Highland’s Wiita continues fight back from spinal cord injury, paralysis


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The tragedy is something no player thinks about and most parents don’t
either. A broken bone, maybe a torn knee ligament, possibly a
concussion…these are the worst injuries you think can happen on the
football field. Kory Wiita is evidence there are worse things. He’s also
evidence that there are plenty of good things in life too.

Following a 22-7 loss to previously winless Green High School in Week 6, Medina Highland senior Kory Wiita helped his team regain focus by doing something football players don’t do – he sang a Taylor Swift song…in public.

Wiita’s rendition of “You Belong with Me” in the locker room was such a hit that from then on the team adopted it as their theme song and sang it after every game. The Hornets closed the season 3-1 and earned their second straight Division II playoff berth.

Wiita however closed his playing career the way no football player ever intends to – with a spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis. The play came on the opening kickoff of the second half in the Hornets Week 10 loss to neighboring Lodi Cloverleaf. Wiita covered the kick, made the tackle and never got up.

The tragedy is something no player thinks about and most parents don’t either. A broken bone, maybe a torn knee ligament, possibly a concussion…these are the worst injuries you think can happen on the football field. Wiita is evidence there are worse things. He’s also evidence that there are plenty of good things in life too.

It’s been two and a half months now since Wiita suffered his injury and he’s currently housed in the MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland – one of the country’s premier spinal cord centers.

I was lucky enough to visit with the Wiita’s on Monday and deliver a donation check made possible by JJHuddle members. And although Kory – who was having a bad day – slept through my hour and a half visit, his parents Dan and Mariann were kind enough to give me some time and to talk about the ordeal they’ve gone through already and the journey that lies ahead. As a parent of three children and a former football player, the meeting and circumstance struck deep.

What we need to establish immediately is that Kory is getting better. It’s a slow, slow process, but he is getting better.

For weeks doctors didn’t think he’d be able to regain much feeling or use of his limbs and originally he was scheduled to go home last Friday. Miraculously, Kory started moving his fingers and can now squeeze his thumb and index finger together. That is a huge step and one that made his physical therapy nurse do dances according to Mariann. Since he’s showing improvement, the medical staff wants him to remain at the hospital and see how far he can go before being discharged. His day to go home will come, just not yet.

As for the long-term prognosis, no one knows, and that’s the hardest part for his parents. In dealing with spinal cord injuries, there isn’t one set of rules or outcomes to go by. Some people will walk again, some people won’t. Everyone is different.

To show how far he’s come, Dan said Kory used to get tired after a 15-minute rehab session. Now he rehabs eight hours a day (from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.).

One other obstacle Kory is trying to overcome is weight loss. He’s dropped 35 pounds during his stay. Dinner while I was there consisted of a saltine cracker and water through an IV.

Down the hall from Wiita, though, is another patient who was in nearly the same situation. Doctors didn’t think that man would ever walk again and now he’s taking up to 300 steps at a time.

That patient is one person Kory can look to for inspiration.

Kory and his situation, however, are two things that everyone can look to for motivation.

If there’s one aspect that’s stuck out to Kory’s parents during this entire process, it’s been the outpouring of support they’ve received.

As a testament, over 395,000 visits have been made to Kory’s caringbridge website.

“The world truly is a wonderful place,” Mariann said. “If anyone tells you there isn’t any good in this world, they are wrong.”

Although the Wiita’s still don’t feel comfortable making public appearances at charity events (“Just not ready yet,” Mariann said) or doing interviews – all three Cleveland TV stations have inquired – they do however appreciate immensely the support people have shown for their family and Kory.

Every weekend there is another event thrown to help the cause. And rightfully so. These people – and any parent who has to go through this – deserves whatever the outside world can give them – and in this case it’s been a lot.

Dan only half-joked that Kory needed a trophy case to put all the items he’s been sent in.

Several NFL teams, including the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and New York Jets have sent memorabilia and best wishes. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter and autographed football. Kory’s favorite team – the Washington Redskins – sent a team poster and autographed picture of then head coach Jim Zorn. Both hang on his hospital room wall.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn came to Kory’s hospital room along with his girlfriend (and U.S. gymnast) Alicia Sacramone. Another Cleveland Brown, safety Mike Furrey, signed his Ed Block Courage Award – which is voted on by teammates and given to one player per NFL team – and gave it to Kory. It sits by his window.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has been in touch and Kory has two autographed footballs from the Buckeyes.

An organization called Gridiron Heroes, which helps football players with spinal cord injuries and was recently featured on HBO’s Real Sports, has been in touch.

On the high school level, the Cloverleaf football program raised over $5,000 for Kory less than two weeks after the injury. Cincinnati Elder High School – far removed from the region – raised over $4,000 by selling purple bracelets.

During the state championships in December, several teams and players sported helmet stickers or markings of “KW32” indicating support and thoughts for Kory.

“The outreach from the football community has been staggering,” Mariann said. “I can’t even tell you how much stuff we’ve received from colleges and high schools. It’s amazing and overwhelming.

“There are a lot of football players out there, but there are also a lot of parents in the stands.”

Other people have taken notice too.

A local church in Medina raised $35,000 through its annual Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving. Family friends and strangers have offered nursing services, physical therapy equipment and more. The Wiita’s house is already equipped with a wheelchair ramp – donated and built by a local hunt club. The list is long and impressive.

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown and General Manager Danny Ferry both paid a visit to the hospital recently.

Taylor Swift, in fact, is still there.

Somewhat out of place in Wiita’s hospital room – mixed among photos and posters of football players, family and friends – is an autographed poster from the 20-year old singing sensation. There’s also another smaller autographed print beside it.

Both signatures are a result of Kory’s performance in Week 6 and what it led to.

During his time away from the Highland football program following the injury, the team made a video for Kory in which it sang the song he and Swift made famous. The video appeared on YouTube and made it’s way to Swift who posted it on her Facebook page for several weeks.

“Kory doesn’t really like her music,” Mariann joked. “He’s not really that into country. I like country, but he’s more into hip-hop and rap.

“All the guys do think she’s hot, though.”

Fittingly, in Swift’s music video for the song “You Belong with Me” there are scenes from a high school football game. One of the major characters scores a touchdown, the team wins and he’s carried off the field.

Kory’s already been carried off the field. Now it’s time Team Wiita wins – no matter how slow that final scoring drive is.

“Those people who are fighters, tend to get better,” Dan Wiita said. “Kory is a fighter.”





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