors were ripping a hole through the middle of the Riccio house to make way for a new elevator, and about half of the family room was shrouded in clear plastic tarps.

In his wheelchair, Carl tested his once-familiar surroundings. Furniture in the kitchen and family room had been moved to create more space, but hallways proved to be a tight fit.

He and Shane set up a game of chess in the family's living room after breakfast. In the months following the accident, Carl had begun playing chess more intensely to satisfy his competitive spirit, and Shane was among his top rivals.

But Carl struggled to get comfortable in the armchair in front of the marble chess set. The back wasn't high enough, and the sides gave Carl's torso no support. He kept teetering to one side and nearly fell forward into the chessboard while trying to steady himself.

Carl's father wedged pillows on either side of him and shoved a large wooden cutting board from the kitchen down the back of the chair to provide support.

"We should get a La-Z-Boy for him," Tricia said.

"We'll get it here tomorrow," said Pete Sr., clearly frustrated. "We'll go to the store today and get one off the floor."

"You won't get the right color for my house," Tricia said. "Let's wait."

Carl spent much of the day greeting visitors while lying on the couch in the television room. His parents positioned several pillows to support his back and keep his legs bent. Carl was home but he was uncomfortable. He had been dealing with back soreness for the last week, and no position provided relief.

The day proved to be stressful for both Carl and his family. A mix-up with Carl's medication sent Pete Sr. scurrying to get a replacement from his pharmacy. And Carl just couldn't seem to get warm despite being buried under blankets on the couch.

By dinner, the Riccios were exhausted and finally alone from their visitors, except for one of Carl's high school friends. Tricia coordinated the third massive meal of the day. Pete Sr. and Pete Jr. barbecued chicken and steak, but dinner conversation was muted as Carl's time to depart drew near.

By 8 p.m., Carl was already late for his return to Kessler. His parents delivered goodbye kisses as his wheelchair was strapped down in the back of the medical transport van. Meanwhile Kerry got ready to follow her brother back to Kessler. It was her turn to spend the night in the cot by Carl's side.

The van began to pull away, then stopped. Tricia knew something was wrong. She leaned in the van and saw tears in Carl's eyes.

He asked his mother to come back to Kessler with him that night. Tricia ran inside the house and grabbed the overnight bag she always kept packed.

"He wasn't looking forward to the ride back," Tricia said. "He didn't want to go back alone."


On July 3 -- 131 days after Carl became a quadriplegic -- he left Kessler for good. The Riccios' house in Warren still wasn't ready, but the family's beachfront home in Lavallette had a first-floor bedroom and outside shower that would suit Carl's needs.

Besides, it was Fourth of July weekend, and the Riccios usually spent the holiday weekend at the Shore.

As Carl rounded the front of the Shore house in his electric wheelchair, he found a freshly laid, 30-foot plywood ramp spanning the sand-filled yard.

"It's a lot bigger than I thought it would be," Carl said, gazing down at the ramp. "I thought it was just going to be a little ramp in the front. I didn't think it would stand out as much."

Carl parked at the edge of the ramp on his front porch for nearly an hour that afternoon and just looked at the ocean beyond the grassy dunes. The eyes of passers-by on the boardwalk curiously traced up the ramp until they spotted Carl in his chair.

"You don't normally see someone in a wheelchair," Carl said. "It's weird. It's not like it bothers me. It's just the way it is."

Carl had grown accustomed to life at Kessler, where wheelchairs were as common as traffic on the Parkway and ramps were simply part of the road.

The plywood bridge reminded him that life outside Kessler would be different.

The next day Carl made his first expedition beyond the front porch. His father had purchased a wheelchair with circular treads, like an army tank, to move through sand and water, so Carl could go to the beach with the rest of the family.

From under the shade of an umbrella, Carl looked out at the people splashing in the water. Down the beach, surfers were paddling through the swells.

"I wish I were out there catching the waves," said Carl. "I was always in the water. It was one of my favorite things."

The third night Carl was home, rolling power outages of the holiday weekend left the house without air conditioning for several hours. Carl, who has difficulty regulating his body temperature, needed to be iced down, but ice was nowhere to be found in a town where everyone was trying to stay cool without electricity.

"I followed an ice truck," Tricia said. "They were selling 5-pound bags for $7."

By the end of the first week, the beach-equipped wheelchair had malfunctioned several times. The treads came off the tracks, and a faulty charger caused the battery to die just as Carl made his first trip to the ocean's edge.

Pete Sr. said: "You can prepare all you want and the little things go wrong. He was mad at me because it didn't work."

Carl, embarrassed, had to be carried by his father from the water to the boardwalk where his regular wheelchair awaited.

"You don't want to stand out any more than you did," Carl said. "People already look at me different."

But within the week, Carl was tooling around the beach, doing 360-degree turns in the sand. He even had a night out with friends who had rented a house in nearby Seaside Heights.

Carl's parents were divided at first on the idea of him venturing out unsupervised.

"We'll let you do whatever you want," Pete Sr. told Carl after he suggested the outing.

"And Mommy and Daddy will worry to death," Tricia said nervously.

Kerry rushed to her brother's defense.

"Ma, he's not a baby," Kerry said. "He's 17 years old."

Things were getting back to normal, as normal as things could get.


Sporting a new haircut and bluejeans that still showed store-shelf creases, Carl sat in the back of his family's new lift-equipped van, ready for the first day of school, senior year.

Light rain was falling as Carl arrived at Watchung Hills, but, like a true high school kid, he shrugged off his mother's offer to protect him and his electric wheelchair with a large Villanova University umbrella.

Carl had always been a big man on campus at Watchung Hills -- his athletic success and his outgoing personality made him one of the most popular kids in school -- and now he was eager to get inside and find his way to his first class.

Of course, things would be different. All of his classes were on the first floor, and he would be allowed to start two hours later than everyone else to give him extra time to get ready. Because Carl would not be able to write, his laptop was set up with voice-recognition software, for notes, homework and tests.

The crowded hallways in between classes were difficult to navigate at first, particularly with the number of people who wanted to stop and talk.

"It feels weird because everyone is standing and they're taller than you," Carl said. Standing 6-foot-1, "I used to be able to see over everyone all the way down the hallway."

After his first day, Carl realized he would need a school-appointed aide to accompany him to classes every day. He needed a pair of hands to open books and set up his laptop, and he didn't want to bother his friends.

"The school has really bent over backwards to help us," Tricia said. "They've been wonderful."

For Carl, the return to school was a major victory, but also just another step. As hard as he had worked to return, it was almost anticlimactic: business as usual in a day in the new life of Carl Riccio.

"Everyone wants to see me do well," Carl said. "I think it's great that everyone is supporting me."

A few weeks later, during a pep rally to kick off the fall sports season, school officials introduced the members of the homecoming court. The previous year, prior to his injury, Carl had been named one of the finalists for Mr. Watchung Hills, the homecoming king.

This year he was a shoo-in. He received a five-minute standing ovation from students and faculty when his name was announced as a finalist, and a month later, he was named homecoming king.


The Riccios remain convinced Carl will walk again.

Pete Sr. scans the Internet for news on spinal cord experiments being performed around the world, and he has contacted most of the top researchers in the field by phone or e-mail to talk about Carl's case.

"I expect him to walk someday," Pete Sr. said. "I know that sounds ridiculous, because nobody ever has. I will never be happy until he's walking and doing everything he did before."

Tricia traveled to the Statehouse in early December to lobby in favor of legislation to permit stem cell research in New Jersey. Her outbursts of "Give us hope!" from the gallery during the Assembly session nearly got her thrown out, but the measure passed by one vote. Gov. James E. McGreevey plans to sign the legislation Jan. 4 at Kessler and has invited Carl to attend.

Carl, meanwhile, is more concerned with his immediate future. He spent the fall studying for his SAT and adjusting to his senior year classes.

"I'm doing well in school," Carl said. "I got all A's and B's."

Carl applied for early acceptance to Villanova University, where he had hoped to play baseball on scholarship. It had always been his first choice, and now it seemed ideal because his older brother and two cousins are students there. Carl got his acceptance letter from Villanova a week before Christmas. He plans to study business.

He also has returned to the wrestling mat -- as team captain. He attends practices and does physical therapy while his teammates practice in the school gym.

"I watch the practices and give pointers to my brothers," Carl said. "I like being there with my friends. It's better than being home by myself."

Carl was on the sidelines last weekend as his brothers Shane and Tyler wrestled in the first tournament of the year. The match brought mixed emotions for Carl.

"I definitely wish I was out there," he said.

Carl has a tough time envisioning his future. But he believes, as his parents do, that someday he no longer will need the wheelchair. A cane or even a walker would be just fine with him.

"When I think of myself as older, I don't think of myself like this," Carl said. "I believe they're going to find the cure."

He has got an entire lifetime of spinal cord research possibilities ahead of him. In this match, time is on his side.

© 2006 Carl Riccio Special Needs Trust