POMPTON LAKES – Ryan Shafer considers the question. He’s lived through brain surgery, a broken back, a couple of concussions, too many sprained ankles to count and currently is sleeping in a recliner because he just had surgery on a torn labrum and his right arm is locked in a sling.
So, how does he feel?
“Lucky,” said Shafer, a Pompton Lakes senior. “I mean that in a positive way. I’ve been blessed with a quick healing body and the ability to do what I love.”
Shafer’s story is all about perseverance. It’s about playing soccer when he was 3 years old and beginning an athletic odyssey that included championships and defeat. It’s about his mom and dad, Dave and Sue, seeing that the benefits of competing in athletics outweighed the negatives.
And yes, there was a certain amount of luck.
The way Dave remembers it, it was a youth football game scheduled for a Friday night in 2009. It rained, so the game had to be moved to the turf field at DePaul in Wayne.
There was a missed block. Shafer, an aspiring quarterback, was hit hard, head snapping back. Foolishly or not, he stayed in the game, but complained to his parents afterward that he didn’t feel right.
“He didn’t even tell the coach,” Sue said. “The game ended, and he said he felt funny. And I was like, ‘Really?’ I looked in his eyes, and one was kind of going one way. So I just said, ‘Let’s go to the Valley [Hospital].”
Ryan was diagnosed with a concussion – now a common villain in football and athletics – but there was more. A subsequent CAT scan showed a tumor the size of a golf ball behind Ryan’s right eye.
“I spent the night at the hospital, woke up the next morning to a doctor telling me I had a brain tumor and was being rushed over to Columbia Presbyterian,” remembered Ryan. “Two hours later I was having surgery.”
Ryan, now 5-foot-10 and a solid 165 pounds, has a zig-zag scar stretching from one ear to the other. And other than that, the only other outward sign of the benign tumor is how fortunate the family feels. Had it not rained, had the game not been moved to a field with a more dense surface — turf is better in a lot of ways, but doesn’t give like grass — Ryan may not have suffered a concussion and the tumor wouldn’t have been found until it was too late.
Doctors said the tumor could have connected to his retina in a couple of months and perhaps become inoperable.
“It was a huge blessing in disguise,” Dave said.
Of course, coming out of surgery, Ryan’s first question was, “When do I get to play basketball?”
The answer to that was soon. Ryan played basketball as soon as he was cleared. But Ryan wasn’t done being tested. During his freshman year at Pompton Lakes, he cracked two lumbar vertebrae playing football. He spent three months in a back brace, but again didn’t miss basketball season.
As a junior, he was a part-time starter on defense for the Cardinals, leading their defensive backs in tackles. He started at guard on the basketball team and in the outfield for the baseball team.
Senior year was what he was waiting for, a chance to be the starting quarterback. Early in the summer, he felt his shoulder give while making a tackle.
“My arm just kind of went numb for a little bit,” Ryan said. “I thought I dislocated it, but then I was moving it around fine. I didn’t think anything was wrong all season.”
An MRI after the season showed the truth: a torn labrum.
He put off surgery as long as he could and gamely made it through basketball season. But in order to be ready to play football at The College of New Jersey, he had the surgery in mid-March. He has had to miss his final high school baseball season.