Stroke doesn’t stop USC’s Blair
Stroke doesn’t stop Rori Blair
When Upper St. Clair battles Woodland Hills at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 30 in the 2013 high school football kick-off classic, Rori Blair, no doubt, will command the focus of fans, players and coaches. Even ESPN has decided to cover the contest, pitting the top two teams in the WPIAL’s top classification.
At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Blair, of course, cannot escape scrutiny. He’s not only a University of Pittsburgh recruit, but he’s a tight end that can cover 40 yards in 4.52 seconds and a defensive end that can deliver a devastating tackle. Plus, Blair is a stroke survivor.
“It’s a miracle that he’s alive,” said USC head coach Jim Render. “Only 1 percent of people who had what he had survive.”
What Blair had on Good Friday, April 6, 2012, was a headache. During a visit to his grandma’s house, the discomfort that “just popped up” in his brain and fatigued him so that he slept through the family’s Easter celebration and canceled a vacation trip to the Dominican Republic was diagnosed as a hemorrhagic stroke.
“I didn’t feel like eating, just sleeping,” recalled Blair, who had just turned 17 that spring. “I was sleeping for like the whole weekend. We did not go on vacation.”
Instead, Ty Kenney took his son to St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon. A Life Flight helicopter transported him to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville. “I don’t remember anything after that,” Blair said. “All I know is that I woke up to what I thought was the next day but it had been days really.”
During what turned out to be a two-week hospital stay, immediately following the bleeding of his brain, quite a bit happened. While sedated, Blair’s blood pressure fell substantially. He flatlined but was resuscitated. Blair spent the next month at the Children’s Institute recovering and rehabilitating.
Because the stroke zapped him of strength, he underwent physical therapy. “I had weakness in my legs,” he explained. “I stumbled a lot but I never fell.”
PT was not hard because Blair was an athlete. “It wasn’t bad because I knew I could get that back,” he said. “It was quicker to relearn.”
Learning to talk again, however, proved a challenge for Blair, who couldn’t remember anything. “My memory was real bad and my speech was not great,” he said.
Render remembers how terrible things really were because he visited Blair often. The USC skipper drilled his player, using flash cards and memory cues. He posed questions and offered answers. For example, he asked Blair where the WPIAL championships for football are held and then suggested choices, A, B, C or 1, 2 or 3. “He couldn’t say Heinz Field, but he would say 3 or C,” Render recalled. “He’d always get them all right although he couldn’t actually say the words.”
Inability to communicate normally frustrated Blair the most during the rehabilitation process. “Finding the right words and talking, period,” he said, were the most difficult part of recovery. “Remembering how to speak.
“Without being able to talk, without being able to understand or be understood makes you mad. It’s like being a baby. A baby knows what it wants but can’t say it and the parents don’t know what it is that the baby wants or is trying to say.
“I’m a people person. I’m not shy,” continued Blair flashing a wide smile. “So being unable to talk was difficult. It was the hardest thing.”
As a player, the hardest part of last season was standing on the sidelines watching helplessly as his team faltered in the WPIAL semifinals. After claiming the conference championship, the Panthers lost a rematch with Woodland Hills and watched the Wolverines, instead, advance to Heinz Field to play in the Quad-A championship contest.
“I was always anxious and upset at what happened and knowing that I could help the team but couldn’t,” he said.
Thanks to an exemption, Blair can once again help his teammates. Cleared by doctors to play this season, Blair needed an extension from the league regarding his scholastic eligibility, however.
Under WPIAL and PIAA rules, a student-athlete can be granted extra eligibility because of illness or injury as long as the individual is still age eligible, missed more than 45 days of school in a semester or 60 in a year because of the injury, and didn’t participate in more than 25 percent of regular season contests in a sport. Blair, who missed two months of school at the end of his junior year, fulfilled the requisites.
Returning to the team as a contributing player, however, is a bit awkward for Blair, who would have been part of the Class of 2013 were it not for his medical condition. Up to the point of his stroke, Blair had been an honors student, pulling down a 3.6 GPA.
“I hadn’t missed a day of school and now I’m getting a 3.0, which is not good,” he said. “That’s upsetting but it’s making me work harder.
“And,” he added, “it’s different not playing with my graduating classmates. This is like somebody else’s team.”
That may just be a memory lapse, though. Before his near-death experience, Blair started at tight end and defensive end. “He was a good player as a junior,” Render said. “The only thing he may be right now is rusty as a player. He is tall, has arm length and his quickness is good. Rori brings a lot of things to the table. Most do not have what he has.”
Few have Blair’s outlook.
This fall, he hopes to help USC win a championship and get his share of sacks and tackles on defense. At Pitt, he also would like to contribute to a championship. By playing in the NFL or applying his business degree to a professional career, Blair hopes to provide for his family.
As for his hopes and dreams for the future, he said, “I want to make sure that my family is taken care of and help people who don’t have what I have in life.”
A second chance in life is what Blair received. While sometimes he asks ‘why me?’ he never dwells on the negative aspects of the stroke.
“When this happened, I didn’t think about the badness. I looked at it as a blessing to me. In life, stuff happens, but it always helps you grow. Life is difficult. It’s all real. There is nothing sugar-coated about it. You take what life gives you and that’s what makes you the person that you are.”
According to Blair, possessing such an attitude enabled him to regain his health quicker. His determination and drive also contributed to his return from what had been projected as a three-year recovery.
“In whatever it is, I always try to work harder than anybody,” he said. “You are not always going to be the best at everything, though. And, you can’t say that you are the greatest because that’s when you will fall and you will fall hard.”
“But,” Blair added, “you always have to push yourself.”
Because Blair pushed himself, he earned scholarship offers from Pitt and Kent State. Blair picked Pitt because he said the coaches were very genuine.
“Pitt did a good job,” Render said. “They did their homework both medically and physically. They did not hesitate when they offered Rori.”
Without hesitation, Render describes his delight as he watches Blair practice.
“To see Rori running and playing, being jovial and happy, it’s wonderful,” Render said. “When you know where he was and where he is, it’s a wonderful story.”
According to Blair, the saga is filled with many lessons. “Don’t give up,” he said. “If you feel like you are not going to make it, keep going. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. So take each day as it comes and treat each day at a time by itself. I know that is what helped me overcome my adversity and helped me realize my dreams.”
Father: Ty Kenney
Mother: Del Blair
Stepmom: Monika Marczak
Sibling: Tai Kenney.
School: Upper St. Clair
Offense or defense: Defense because I hate waiting for the ball. I’d rather just take it away.
College choice: Pitt
Goals: Win WPIAL title. Help Pitt win an NCAA championship. Play in the NFL.
Favorite color: Black
Spare time entertainment: Playing video games.
Who would play you in a movie: Denzel Washington
Favorite athlete: Michael Jordan
Favorite NFL player & franchise: Troy Polamalu and the Steelers, of course.
Favorite food: Chinese
Sweet treat: Pound cake
Most influential person in your life: My dad.