Ryan Custer is a loving son and brother, a loyal friend and teammate.
The 6-foot-7, 200-pound former basketball player at Wright State University is, at his core, a fighter and an inspiration, as he deals with partial paralysis.
“I say all the time that Ryan carries the day,” his father, George Custer said. “His attitude is awesome. Every morning he has a smile on his face. He looks at it bravely and carries on.”
Nearly 10 months after the Wright State basketball player and former Elder High School standout suffered a critical spinal cord injury in which he shattered his C5 vertebrae in a makeshift pool accident near Miami University, his approach to life has impacted more people than he could ever imagine.
“I thought I was going to be a kid who did not want to go out at all and just sit in my room and feel sorry for myself,” Ryan Custer said. “As soon as I realized that this couldn’t beat me I started fighting it and never looked back.”
There are still good days and bad days for the Custers: parents George and Kim and their three other children Nick, Danielle and Mckenzie.
His therapist recently told the family that Ryan is able to stand for 25 minutes on a standing frame with support from others for balance.
However, the injection of some 10 million stem cells last summer in Chicago has not had the hoped impact. There are other possible studies that could help him in the future, but Ryan and his family have to remain patient.
“I want people to take this as it’s not as bad as you think it is,” Custer said. “In a way there are always worse things that can happen. That’s what I want people to take from this.”
Therein lies his impact on a community of supporters — from Elder and the West Side to the Wright State community to the general public in Greater Cincinnati — that continue to visit, pray, offer Mass, send jars of holy water from everywhere, bring cookies, post well-wishes on social media and donate money for his recovery effort.
The 2016 Elder graduate arrived at Wright State eager for another challenge. He averaged 9.8 minutes in 32 games as a freshman and was expected to be a starter or sixth man this season.
Even more than basketball was the sense that Custer was one of the guys on and off the court. That lasting impression was the most important.
Wright State Director of Basketball Operations Nick Goff saw that immediately when the two met in the summer of 2016.
“If you ask anybody on our team who is the best teammate or the closest friend, two-thirds of the guys would probably say him,” Goff said. “And that’s a freshman on the basketball team.”
The Wright State players and coaches keep in close contact with Ryan and his family since the injury. Goff helps to coordinate home game tickets for the Custers.
They attended the Wright State at Miami University game in mid-November. George debated whether he could return to Oxford so soon. The emotion was heavy while in Millett Hall.
“Watching that game, I could see him on the court,” George Custer said. “Sometimes I could actually see him running the floor and shooting. It’s tough.”
Teammates text Custer and visit when they can; the support is genuine. Ryan said seeing the Wright State players is good therapy. In short, they’d do anything for him.
“In terms of perseverance and in terms of toughness we’d be here until midnight if I went on down the list,” former Wright State guard Mike LaTulip said. “I knew he was a tough kid. I knew he was the type of kid who would persevere through stuff. Seeing how he has dealt with this right from the beginning — it has inspired me and a lot of people. When you have a friend and a teammate like that you know he’d support you the same way. He would do the exact same thing for me.”
Custer’s framed No. 33 home jersey hangs in the Nutter Center lockerroom. He watches road games on TV. He is taking two online classes at Wright State. Ryan’s Raiders are never too far away.
The family has plans to be in Detroit for the Horizon League Tournament and hopefully a berth to the NCAA Tournament after that. Custer is still a significant part of the team.
“Just seeing him kind of cheers everybody up,” Wright State coach Scott Nagy said. “We miss him. Not only from the standpoint of if he was on our basketball team he would be playing a lot but we just miss him because we like him and we are not around him like we were last year. He has a great personality and he is very funny. So when the guys do see him it certainly gives them a good lift mentally.”
Custer routinely attends Elder basketball games and practices this winter. He spoke to the team for about 30 minutes before the season started in early December.
His message was simple. Make the most out of every opportunity. You have one chance at playing high school basketball.
You could hear a pin drop when he spoke to the players.
“He always had this personality that if you walked into the gym he had this energy,” Elder Assistant Basketball Coach Tim Austing said. “And probably the most amazing thing I can say is he is still that kid.”
While Custer doesn't want the spotlight, he sees an opportunity to impact lives. While those close to him struggle to understand the reality of his physical condition, Custer lifts their spirits.
“He wants to be a positive influence on other people,”Goff said. “Obviously, his circumstances are not ideal. But he is handling it better than anybody can even imagine. I know if I was in his position I wouldn’t have handled it this well. He is a tremendous inspiration not only to our team but to us as people.”