Gorman: Blair's return from stroke a 'miracle to watch'
Rori Blair marked his return to WPIAL football at 7:41 of the second quarter, stretching out to block a punt that bounced out of the end zone for a safety and a 9-7 lead.
Technically, Blair was back for Upper St. Clair on the opening kickoff Friday night in its 16-10 victory over Woodland Hills at the Wolvarena.
But, at first, Blair wasn't quite himself. He whiffed on his first block. On defense, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound end used a swim move to get into the backfield, then overran the ball carrier.
An excited but nervous Ty Kenney watched his son from the bleachers, watching Rori's body language to see signs of anything amiss.
“Just to see him out there standing on the field and playing in a real game is good,” Kenney said. “We were just really worried about getting him healthy, just getting him back up to speed mentally and getting his brain to function right again.”
Blair is one of the more remarkable comeback stories you'll hear. Sixteen months after suffering a stroke, he was back on the football field to complete a senior season once thought lost.
On Easter Sunday 2012, bleeding on the brain caused by an arteriovenous malformation — a rare tangle of blood vessels that diverts blood from the arteries to the veins — and left him with a pounding headache.
Soon, Blair was flown by helicopter to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, where he spent weeks in recovery. In November, Blair was playing in the WPIAL Class AAAA championship at Heinz Field. Months later, he had flatlined and was fighting for his life.
Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render didn't realize the seriousness of Blair's condition until he visited him in the hospital. A nurse who recognized Render took him aside and shared a secret.
“She said, ‘Coach, you're witnessing a miracle.' She said most kids who come in there in that condition, only about 1 percent make it,” he said. “That hit me hard, but I was certainly glad I was part of that miracle to watch.”
Render recalled showing flashcards to Blair, suffering short-term memory loss after gamma-knife surgery, to teach him the alphabet.
Blair slowly recovered but wasn't cleared by doctors to play last season. So he stood on the sidelines, feeling vibrant and looking like the picture of health but relegated to cheering on his teammates in street clothes.
“That was very nerve-wracking,” Blair said. “I wanted to play. For your doctor to tell you that you can't, I was like, ‘But I'm ready!'
“At first I was upset, anxious and ready to play. To see my team doing great without me, I was very pretty proud of my team. Every time I'd see them play, I'd just work harder to get back. I feel pretty happy now that I came over my obstacles.
“I'm ready to play some football.”
Blair had lost 50 pounds but gained it back and then some. He received medical clearance in June, then was granted an extra semester of eligibility by the WPIAL to play this fall. Blair realized another dream: accepting a scholarship offer to play football at Pitt.
After months of uncertainty, his future finally was becoming clear.
“We didn't know if the doctor would clear him to play or if the aneurysm had shrunk or if the WPIAL would grant him another season to play,” Render said. “When we played that 2012 season, we had no idea of whether we'd ever see him on the field again.
“To see where he was then and where he is now, first of all it's very gratifying that he's alive. The fact that he gets to play football and enjoy what amounts to his senior season, it's wonderful.”
But Blair still had to play in a football game for it to feel real. He runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.7-second range but had to take baby steps in learning the footwork required to play end.
Upper St. Clair coaches were cautious, bringing Blair along slowly. He still has memory lapses, concentration issues and takes longer to process his thoughts and respond to orders. And he was still relatively new to the game, a raw talent.
“It's like starting over,” said long-time USC assistant Chuck McKinney, who works with defensive ends. “He wants to have arrived. I said, ‘Rori, you've got to work on all of those little things again.' He can play, but can he be better after a year off? That's not easy.”
Blair counts his blessings to be able to play football again. He doesn't dwell on the ordeal he's endured, focusing instead on the positives.
“I don't think too much about that,” Blair said. “I'm just trying to get better. It makes me take my time. I think about each day, try to get better each day.”
That's why Kenney and his wife, Monika Marczak, were relieved to see Blair's blocked punt. They turned to each other and said that it was like the old Rori was back.
“This is going to be a season-long thing for me,” Kenney said with a sigh. “Any game something can happen. That's hard to deal with, hard to watch as a parent. But that's the game.”
This one was a miracle to watch.