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In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer John Wagner talked with Rick Rightnowar, who gives his views from high school and college, both as a player and coach - and father.
Rick Rightnowar has seen the relationship between fans and players from every possible side.
He went through it from the perspective of a local athlete, starring in basketball at both Whitmer High School and at the University of Toledo. He has felt that connection as both a coach and media member, having spent time as an assistant coach at Bedford High School and now serving as a color analyst for UT basketball broadcasts. And he has experienced it as a parent, as he watches his three children grow up in a sports environment.
But he also has a unique viewpoint: in 2004 Rightnowar suffered through a disease that threatened to end his life.
That year Rightnowar suffered through a protracted bout with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, an immune disorder in which the body attacks the cells responsible for blood clotting. That battle with ITP, as it is known, appears to be in remission. But it still colors his views on sports, family and the way the two interact.
Rightnowar is a 1988 graduate of Whitmer, where he earned three varsity letters and led the Panthers to a state semifinal berth in Class AAA in 1987 and a regional final the next season.
He then went on to letter four times in basketball at UT, finishing his career in 1992-93 following a redshirt season in 1990-91. Rightnowar set a Mid-American Conference and school record for most free throws made in a game after connecting on 22-of-23 in a win over Kent State on Feb. 1, 1992.
These days, Rightnowar is the sales manager at the Brondes Ford dealership located on Reynolds Road. He and his wife Julie, who also is a Whitmer grad, currently live in Temperance with sons Ricky, a senior at Bedford, and Ryan, a freshman, and daughter Nicole, who is in sixth grade.
"GROWING UP IN TOLEDO was unbelievable. I had a great experience at Whitmer with Rick Kaifas as our coach and a bunch of really good players around me. Craig Michaelis, who played at Miami, was on that team, and Mark Szlachcic, who played football at Bowling Green, was a forward. Matt Eberflus, who played football at UT and now is the defensive coordinator at Missouri, also was on that team, and John Dzikowski and Tom Hood were our guards. There was no one guy with huge stats because we played as a team and wanted to win without worrying about who got the credit.
"WE WENT TO the state's final four my junior year, and that was the first time the school had done that in basketball, and the regional final when I was a senior. The community really rallied around us, putting signs up and traveling with us. They packed Savage Hall for the tournament games and really traveled well to Dayton.
"TOLEDO WAS THE ONLY school that offered a scholarship early, and I signed before my senior year.My parents were able to come and watch me play, and just to have my family close while I went to college made things go a little more smoothly.
"MY FIRST TWO YEARS, Jay Eck was my coach, and after that Larry Gibson came in. I remember some of the places we played: the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico, the Maui Classic in Hawaii, we played at Houston and at Pittsburgh against a lot of talented players who went on to the NBA. That's what I liked the best: getting to be able to play at a high level against top teams.
"I'll always remember the Kent State game where I was 22-for-23 from the foul line. It was right after the Penn State game where I twisted my ankle, and our offense was designed to get the ball to the rim. I ended up getting to the free-throw line because they kept fouling me. Jim McDonald, the Kent State coach, got a technical foul and ended up chasing the referees down the hall into their lockerroom after the game.
"Things might have been different for me if I hadn't gone to Toledo. I've thought about the what-ifs but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. The advantage was that I was the local guy and people knew me. In high school I was an offensive player, but in college I was told I wouldn't play if I didn't play defense. So I worked to be the best defensive player I could be. I tried to get the crowd involved by diving on the floor, jumping over the press table, trying to pump up the team and make us play a little better. The disadvantage probably was not living up to the expectations people had for me. You're in the spotlight and you want to prove them wrong but you'd better perform.
"IT WAS DIFFICULT having a coaching change half-way through my college career. Coach Eck had one philosophy, and coach Gipson came in with a totally different philosophy. Coach Gipson kept only a few players and basically brought in a whole new team. But I learned so much about the game from coach Gipson, little nuances about the game that made me a better player. It was a great experience, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
"NOW I WORK FOR WSPD, doing color analysis of the games along with Mark Beier. I intentionally waited to see Savage Arena on opening night - I kept getting invited to see it while it was being built and the step-by-step improvements they were making. But there's nothing like game night. You have goose bumps all day long - I felt as if I was playing.
"COACH CROSS IS REALLY going to do a good job. He's trying to install a motion-type offense, bring in a lot of good players and have a lot of guys touch the ball. Once he gets the personnel that fits his style of program, I think he's going to do a great job.
"IN 2004 I WAS DIAGNOSED with ITP. I was in and out of the hospital for eight months and I contracted staph infection and MRSA. When the doctors found out that my platelets were low, they said that 95 percent of the time, if they take your spleen out, your platelets go back to normal. I guess I was the other five percent.
"After they took my spleen out I got the MRSA, pancreatitis, staph infection and they ended up taking my gall bladder out. I spent a lot of time in the hospital, but nobody could figure out what was going wrong. Then they used an experimental drug that brought my platelets back up.
"It was an eye-opener. I've always been an athlete with a pretty head-strong mentality and I felt I could do pretty much anything I set my mind to. But when you have something like that happen, you kind of step back and believe that things happen for a reason. But to this day, nobody can tell me exactly what was wrong - and the funny thing is, I'm fine [now]. I don't take any medication whatsoever and I haven't been to the doctor since it happened. It's a miracle.
"I do think about it every day, though. I wonder, 'What was it? Why did I get it? And is it going to come back?' Mentally, it's a battle because you don't know if it will come back, but you can't live your life in fear of something happening. It took me a while to start living life again and to let it go. But I don't ever forget.
"My wife really stood by me while I was sick. She bore the brunt of taking care of the kids and really trying to provide a living for our family while I was down and it wasn't looking very good for me. I really appreciate her and love her for sticking by me in a tough time."
"IT'S BEEN THE MOST unbelievable experience of my life [watching my children play sports]. My son Ricky is a senior now, and he's played four years of varsity basketball. Each year he has added something to his game to improve himself. He works hard, he practices hard. My son Ryan is a freshman on the junior varsity, and he's become a hard worker, too. There's nothing I enjoy more than watch my children play.
"It's difficult to watch them play sometimes because I've coached before and I've played the game, and it took me a little while to grow into just being a dad. Whatever happens, happens. I can give them tips and nuances to help them, and give them some things to try, but you don't want to be overbearing. It's not a coach or a former basketball player talking, it's dad talking. It's something I've learned to balance.
"WHAT I'VE TRIED to instill in them is that it's not about who scores the points. It's about making your teammates better, about being a leader and about having a good attitude. It's about accepting coaching and being a good example for others to follow.
"You always want your kids to do better than you did. I had some success but I've tried to reach a happy medium: I want them to be better but I don't want to push them too hard. I want them to want to go out, shovel the driveway and practice shooting instead of me telling them to do it. And if they do that, then I want to go out and help them, maybe offer a tip if they want it or just rebound when they shoot. I like them to show the initiative, then be there to guide them to improve themselves. But that's difficult. I know some parents push kids to do things they don't want to do but I think it has to come from inside the kid."