DELHI TOWNSHIP, Ohio — He's still the same Ryan Custer.
Whether he's cracking a joke, eating three (or four) cheese coneys, talking fantasy football or taking a recent drive around the West Side, the 22-year-old has plenty to smile about this spring.
"I want the best life I possibly can have for myself," Custer said. "There is no point in sitting back and feeling sorry for yourself."
The former Wright State University basketball player and Elder High School standout represents a spirit of determination and love of life; those characteristics exceed his partial paralysis.
"I'm in a really good place," Custer said. "I couldn't be happier for the situation I'm in, and I think that's a testament to my parents — how they raised me, how they brought me up. I have such a good support system. There's really no reason for me not to feel like this."
No adversity can overshadow the 6-foot-7 Custer. His confidence radiates. His upbeat personality is magnetic.
"I could go on and on, but he really is the best big brother and the best friend," said McKenzie Custer, Ryan's younger sister. "He's awesome and I'm just amazed every day by how he gets up and fights and chooses to live his life with such a positive mentality."
Custer refuses to be defined by what happened three years ago this month near Miami University. He prefers to focus not on what he lost in a makeshift pool accident; he sustained a critical spinal cord injury that shattered his C5 vertebrae. Instead, he's grateful for how much he has accomplished.
"You know from where I'm at right now three years ago I never would have expected it," he said. "And obviously there is things I wish I could be better at. I wish I was a better person. I wish I'd be walking right now, but I'm not. It's kind of like, you have to take the small victories instead of just the big ones. The days where you wake up and you might feel a little stronger, you might feel a little happier. You got to take and try to build on it every day."
Custer continues to enjoy one of those victories this month by driving a modified 2019 Toyota Sienna around his family's Delhi Township neighborhood and taking short trips to visit relatives.
Custer is slowly getting accustomed to controlling the gas and brake with a lever in his left hand and using his right hand to control a miniature steering wheel. He's able to maneuver the turn signals and horn with a button he hits with his head.
"He's definitely getting better," McKenzie said. "It's nerve-wracking. It's so different, but it's so cool to see how it works and also how he's adapting. It's a new challenge for him every day, but he loves it. You can tell he's getting more comfortable."
Custer likes to tell his sister he wants to drive one day until the map turns blue. His shorter-term goal is to make a dine-in trip to his favorite Skyline Chili location on Glenway Avenue.
"So as soon as it's open, I'm definitely going to drive my family there," Custer said. "I don't know who is going to pay, but I'm definitely going to drive."
After taking driving classes at the Ohio State University and receiving his license in July 2019, Custer has embraced the road and another milestone in his recovery.
"I think it's a big deal for him to get that independence back," said Mike LaTulip, Custer's former Wright State teammate. "I think he sees even now, three years down the line, the support that he has from people hasn't wavered at all. So I think that gives him confidence as well."
Custer's confidence is also evident as a University of Cincinnati student.
He carries a 3.8 grade-point average as a communications major with a minor in marketing. He's on track to graduate with McKenzie in spring 2021.
"The world's his oyster," LaTulip said. "I think he has a future and he can really pick his path. Whether it's broadcasting or even being a motivational speaker. I think the unique part about Ryan is he articulates his situation extremely well, but I think he has an ability to see it from somewhat of a bird's-eye view and to be able to take in all kinds of perspectives. That's something that has been such an unbelievable trait of his."
Custer enjoyed the opportunity to take classes at UC and visit nearby Good Samaritan Hospital twice a week for physical therapy.
All of that has been put on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak, but Custer is finding ways of doing some therapy at home while staying in contact with family members and friends.
Kim Custer, Ryan's mother, is still amazed at how her son perseveres inside the family home.
"Really, when you look at Ryan's life, besides him now getting to go to school — this is Ryan's life every day," Kim said. "You know, when I hear people whining about being home or just hanging with their family, I'm like, 'He does this every day.'"
Custer doesn't feel the need to vent. His Twitter bio contains a motto he created in class earlier this year: "What's done is done. Fight on."
He is doing just that every 24 hours, inspiring others on his path.
"I believe that good things are going to come from this," Custer said. "Whether it's me walking or just me helping some other person out that might have been feeling down. I know, obviously, that some positive is going to come from this. I just got to keep praying and keep the faith and just keep going."