Nick Hyndman was only 5 months old when his mother, Amy, opened a letter from an insurance company informing her that the company would not cover her son's therapy.
Nick, the letter said, was "nonrestorable."
Now there's an interesting term. Nonrestorable. How shameful. Imagine it being used to describe one of your kids. A human life, nonrestorable, like a shattered antique vase.
Less than a week after Amy and husband, Greg, welcomed their beautiful, healthy baby boy, he experienced a medical emergency that left him with brain damage. Four months later, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and doctors suggested he might never sit up, might never walk, and would likely suffer cognitive delays, which is a polite term for mental retardation.
Well, the insurance executive who wrote and signed that letter should be sentenced to 10 minutes on a Perrysburg High School wrestling mat with Nick, now 16 years old. He should walk the track with him. Listen to some of the music he's written. Read his compositions and poems. Go with him to class; regular, mainstream classes, by the way, the only kind he's ever attended. Go ziplining with him, from tree to tree, down in the Hocking Hills. Help him make his college plans.
Perrysburg coach Matt Boggs holds practice. Nick Hyndman always starts practice on his knees and has been working with Boggs on strength training and ways to defend himself in matches.
Nonrestorable. There are an awful lot of words in Nick's vocabulary. That isn't one of them.
Nick Hyndman can't walk on water. At least he hasn't yet. But he's walking. Who knows what's next?
Nick has serious issues. Technically, he is a quadriplegic since the disorder affects all four limbs. He has suffered progressive hearing loss. His speech is articulate beyond his years, but sometimes difficult to understand. Growth spurts can create orthopedic setbacks because his muscles have no memory. He is often, if not always, in pain because of nerve damage in some extremities.
An expert on his disorder once told Amy that Nick always feels the way a healthy person might feel after running a marathon because of the stress any type of physical activity places on his muscles.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2001, young Nick enjoyed a family dinner at the home of his maternal grandparents, Jim and Pat Jagel. Out of the blue, for the first time in his life, he pushed himself to his feet and walked unassisted. He made it about 8 feet before crumbling to the floor.
During the next eight years, he'd often repeat the feat while wearing leg braces. But there was always a limit. Eight feet, maybe 10, maybe 12. The rest of the time he was in his wheelchair, or crawling. That was the case as recently as November.
An expert on cerebral palsy said that Nick always feels the way a healthy person might feel after running a marathon because of the stress any type of physical activity places on his muscles.
Today Nick walks around the indoor track on the upper level of Perrysburg High's gym. Once, twice, three times without falling, without assistance, without braces. His dad told him the best way to endear himself to his teammates was to try to do what they do. So when the Yellow Jacket wrestlers go for a run, Nick walks. The first time his dad witnessed this, and he chokes up telling the story, "all the guys were finished, but they waited for Nick and cheered him in. There were a lot of high fives."
Never walk? Ah, child's play. A couple weeks ago, when his grandpa was at practice, Nick actually jogged for a stretch.
"It was amazing," Jim Jagel said.
What has taken place in the last two months, a miracle? Well, the miracle of the mats, perhaps.
"I was so used to looking down at Nick in his wheelchair," his grandfather said. "Now I look up at him."
In more ways than one. And grandpa is not alone.
How do you tell a kid you love with all your heart that he isn't normal, that his disorder will be a forever thing and will always make him different, that children who don't know any better will gawk and say mean things and won't want to play with him?
"Nick was in the first grade," Amy Hyndman recalled. "He came home one day and wanted to know why nobody could understand him, why he couldn't run, couldn't play. He was crying. I was crying. But I felt I had to be honest with him, to have a frank conversation despite his age. I couldn't just say, 'Maybe someday, sweetie.' I told him his cerebral palsy wasn't going to go away. I told him he had to focus on the things he could do and understand there are things he won't be able to do. Once you tell him he can't do something, though, there is a new determination. It started that day."
Last fall, Nick decided to live the dream. He informed his family, including 10-year-old sister Isabella, that he was trying out for Perrysburg High's wrestling team.
Matt Boggs was set to start his fifth year as the Yellow Jackets' head wrestling coach when word came that a kid with cerebral palsy who navigated the hallways in a specially modified Segway and with an assistance dog, a black lab-retriever mix named Charger, and who had no wrestling experience, was coming out for the team in his junior year.
Boggs might have attempted to throw up roadblocks. Instead, he opened his arms wide.
"It was new territory for me, but I know there are kids around the state wrestling with prosthetic limbs," Boggs said. "You always leave the door open for something special like this."
Boggs talked to the Hyndmans to learn more about Nick's condition. He did research on the Internet. He read about using a medicine ball for strength training. He found methods to teach the sport to someone in Nick's situation, someone who would always start on his knees. He concerned himself with teaching Nick how to defend himself in an aggressive sport.
"We started his conditioning by having him walk leaning on the [padded] walls," Boggs said. "When we ran, he'd use a manual wheelchair to do his laps. After he burned through his first set of gloves, always catching his fingers in the spokes because he was trying to go so fast, nobody questioned his desire. His physical strength in the upper body is mind-boggling. And the kids love him. He's a tremendous inspiration."
Pat Jagel, Nick's grandmother, calls Boggs "a hero, an educator in the truest sense. Nick has tried to do things in the past and people weren't always open to it. They saw problems. Coach Boggs sees possibilities."
Nick's first match was against Maumee, the Yellow Jackets' biggest rival. It was over quickly and Nick crawled on his knees to the corner of the mat to shake hands with the opposing coach as wrestling protocol dictates. When he arrived at the coach's feet, Nick lifted himself and stood straight up unassisted. The Maumee coach grabbed him and bear-hugged him.
"We put Nick on the mats and taught him the basics, and he's really come a long way," said Josh Jordan, a senior captain for Perrysburg. "He came out in a wheelchair at first, now he's up jogging with us before practice. It inspires all of us."
The perfect ending to this story is Nick winning a match, the fans rushing the floor, and teammates lifting him onto their shoulders. It hasn't happened. Yet. Nick is 0-5 in JV matches at 135 pounds and says, "I'm trying to figure out how not to get pinned."
But consider this. His first match lasted less than 15 seconds. His last went two minutes, 20 seconds.
"He's getting so much better," said sister Bella, his No. 1 fan. "I'm so proud of him."
Nick says he doesn't like losing, but knows this is "the biggest physical challenge I've ever had. Wrestling is tough. There's a lot of pain. But you have to push through it with toughness. I get support and encouragement from my teammates. I'm going against kids who have wrestled for years. So I appreciate just being out there. "This might be the strangest thing you'll ever hear, but I like the fact I have to go through the pain. It gives me more of an appreciation for life. When I survive the pain, I feel like I can survive anything."
Yes, the weakest among us can become the strongest.
"This is more than wrestling, you know," said his teammate Josh Jordan. "I think it has changed everything. He's made a lot of friends. Everyone knows who he is now. You see him in the halls and he's always smiling, saying hi to everybody."
So that's the ending. It's about life.
Nick Hyndman has one.
A life, fully restored.
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