2 Positive People a Plus for Others

Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2000

J.J. O’Connor and Rob Komosa have a lot in common.

Each was a young athlete whose playing career ended in a horrifying moment that left him paralyzed.

In the last six months the two have become friends, but it’s not a relationship built on tragedy. What binds them together–and sets them apart–is a determination not just to reject self-pity but also to ease the way for others like themselves.

“I had so much support when I was hurt that when people around you are hurt, you want to give back,” O’Connor said. “It makes you stronger when you can support others.

“The same way people have supported me, I support Rob.”

O’Connor, then a Loyola Academy senior, was injured Oct. 24, 1995, during a Class AA midget-level hockey game when he sprawled on the ice and hit the boards with his head at an awkward angle. He fractured three vertebrae in his neck and sustained spinal-cord damage.

O’Connor, now a senior at Lake Forest College, has some movement in his right arm and can put weight on his feet and stand with support, but he depends on a wheelchair to get around.

That doesn’t seem to slow him much. The outgoing 21-year-old gives motivational speeches and is preparing for a business career.

While working out in a weight program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, O’Connor occasionally would visit Neal Goss, the New Trier hockey player paralyzed from the chest down during a game last Nov. 3. O’Connor heard about Komosa last April, shortly before Rob was to be released from RIC, and made a special trip to see him.

They talked about cars and football, and O’Connor left smiling.

“Rob had no idea who I was,” O’Connor said, “but he had a smile on his face, and he took me in and said hello like I was his friend.

“The fact he was able to smile . . . I knew he was a special person. I like to surround myself with positive people.”

Komosa fractured two vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord Oct. 6, 1999, when he collided head-on with a metal fence post after being tackled during a football practice at Rolling Meadows, where he was a junior running back. He is paralyzed from the neck down and uses a ventilator to breathe.

Komosa lives in Arlington Heights, not far from O’Connor’s Mt. Prospect home.

“We’re both young, both have spinal-cord injuries and are sports fanatics who live in the same area,” O’Connor said. “I figured we could become friends and I could show him there’s a life beyond a wheelchair, that it’s not just sitting around doing nothing.”

Since Komosa returned home, he and O’Connor have talked regularly by phone and visited occasionally. Late last month, the White Sox invited Komosa and several relatives and friends to a game. Among those Rob took along was O’Connor, who in turn hopes to take Komosa to a Blackhawks game.

O’Connor has been a mentor to Komosa as well as a pal. He told Rob what to expect when he returned home and when he enrolled at Palatine High, which has a highly regarded special-education program.

He has provided helpful tips, such as using a headset instead of a speakerphone to gain privacy during phone conversations and what to look for in a wheelchair-accessible van.

“I would not go so far as to say I know exactly what Rob is going through because no one does,” O’Connor said. “But I’ve been down this road and can understand it more than others could.

“I know how important it is to have support, to have people say, `I’ve been there and know what you’re going through,’ and that life is what you make it.”

Because O’Connor is making so much of his own life, Dreams for Kids, a Chicago-based non-profit organization that aids children, honored him in 1997 for his strength, courage and inspirational example. O’Connor nominated Komosa for the same award, which Rob received last month.

“In respect to J.J. and Rob, the award is to remind them they’re respected for their contributions, what they are doing and that they’re valued and recognized for who they are rather than for what they have lost,” Dream for Kids founder and President Tom Tuohy said.

“They both played the sports they loved, and in an instant it changed their lives. They both responded in a positive way, and that teaches us to live our lives in a better way.”

O’Connor recently joined the board of directors of Dreams for Kids and is co-chairman of a major fundraising event the organization will play host to next June at Navy Pier. Proceeds will benefit spinal cord research and programs that assist children.

Komosa has been watching O’Connor and taking mental notes. He notices his friend’s demeanor and achievements, even the fact O’Connor lives in a college dorm and figures, “Why not me?”

“J.J. keeps a positive attitude, and he’s always smiling too,” Komosa said. “I think that’s great.”

Komosa is emulating his friend in ways that extend beyond a grin. Through an intermediary, he has reached out to junior Rasul Clark, an Eisenhower junior running back who was paralyzed while being tackled during a football game Sept. 15, the day Dreams for Kids honored Komosa.

Friday was the first anniversary of Komosa’s accident. O’Connor will have his fifth anniversary in about two weeks.

“It’s a mixed thing,” O’Connor said. “I’m doing well; I’m happy. I have a lot of support, and I’m going in the right direction in my life.

“It’s a sad thing, but I also know I’m doing OK, so it’s a good thing too. It’s all how you look at it.”