Upper St. Clair's Rori Blair comes back a year after stroke sidelines him

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Rori Blair catches a pass, turns his chiseled 6-foot-3, 225-pound body to the right and briskly runs past a defender. As the 18-year-old repeats similar plays again and again during an Upper St. Clair football workout this past week, his father watches near the end zone of the field, realizing again how his son is beating the odds.

"Are we lucky that he's here?" Ty Kenney said, leaning against a fence and gazing out at his son. "I think it's more than luck. I think it's really a blessing."

Rori Blair has a real comeback story -- in the game of life.

It is hard to believe this is the same kid who only a year ago had to be resuscitated with paddles and chest compressions at a hospital after he flatlined from complications a few days after suffering a stroke. The youngster who was such a strong and vibrant athlete had trouble walking after the stroke, lost 50 pounds, spent a month in a hospital and another month in a rehabilitation center.

But life gave Blair another chance, and it set off a surreal chain reaction of second chances. A little more than a month ago, doctors cleared Blair to play football again. Upper St. Clair then appealed his case to the WPIAL, and the league gave Blair an extra year of eligibility, a chance to play his senior football season that he lost because of the stroke.

And recently, a few major colleges have presented Blair a chance at a football future. Pitt, West Virginia and Kent State have offered him football scholarships.

Never mind a comeback of the year story. Blair is a comeback for the ages.

"When I introduce him to people, I call him 'The Miracle,' " said Upper St. Clair football coach Jim Render.

Blair had showed plenty of football promise as a junior at Upper St. Clair in 2011. He was hoping for a big senior year, and then his life changed on an April weekend last year. Absolutely giddy after running the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds earlier in the day, Blair decided to stay a few days with his grandmother. But he developed a headache and it only grew worse the next day.

"I just remember that I kept sleeping, like all day," Blair said. "I remember my uncle saying I was sleeping too much. I said, 'No bro, I just have to sleep this off.' "

Blair talked to his father Saturday, April 7, and told him about the headache. They thought over-the-counter medicines would do the trick. Blair went home Easter Sunday -- and slept some more. The headache got worse and he slept through the family's Easter dinner.

Ty Kenney was to take his wife, Monika Marczak, and his son on vacation to the Dominican Republic the day after Easter. Blair didn't want to go because of the headache. Kenney noticed Blair talking "funny" Easter night, and the family decided Blair should go to the hospital.

Blair's parents took him to St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon. Within 10 minutes, Blair was airlifted by helicopter to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville. He had a hemorrhagic stroke -- bleeding of the brain, extremely unusual for his age. Blair was heavily sedated at Children's and doesn't remember much until 10 or 12 days later.

"He had a whole bunch of other complications," Kenney said. "His blood pressure went way down once and he flatlined and they had to bring him back."

Render, the winningest coach in WPIAL history, visited Blair often at the hospital.

"One of the nurses there recognized me and told me once, 'Coach, you are witnessing a miracle,' " Render said. "She said maybe only 1 percent of young people who come in there with what he had would survive."

Blair spent close to two weeks in intensive care. He had trouble talking after the stroke and was wobbly when he tried to walk.

"My Dad would show me a pen and say, 'What is this?' " Blair said. "I knew I had seen it before, but I couldn't say it. It just didn't make sense."

Afer the stroke, Blair's weight dropped from 230 pounds to 180. After a month in the hospital, he spent a month at The Children's Institute, a rehab center in Shadyside. He started to improve greatly.

Blair missed almost two months of school at the end of his junior year while recovering. Doctors didn't allow Blair to play last season, and he thought he might never play football again. But he continued to improve and doctors monitored his situation closely. Blair gained back his lost weight and was 100 percent physically before doctors cleared him to play again earlier this spring.

They said there is no danger to him playing again.

Blair said he is not afraid to play and his father isn't worried, either.

After Blair was cleared to play, Upper St. Clair appealed to the WPIAL for another year of eligibility. Under WPIAL and PIAA rules, a student-athlete can be granted extra eligibility because of illness or injury as long as the student-athlete 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 fit the criteria.

"It's not unheard of for our Board of Control to [grant extra eligibility]," said WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley. "I can tell you candidly, nobody on our board knew that [Blair] was a pretty good athlete. The information provided by Upper St. Clair and medical professionals is what factored into our decision."

After he was cleared to play, Pitt, West Virginia and Kent State offered scholarships. More offers could be on the way.

"I think in most cases, college coaches looked at his junior year highlights and liked what they saw," Render said. "I tell this to coaches who haven't seen him. He looks like [former North Hills star] LaVar Arrington at this age. I'm not saying he can play like LaVar, but when he walks in a room, the way he's built and the way he looks, it looks like LaVar."

Blair said he has no lasting physical effects from the stroke. But both he and his father say his short-term memory is sometimes a little foggy and Blair said he sometimes doesn't say a particular word right. But the ordeal has for sure changed him.

"I'm more into God now and church," Blair said.

He grabs a gold crucifix on a gold chain around his neck.

"I always wear this now," he said.

Football season is only a couple months away.

"Am I afraid? How do I say this," Blair said. "We're all put on this earth to do something, so why don't you just work hard and find out something that you can do. For now, that's football. I know football won't last forever, but right now it's my first goal to play again."

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Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh


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