BY JEFF FALK
Ryan Neiswender is a figure on the local sports scene who many people don’t know. But he is a person, everyone should familiarize themselves with.
For those who don’t know him, here are the most important things to remember about Neiswender – in ascending order of importance:
4. He is a wheelchair athlete.
3. He is a multi-sport athlete.
2. He is a student-athlete.
1. His unwavering character and spirit make him a positive influence on every life he comes in contact with.
The first thing people notice about Neiswender is related to his physicality, what he can and can’t do with his legs. The last thing they discover about him is the kind of person he is.
Don’t ask Neiswender which is more important. To get to know him is to like him.
“Just growing up I was always a competitive person,” said Neiswender. “Losing is not in my vocabulary. The competitive nature of sports brings out the best in me. The biggest thing about sports is it teaches you about life. If you don’t work hard, you’re not going to get the most out of it.
“I enjoy playing tennis,” Neiswender continued. “What I like most is the guys on my team. They don’t treat me any different, and they are the best guys I have ever met. I’m really going to miss those senior guys. I’ve become great friends with them. That’s one of the reasons I got into tennnis.”
Neiswender, a junior on the Cedar Crest boys’ tennis team, has been afflicted with arthrogryposis since birth. The fact that the affiliction has affected Neiswender’s ability to move and flex his legs has not deterred him from playing tennis in a specially out-fitted wheelchair.
“You can look at it that way (that it’s a handicap),” said Neiswender. “When you’re faced with something you can’t do anything about, your body adjusts. But it has provided me with an opportunity to inspire people.
“It can’t be fixed,” continued Neiswender. “My legs don’t go completely straight. There’s no cure. It won’t get better and it won’t get worse.”
“I have a really, really mild case of it. It usually affects all four limbs, but I only have it in my legs. My leg braces lock to help me walk.”
“Ryan is such a neat kid,” said Cedar Crest head coach Mike Rohrbach. “Everyone treats him like he’s one of the group. He’s not treated any better or any worse than anyone else. When he’s out there (on the court), he’s going to beat up on you. And he wants your best.”
On a team of 36 players, Neiswender is ranked tenth in the pecking order. Because the top six or seven players see the majority of the varsity playing time, Neiswender rarely finds his way into the lineup.
But his value to the team can not be measured in that way.
“On my team, I’m number ten,” said Neiswender. “I know I’m not the best player, but I’m in a wheelchair. I want to get it (the word) out there. Even though you’re disabled you can do amazing things and can compete with other players.
“When I first started I knew how to push a wheelchair,” Neiswender added. “It’s definitely different holding a tennis racquet in your hand and holding a wheelchair in your hand. If I don’t put a point away early, then they (his opponents) can lob it over my head and I won’t be able to get it. There’s more strategy in wheelchair tennis. You’ve got to be able to think things through.”
“It’s flat-out amazing,” said Rohrbach, “how he does it technically. He’s got to be able to move his chair back and forth and side to side. And be strong enough to hit a tennis ball. His upper-body strength is amazing. It takes more focus and work than anybody on the tennis court.
“I remember Ryan hanging out with the basketball team,” added Rohrbach. “He was always doing the (score)book and shooting. And I found out he was a tennis player and immediately I wanted him to play for the team. It was almost a no-brainer.”
Sure Neiswender is an accomplished tennis player, but it is not his best sport. He just happens to be playing tennis because it’s tennis season.
“That’s pretty much what it is,” said Neiswender. “During basketball season my best sport is basketball. I go from sport to sport. Now it’s tennis season.
“I try to do everything,” added Neiswender. “I play anything everybody else does. I can throw a ball 30-40 yards. You’ve got to try everything because if you don’t you’re not going to know what you can and can’t do. The sky’s the limit for me.”
“He makes everyone more competitive,” said Rohrbach. “He’s going to make any team better. When you talk about team chemistry or a ‘clubhouse guy’, Ryan Neiswender would be your first pick. We’re definitely better with him. He’s not scored a point for us yet. But without him, we wouldn’t have the energy he brings. You can’t put a statistic on that.
“He’s so optimistic,” Rohrbach continued. “In a big match, he’s the loudest guy. He’s been a big part of the team for three years now.”
Neiswender plays basketball at such a high level that he is currently being offered athletic grants-in-aid to play the sport at the college level. Currently, Illinois, Missouri and Texas-Arlington, among other schools, have expressed an interest in Neiswender’s talents.
“I play tennis as a hobby,” said Neiswender. “It’s more of a fun thing. I’ve played more basketball. I’m a better basketball player. My disability has some disappointments, but it has also provided me with some opportunities.”
“I think of him as a baksetball player,” said Rohrbach. “If you’re going to get a scholarship to play basketball, then you’re a basketball player.”
Obviously there are some sports that Neiswender can’t play. Soccer tops that list.
Neiswender’s father Daryl has served as both the boys’ and girls’ head soccer coach at Cedar Crest, and he pretty much grew up around the sport.
“That’s the sport I haven’t been able to play,” said Neiswender. “You’ve got to be good with your feet. If I wouldn’t have been born with a disability, I would’ve played soccer because I grew up around the sport. If I could physically be able to do it, I’d like to be on the team. I can see it, but I can’t do it myself. I guess that’s sort of like being a coach.
“But anybody who has a disability shouldn’t think, ‘poor me’,” Neiswender concluded. “They should think about how they can play sports, think of what they can do. You can do anything you set your mind to.”