Before his second NFL season began last September, Ryan Kerrigan came across a typed, one-page piece of fan mail. The first paragraph grabbed him:
My name is Ryan D’Emidio. I am 16 years old with seven brothers and sisters. My Mom and I got into a car accident and I had to come three months early. I was critical for 21 / 2 years. The doctors said I would die several times, and if I did live, I would be a vegetable (I eat vegetables now!). I do have cerebral palsy and some learning difficulties. I have two belly buttons on my body. The little flower is where the feeding tube was for seven years.
The boy went on to tell Kerrigan how he was hired as the team manager of the Woodbridge High School football team, how he played a blind child in a school play called “The Miracle Worker.”
I love the way you sack and take it all the way. . . . I make people happy and laugh and I have a dream to meet you. . . . Please write back to me.
The big, strong 6-foot-4, 260-pound linebacker, about to embark on his first Pro Bowl season with Washington, held the letter and thought about the difference between the courage shown on an NFL field and the courage shown in life.
“As a player, you’re always getting things sent to you, tons of mail,” Kerrigan said. “I always try to be nice, but I just can’t write everybody back. But I saw his letter. It . . . it did something to me.”
Kerrigan found a pen, a piece of paper and started writing in neat cursive, putting the letter in the mailbox two days before last season’s opener:
Thanks for your kind letter! I am terribly sorry to hear about your car accident + your condition. But I am inspired by your upbeat personality! Keep that attitude and you can do whatever you dream! Thanks for being a Redskins fan + for your support. God Bless!
Ryan Kerrigan #91
This is a story about two people named Ryan who inspired each other, and it would end here except Ryan D’Emidio is more relentless than any locked-in Pro Bowl linebacker at the snap count.
See, Kerrigan’s note gave the kid an opening, a gap to shoot. He wrote Kerrigan back, working it, appealing to his ego, “Sack Tony Romo!” He thanked him for the handwritten letter in another note, soberly adding, “I would hand write but my hands don’t work so well and I was afraid you would not be able to read it!”
When I asked Kerrigan two months ago whether he would be up for meeting his fan Ryan, he didn’t hesitate. “That kid? He’s amazing. Sure. I’d be honored. His story was so uplifting.”
Ten days before Christmas on a cold, rainy night in Woodbridge in 1995, Susan D’Emidio got in her car and headed out for some last-minute holiday shopping. “I was being silly, I know, but with seven kids I just thought I had forgot something,” she said. By the time she turned onto busy Minnieville Road, the rain had turned to black ice. An out-of-control car hurdled the barrier and came into her lane. Hers was the first vehicle involved in a 15-car pileup.
At 28 weeks pregnant with Ryan, she was deemed healthy enough to return home. But within a week, her body went into toxic shock and her baby was suddenly in grave danger.
“Basically the doctor said the baby was killing her and she was killing the baby and it would have to come out early,” said John D’Emidio, Ryan’s father. She had an emergency cesarean section to save her child.
Ryan was born a mere 1 pound 12 ounces, three months ahead of schedule. He lived most of the first year of his life in an incubator. He had multiple surgeries and was fed through his nostrils. Every time Ryan was taken home those first few months, doctors told the family he had to come back to the hospital because his lungs weren’t strong enough to be unhooked from a respirator.
“He died several times in the first two years of his life, and they brought him back,” Susan said.
Ryan kept fighting. And growing. And always embracing the good instead of cursing the havoc an awful disorder had wreaked on his life.
“I am home from surgery,” he wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday night after he had filler inserted in both legs to keep his knee and his femur from rubbing together, his second of four planned surgeries this year alone. He has to have Botox routinely injected into his hips, thighs and lower back to loosen the areas.
Cerebral palsy is not a progressive disorder, and people afflicted often have a normal life expectancy. But the constant tightening of his muscles — contracture — is one of the recurring symptoms that disrupt Ryan’s life.
The Ryan-meets-Ryan spot was designated as Reston Town Center after Kerrigan had biked 20 miles in former teammate Lorenzo Alexander’s annual charity bike ride.
D’Emidio could barely contain his excitement, almost skipping toward the player he had first written over a year ago.
“Hi, I’m Ryan,” Kerrigan said.
“I’m Ryan,” D’Emidio shot back, laughing and wearing Kerrigan’s No. 91 jersey. “How are you?”
“I’m doing well.”
Instinctively, D’Emidio went in for a hug. Kerrigan wrapped him up, snugger than Eli Manning.
“I appreciate that,” the player said as the two shared a few minutes.
D’Emidio walked away for a few minutes and returned with a 70-page, self-published book he had written, titled “My Life — Ryan D’Emidio.”
“Read this book to your family,” he said, handing it to Kerrigan. “It’ll make you cry.”
“I don’t want to cry,” Kerrigan said.
Not to worry, he was told, it’s a good cry: the story of a baby who almost didn’t make it, who survived a 15-car pileup in his mother’s womb, an incubator, thousands of tubes and needles thrust into his body and, as a young boy, bullying in school. Oh, and the awkwardness of adolescence. He beat all of them, answering fear with faith.
One Sunday night recently, John picked up the phone and saw the word “ESPN” on the caller ID. Neil Everett, the “SportsCenter” anchor, was on the line. “He said Ryan had sent him a letter, and he was so touched he had to call,” John said.
Ryan has gumption and then some. He occasionally crosses boundaries — “Can I have your cellphone number?” or “Can you go to my birthday?” or “Can you get me an announcing job at Fox or ESPN?” — but he’s pretty much been a mover and shaker since becoming a memoiristat 15 for The Washington Post magazine.
Susan handed me a folder that contained letters of correspondence between Kerrigan and her son and a letter Ryan sent to the NFL during the lockout, urging the league to play. The folder also contains numerous letters to people Ryan has found inspirational, like Tim McGraw, Joel Osteen and Alfred Morris.
He thinks they’re inspiring him “when it’s actually the other way around,” Kerrigan said. “He makes me feel I can do anything.”
The same goes for his mother, who recently underwent the same kind of chemotherapy given to breast-cancer patients in order to treat a hyperactive thyroid condition connected to rheumatoid arthritis. “He’s my inspiration,” Susan said. “If it wasn’t for Ryan and his hurting, I don’t think I could endure mine.”
Six months ago, Susan read some of her son’s writing relating to his several brushes with death as an infant. She came across something she had never read before: “He wrote that when he went to go see God, God told him he couldn’t stay and had to come back and he had to go make people happy and he was going to have a wonderful life.”
Ryan D’Emidio’s mother covers her mouth for a moment.
“It gave me shivers,” she finally said. “I said, ‘Ryan, you never told me about that.’ He had that little secret in him for a long time.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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