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Thursday, September 6, 2012
Ball person's goal: Inspire other amputees

By Kate Fagan

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- Ryan McIntosh's mission at the U.S. Open is inherently contradictory: He wants to inspire millions and go unnoticed.

He wants to blend in so well with his team -- nothing to see here, just another blue shirt shepherding fluorescent yellow globes around the court -- that you won't notice the carbon-fiber blade that exists where his right leg used to be. His quick movements mirror those of every other ball person here as he shuffles, turns, scoops, tosses and then darts back to the baseline wall, blue shirt disappearing into blue padding.

Ryan McIntosh
Ryan McIntosh wants soldiers to see that although injuries might close some doors, there are other doors waiting to be opened.

Of course, the minute McIntosh steps off the court, invisibility is no longer his goal. Because he is here for a different reason than the other 249 ball people, even though he's wearing the same Ralph Lauren uniform, making the same $7.75 an hour and helping to keep these million-dollar matches running smoothly. McIntosh, who's 23, is here to show life doesn't just go on after you lose a limb; it can get better. He's here to be an example for the next guy like him, the one sitting in a military barracks, recovering from surgery, believing his future compromised. Maybe that guy will see McIntosh's story and his outlook will shift, even slightly.

The last day Ryan McIntosh had his right leg was Dec. 8, 2010. He was in Afghanistan, in the Arghandab River Valley, only two months into his deployment with the U.S. Army. His unit was walking single file back to the base, which was in sight. McIntosh was sixth in line. The unit was snaking across the first of two small canals, and McIntosh jumped onto the patch of land that split the water. He doesn't remember making contact with the ground upon taking his next step. He doesn't remember the explosion of the land mine. He just remembers flying through the air, falling onto his head, the dust kicking up around him. His ears were ringing, so at first he couldn't hear the guys in his unit calling out, "IED! IED!" But soon he could hear them saying something else: "Where's Mac?"

"That's when I realized I was the one who was injured," McIntosh said while sitting on a bench outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, before getting his assignments for Thursday's slate of matches. He remembers raising his hand as he started crawling out of the ditch. "I looked down at my leg. I looked at it and saw my toes were missing, and I was thinking maybe the amputation wouldn't be severe."

The members of McIntosh's unit used a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. They called for a helicopter, which arrived within minutes and flew him to Kandahar, where his right leg, around midshin, was amputated. Only later would McIntosh learn that there had also been a 40-pound jug of explosives daisy-chained to the land mine that, for reasons unknown, didn't detonate. "I'll count my lucky stars on that one," he said.

McIntosh is all muscle, a 5-foot-11 compact athlete who played football and ran track at his high school in Rifle, Colo., near Aspen. He was considering continuing his athletic career in college before changing his mind and enlisting in the Army.

He grew up with a dad who did everything with him, played every sport, and so McIntosh's first thoughts after surgery were of his unborn son, Kaden, who is now 17 months old. Ryan didn't want to be a dad with one leg, a dad on the sidelines. "Waking in the hospital bed was freaky," he said. "Realizing my toes and everything was really gone, gone-gone. It finally hit me. I had to call my wife and tell her my leg was missing."

McIntosh spent time in the darker recesses of his mind, in a scary, lonely place. Initially, he let himself ask the question: Why me? And then he stopped asking and started remembering he was responsible for what his life would become.

Today, he and his wife, Hannah, live in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he serves as the adaptive sports coordinator for the base. McIntosh plays as many sports as possible while helping soldiers like himself regain an active lifestyle. He participated in the 2012 Warrior Games (the military's version of the Paralympics) in Colorado, where his supervisor suggested he would be perfect for another mission: working the U.S. Open.

Show everyone that it can be done -- and done well.

"It's very physically demanding," McIntosh said of his gig at Flushing Meadows. "But you wouldn't necessarily think so because of what you see on TV. You don't see the ball people, because it's all about the player." McIntosh loves when a match runs smoothly, when the team's hard work and communication allow a player to focus solely on the match. More than most, he knows there is reward in serving others. His prosthetic bears the phrase, "Freedom is not Free, but it's worth fighting for."

On his only day off so far during this fortnight, McIntosh showed up at the Open anyway. When asked why, he said he liked being around everyone -- that it was better than just hanging out in the city.

He is here to show people, especially wounded soldiers, what their future can become. "A lot of them come back and they're just really down on themselves," McIntosh said. "They don't think there is life after their injury. They just sit in their barracks and play video games. A lot of them put on weight, and it's hard to see it happen because they were so active once."

After this tournament ends and McIntosh attends to some other business -- namely, being with his wife upon the birth of their second child -- he hopes to start training for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. Open is just one step along his journey. He wants to show soldiers that while their injuries might close some doors, there are always other doors waiting to be opened.