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Pitt recruit Blair overcomes stroke

PITTSBURGH -- It is the most nervous Ty Kenney has ever been on a fall Friday night.

"I don't even like to watch what's going on out on the field," Kenney said. "And every time the phone rings at practice, you think something is wrong."

Sixteen months ago, a hospital defibrillator was resuscitating his son, Rori Blair, after a near-fatal stroke.

On Aug. 30, though, Kenney was watching Rori, a three-star, Pitt-bound defensive end for Upper St. Clair (Pa.) High, breathe life into his team in his emotional return. It was Rori's second-quarter blocked punt that proved to be the winning play against Pennsylvania's top-ranked team.

"It's a blessing for me to just be here," Rori said.

'It was all hell from there'

Walking with a friend outside on an otherwise normal day in April 2012, Rori stopped suddenly.

"I need to sit down and go to sleep," Rori told him.

His friend looked at him puzzled. "Outside?"

The pounding headache was too much for Rori. The throbbing pain paralyzed him. It felt as if someone was punching him in the head. It was actually the blood vessels in his brain bursting from a congenital condition called an arteriovenous malformation, a tangling of blood vessels in the brain.

Few people know they have an AVM until it's too late -- Rori included. He tried to sleep it off for two days. It was Easter, and the family was leaving for a Caribbean vacation the next day. Rori was about to sleep through Easter dinner when Kenney asked his son if he packed. Rori, his speech slurred, told him he wasn't going.

"I said, 'You either pack your bag or you're going to the hospital,' thinking I'd call his bluff," Kenney said. "And he said, 'We're going to the hospital.'"

Rori and his father were at St. Clair Hospital for fewer than 10 minutes before doctors ushered him into a helicopter. He was being airlifted to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

"It was all hell from there," Kenney said.

A miracle in the making

The rhythmic beep of Rori's heart monitor turned into a monotonous buzz. The nurses and doctors at the hospital were alerted. Rori's vitals were already dangerously low from the medication. Now, the 17-year-old was flatlining.

Doctors would resuscitate Rori for the first of two times.

A CT scan showed the pressure from his AVM built up and was now bleeding. The weakened blood vessels burst, causing a stroke. It's a condition that affects fewer than 1 percent of the population, and the chance of an AVM bleeding is 2-4 percent per year, according to Rori's neurosurgeon, L. Dade Lunsford.

"He's lucky to be alive," Lunsford said.

Rori would spend 30 days in the ICU. The bleeding in his brain had stopped after an emergency embolization, a procedure that seals the bleeding AVM using a glue inserted through a catheter that works up to the AVM.

While visiting Rori one day, Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render was pulled aside by a nurse. "She said, 'Coach, you're witnessing a miracle,'" Render recalled.

But Rori was not out of the woods. His brain and cognitive functions were severely impaired. The AVM was located in his left temporal lobe, which helps control speech and vision. When Rori finally came out of sedation, a nurse held up a pen and asked him what it was. He knew the answer, but there was a disconnect between his mind and his mouth. He couldn't find the right word.

"I felt like a small kid," Rori said. "Felt like a baby. I had the voice of a baby and a mind of a 7-year-old."

Protecting Rori's career

As Rori struggled with his cognitive skills, doctors still needed to remove the AVM. The bleeding stopped, but a reoccurrence could be fatal.

Now a month since the stroke, Kenney quickly said no to surgery, which required removing a portion of his skull. Sports were too important to Rori, who was already hearing from colleges.

Kenney pushed for an alternative. The parent of another Upper St. Clair player approached Rori's stepmother, Monika Marczak, about another treatment. She also suffered from an AVM and had a Gamma Knife procedure, which is minimally invasive and uses radiosurgery to damage the blood vessels and scar the AVM. Her doctor was Lunsford, the founder and chairman of the North American Gamma Knife Consortium.

"If he had a craniotomy, then that was a game-changer, career-ender immediately," Lunsford said. "He would never go back to playing football."

After the Gamma Knife procedure, Lunsford can say with 95 percent probability that the AVM is completely gone.

Something's missing

The AVM was removed, but Rori's cognitive process was still damaged. He missed the remainder of his junior year and spent a month in the hospital and then another month in physical therapy. He couldn't tie his shoes or walk and still struggled with his speech.

"He cried a lot at the beginning," Marczak said, "and he never cries."

Four months after the stroke, Rori was back at school for his senior year, his schedule loaded with high-level classes. He would try reading but would get nauseous and vomit.

The issues persist. Those closest to him watch him struggle at times. He mixes his words, and his memory sometimes lets him down.

"There's another person that's not there," Kenney said, "another side is missing."

But Rori got a big piece of himself back in May 2013, almost a year to day of his Gamma Knife procedure.

A second chance

Rori's face was inches away from the screen, staring at his one-year follow-up MRI, looking for any white or gray where the AVM bleeding was. White means there is still blood in the area. It was gray in November but still not dark enough for Lunsford to sign off.

This time, it was black, and he got the OK to play again.

But it was May, and Rori was about to graduate from high school -- without a defined college plan or the chance to play Division I football. Under certain circumstances, the Pennsylvania football governing body will grant an extra semester of eligibility. Rori's doctors and the Upper St. Clair administration appealed.

Appeals usually fall short, though, and Render knew this. He prepared to make an impassioned plea.

"I wrote them a letter and told them, 'I'm gearing up. I got my best suit pressed, new shirt and tie, new shoes,'" Render said, "and they send a letter a few days later saying they're granting him a ninth semester."

Shortly thereafter, the Division I offers started rolling in, and Rori eventually decided on Pitt.

By the summer, Rori was training without restrictions. He worked on regaining the 50 pounds and 4.6 speed he lost during his time away.

He anxiously waited to get back on the field for an actual game. Last year was tough on Rori, who attended every game.

"If you look at last year's video, Rori is running up and down the sideline," said Mac Pope, Rori's teammate. "He was more intense than half of the players."

Last week, Rori was finally able to run out of the locker room with a helmet and pads on. There were no nerves, just unbridled excitement.

Rori took the field and showed equal parts promise and rust. On the first play of the game, he was in the backfield before the running back got the ball but missed the tackle.

But like he did so many times his junior season, he came up with a big play to swing the game. Late in the second quarter with the game tied at 7, Rori blocked a punt out of the back of the end zone. Upper St. Clair got the ball back and scored a touchdown en route to a 16-10 win.

"I was happy as soon as I came out," Rori said. "It just felt great to play."