They stood just a few yards off the court at the Nutter Center talking about the way their son was being made part of Wright State basketball’s Senior Day festivities.
“Everybody here has done so much for him these past few years,” Kim Custer was saying of her 22-year-old son Ryan. “He just feels so much love here.”
At that very moment WSU athletics director Bob Grant walked up and whispered into the ear of her husband George, who turned toward the court and when he saw what was happening for himself, his chin quivered, his lips pursed and the tears began to fill his eyes.
“Big Lou is wearing Ryan’s jersey!” he said quietly.
Soon Kim was in tears, as well.
In front of the Raiders’ bench – at the end of which their son, in his wheelchair, was encamped at his usual spot — Loudon Love, WSU’s muscled 6-foot-8 junior center known to everyone as Big Lou, had removed his warm up.
Instead of his usual No. 11 jersey, he was wearing No. 33.
The last time that jersey was on the court for Wright State was March 5, 2017, at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. It was the first round of the Horizon League Tournament and 6-foot-7 freshman Ryan Custer was wearing it.
Just 34 days later he suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury after a freak accident. Jumping into a makeshift swimming pool set up at a big party near the Miami University campus in Oxford, he’d hit someone’s knee, landed wrong and fractured his C-5 vertebrae.
He was airlifted to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and a few months later underwent special stem cell therapy at Chicago’s Rush Hospital. Since then he has had ongoing vigorous therapy, but still remains relegated to a wheelchair with no feeing or movement from the chest down.
Since the injury his jersey has mostly hung in the WSU dressing room, not so much as a tribute to what once was, but as a reminder of what Ryan Custer is now.
“He’s the heart of this team,” Love said Sunday after the Raiders routed IUPUI, 106-66, to lift their record to 23-5.
And Love’s jersey switch was just one example of that embrace Ryan Custer feels at WSU.
Sunday it was everywhere you looked.
As players do every game when they come out of the game, they make their way along the bench to fist bump the players and coaches sitting there. And they always finish the bonding move in front of Custer, who they either tap, lean down and hug or, in the case of since-graduated Mark Hughes last season, give him a kiss on the cheek and say “I love you!”
Sitting up in the stands Sunday was former Raiders player Mike LaTulip.
The one season Custer played for the Raiders – after a prep career at Cincinnati Elder – LaTulip had joined the team as a grad transfer from Illinois. The two struck a special bond then and it strengthened after Custer got hurt.
LaTulip spent day and night at the hospital and in the months that followed he often was at the Custer home in Delhi Township hanging out with Ryan. And they often sat next to each other at the end of the bench at home games last season.
“Mike’s getting married next May and he’s having Ryan in his wedding,” Kim said.
Then she grinned and whispered: “And Ryan is so nervous about being in that wedding.”
George nodded: “He always wears shorts, never pants, and he’s going to have to wear tuxedo pants.”
After all he’s handled Ryan was asked: “How that can be?”
“I know I get worried about the stupidest stuff,” he said.
He’ll handle it said his teammates. He handles everything.
That’s why Nick Goff, WSU’S director of basketball operations, and his wife Janae, decided to name their son after Custer.
Clayton Ryan Goff is a handsome, energetic 18 month old who has a lot to live up to, his dad said:
“Ryan has shown a lot of courage and strength through everything that’s happened to him,” Goff said. “He is our family hero. So the least I could do was name my son after him.
“Hopefully one day he’ll live up to his name and be as big of a man as Ryan is. I hope our boy shows those same traits no matter what happens to him.”
George and Kim Custer had touched on that earlier.
He admitted the situation still “sucks” and she said “it doesn’t get easier.”
But the saving grace they both agreed was the strength their son has given them.
“He carries (the burden) every day, but his attitude is unbelievable,” George said. “If he didn’t have that kind of attitude, it would be absolutely horrific.”
Ryan said embracing the attitude he has was simple:
“Sure the accident changed my whole life, but I want to live my life the way I want to. And even though I have a great support system, it’s up to me. When it comes down to it, I’m the only one that’s gonna get me out of my situation.”
He’s been doing a good job of it, too
He has therapy twice a week and he’s a full time student at the University of Cincinnati, where his mom said he has a 3.87 grade point average. He’ll graduate next year.
He coaches a fifth grade basketball team near their home and he’s getting ready to begin driving on his own.
His van is getting fitted with hand controls in Columbus and he’s had some lessons.
“Now my husband and I are fighting over who has to ride home with him from Columbus,” Kim laughed.
So has she ridden with him yet?
“Helllll no!” she said grinning
Once he drives, Ryan will be able to come to WSU games on his own next season.
“He’s always in a good mood when we come home from a Wright State game,” Kim said.
Thanks to coach Scott Nagy and his staff – and former coach Billy Donlon who recruited him – Custer said he feels a part of this team. He has a special kinship with Love who often comes down to the Custer home for holidays and other occasions.
Several players actually visit there during the year and some of Ryan’s former teammates were at the Senior Day celebration to honor him, Cole Gentry, Bill Wampler and Jordan Ash.
Several of Custer’s grade school and high school buddies showed up, too, as did his entire family, including his sister Danielle, who flew in from New York.
Love, one of six Raiders in double figures saluted him with an 18 point and eight rebound performance. And Goff’s son made him smile as he played on the court near him after the festivities.
And then there was the woman from the crowd who summed up the day when – in a moment of silence – she yelled:
“We love you Ryan!”
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