DELHI TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Ryan Custer is a loving son and brother, a loyal friend and teammate. He’s also an inspiration.
The 20-year-old has a passion for basketball, eats three Chick-fil-A sandwiches for lunch when his former coach visits, and is interested in the stock market. He keeps any room light with his jokes.
The 6-foot-7, 200-pound former basketball standout, at his core, is a fighter.
There is a spirit of determination that knows no bounds this winter as Custer lives with a partial paralysis.
“I say all the time that Ryan carries the day,” his father, George Custer said. “His attitude is awesome. Every morning he has a smile on his face. He looks at it bravely and carries on.”
Nearly 10 months after the Wright State basketball player and former Elder High School standout suffered a critical spinal cord injury in which he shattered his C5 vertebrae in a makeshift pool accident near Miami University, his approach to life has impacted more people than he could ever imagine.
“I thought I was going to be a kid who did not want to go out at all and just sit in my room and feel sorry for myself,” Ryan said in the family’s living room in late January. “As soon as I realized that this couldn’t beat me I started fighting it and never looked back.”
The choice to enjoy life wasn’t always easy in the first few months. He was in the intensive care for two weeks at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center after the incident.
He had therapy in Chicago and Denver before returning back home more than four months later (Aug. 30).
There are still good and bad days for Ryan and his parents, George and Kim, and his three siblings -- Nick, Danielle and Mckenzie.
Ryan wants to make the most out of every day despite not having feeling below his chest.
His therapist recently told the family that Ryan is able to stand for 25 minutes on a standing frame with support from others for his balance.
However, the injection of some 10 million stem cells last summer in Chicago has not had the impact the family had hoped for at this point. There are other possible studies that could help him in the future, but Ryan and his family have to remain patient. It is a test of faith.
Nights can still be lonely at times; his mind can start to wander. But mornings bring new promise.
Custer goes to therapy for three hours in the afternoon three times a week at Good Samaritan Hospital. He enjoys the company of others, but also likes time alone at the family home. It's a chance to reflect and be grateful.
“You see on the news every day all these people dying and I am like, ‘why am I complaining?’” Custer said.
Custer doesn’t want special treatment. He's a very social young man and he's interested in others' lives.
“All these little bumps in life that happen and you think this sucks and something like this happens you don’t take it for granted,” Custer said. “You kind of just live your life and say ‘screw it’ go out there and live.”
Custer greets family, friends and strangers alike with a warm smile from his motorized wheelchair anywhere he goes.
“He’s unbelievable,” George Custer said. “He has a great attitude every day. I don’t see how he does it. I probably cry more than he does.”
The Custer family has learned perspective from Ryan even when setbacks seem all too common.
“I want people to take this as it’s not as bad as you think it is,” Custer said. “In a way there are always worse things that can happen. That’s what I want people to take from this.”
Therein lies his impact on a community of supporters -- from Elder and the West Side to the Wright State community to the general public in Greater Cincinnati -- that continue to visit, pray, offer Mass, send jars of holy water from everywhere, bring cookies, post well-wishes on social media and donate money for his recovery effort.
“I don’t cry because of the sadness,” Kim said. “I cry because of the people who have supported Ryan or who have sent us stuff.”
As Ryan was ready to watch the Elder at Oak Hills game Jan. 16, a stranger stopped by to greet him near the baseline in the corner of the gymnasium.
He told Ryan he wakes up every day and gets out of bed to pray for him.
“It’s crazy just to think people that people who’ve never met me before have realized how much I guess I have done for them in a way that they are kind of changing their lifestyle to help me,” Ryan said. “I didn’t do anything to deserve that. It’s nice to know good people are out there.”
A path of perseverance
Ryan Custer’s basketball story is one of persistence and significant effort during his time at Elder.
As a 6-foot-1 guard, he did not make the freshman team. But he didn’t waver in his support of teammates. He went to every game, sat behind the bench and cheered for his classmates.
By the time he was a junior, he had a growth spurt and was a sharp-shooting 6-foot-6 forward who helped to lead Elder to a 22-3 record.
He worked on his game relentlessly. He took hundreds of shots to improve his perimeter game. His toughness was also apparent.
Oak Hills coach Mike Price, Custer’s Amateur Athletic Union coach for one year, remembers what West Virginia and former UC coach Bob Huggins said about Custer during a game at SportsPlus. Huggins at the time was recruiting a 6-10 player who opposed Custer.
“(The player) was beating the heck out of Ryan,” Price said. “He was taking shots to Ryan's nose and head and backing him down. Ryan just kept getting up and fighting him harder. After the game, Huggins came back in and said, ‘Boy, I love that kid. I wish I could recruit him but I don’t really need that position. He was a fighter.’”
Custer eventually earned a scholarship offer from Wright State during an unofficial campus visit in early August 2015. He signed with the Raiders three months later.
The 2016 Elder graduate arrived at Wright State eager for another challenge. He averaged 9.8 minutes in 32 games as a freshman and was expected to be a starter or sixth man this season.
Even more than basketball was the sense that Custer was one of the guys on and off the court. That lasting impression was the most important.
Wright State Director of Basketball Operations Nick Goff saw that immediately when the two met in the summer of 2016.
“If you ask anybody on our team who is the best teammate or the closest friend, two-thirds of the guys would probably say him,” Goff said. “And that’s a freshman on the basketball team.”
The Wright State players and coaches keep in close contact with Ryan and his family since the injury. Goff helps to coordinate home game tickets for Custer and his family.
Ryan and his parents attended the Wright State at Miami University game in mid-November. George debated whether he could return to Oxford so soon. The emotion was heavy while in Millett Hall.
"Watching that game, I could see him on the court," George said. "Sometimes I could actually see him running the floor and shooting. It's tough."
Teammates text Custer and visit when they can; the support is genuine. Ryan says seeing the Wright State players is good therapy. In short, they’d do anything for Ryan.
“In terms of perseverance and in terms of toughness we’d be here until midnight if I went on down the list,” former Wright State guard Mike LaTulip said. “I knew he was a tough kid. I knew he was the type of kid who would persevere through stuff. Seeing how he has dealt with this right from the beginning -- it has inspired me and a lot of people. When you have a friend and a teammate like that you know he’d support you the same way. He would do the exact same thing for me.”
Custer’s framed No. 33 home jersey hangs in the Nutter Center locker room. He watches road games on TV. He is taking two online classes at Wright State. Ryan's Raiders are never too far away.
The family has plans to be in Detroit for the Horizon League Tournament and hopefully a berth to the NCAA Tournament after that. Custer is still a significant part of the team.
“Just seeing him kind of cheers everybody up,” Wright State coach Scott Nagy said. “We miss him. Not only from the standpoint of if he was on our basketball team he would be playing a lot but we just miss him because we like him and we are not around him like we were last year. He has a great personality and he is very funny. So when the guys do see him it certainly gives them a good lift mentally.”
An ability to inspire others
Custer routinely attends Elder basketball games and practices this winter. He spoke to the team for about 30 minutes before the season started in early December.
His message was simple. Make the most out of every opportunity. You have one chance at playing high school basketball.
You could hear a pin drop when he spoke to the players.
“He always had this personality that if you walked into the gym he had this energy,” Elder Assistant Basketball Coach Tim Austing said. “And probably the most amazing thing I can say is he is still that kid."
Coaches and administrators at Elder have been impacted by his strength and positivity under the circumstances. They were inspired by his ability to speak extemporaneously at a prayer service in September at Elder. They wonder if they’d have the same courage to face each day in Ryan’s shoes.
“You know it’s one of those life lessons that maybe re-centers you every now and again,” Elder Athletic Director Kevin Espelage said. “You realize someone so close to you has their life affected that way. It re-centers you and puts you back in perspective. It’s like, ‘Hey, take advantage of what you got. Be thankful. He’s definitely had a profound impact on our community. And I know the community loves having him around.”
Spinal cord injury patients have reached out on Facebook to Ryan on his recovery page. Ryan has offered to visit others. His academic pursuit is in business but his outlook on life may also give him a new path, too.
“We’ve always kidded Ryan because he is an outgoing person,” George said. “I’ve told him he’s got a great story to tell on how you can overcome a lot. We’ve always kidded him that being an inspirational speaker is his calling in life. We just have to figure out how to do that.”
Espelage says it’s easy to see how Ryan's puts others at ease. Nothing is forced. His magnetic personality is a blessing.
“It’s hard to put yourself in (the Custer family’s situation),” Espelage said.
“You don’t know what to say. You don’t know how to act. But his personality, his energy, his will, his drive -- instead of you providing the comfort and the encouragement you see him out and about and fighting like we would expect him to just knowing him. It gives me more comfort knowing that he’s a fighter and he is going to go on whatever comes of this and still be out and about. He is always good to see.”
Price thinks Custer is a perfect inspirational speaker. It goes beyond basketball. The community support has shown Ryan a new perspective.
“That affected him in a positive way to understand how many people were really in his corner, how many people were supporting him and how many people looked up to him in different ways -- not just basketball but the person he is,” Price said. “He has a great personality. He is very outgoing and is a very likable kid. He has a good sense of humor. All those positives that I don’t think he realized how many people appreciated all that about him before. I think that sort of lifts him up and energizes him.”
While Custer doesn’t want the spotlight, he sees an opportunity to impact lives. While those close to him struggle to understand the reality of his physical condition, Custer lifts their spirits.
“He wants to be a positive influence on other people,” Goff said. “Obviously his circumstances are not ideal. But he is handling it better than anybody can even imagine. I know if I was in his position I wouldn’t have handled it this well. He is a tremendous inspiration not only to our team but to us as people.”