Archdeacon: Teammates’ friendship grows into life-saving bond

Anthony Carmichael was Waynesville High School’s stellar quarterback. Riley Blankenship was the Spartans’ standout wide receiver. More than just two of the best football players in school history, they were best friends.

“Since they were little, they were inseparable,” said Julie Carmichael, Anthony’s mother. “They were as close as two buddies can be. A lot of people say they even look alike. Like they’re brothers.”

Jen Warren, Riley’s mom, agreed: “They are true brothers. Not biologically, but in every other sense of the word. They’re brothers from another mother.”

On the field, that bond showed. Anthony would throw the ball where he knew his buddy soon would be. And Riley, sensing his pal’s passing prowess, was there to make the “oh my gosh!” catch.

“They were just a great duo,” said Jen. “They were amazing together. They broke all kinds of records.”

By the time their 2018 senior seasons had ended, Anthony had set seven quarterbacking records at Waynesville and Riley owned three major, all-time receiving records at the school.

After graduation, they hoped to showcase the magical connection even more and they did, though not where, or how, they ever dreamed….Or wanted.

They were freshmen teammates —and roommates — at tradition-rich Wittenberg University but did not play much that first season. Then the Covid pandemic hit and when Wittenberg cancelled football for the next season, Anthony and Riley came back to Waynesville and reassessed their futures.

Anthony decided to start working and today is a lineman for AES Ohio.

Riley enrolled at Bowling Green and joined the Ohio Air National Guard.

“Not being in football anymore, I still wanted to push myself physically and I saw the Guard as a good opportunity to do that,” Riley said. “It also would help me pay for my schooling , so I didn’t have to worry about that so much. And I felt I’d be helping my country.”

On the evening of Sept. 16, 2022 — before he would report for drills the next day with the 121st Air Refueling Wing at the Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base outside Columbus — he returned home to Waynesville to have dinner with his mom and stepdad, David Warren, his sister Reese, and his brother Joey.

Early that next morning he had coffee with his mom and left for Guard duty.

“I had just gotten out of the shower and was getting ready for work and my husband said, ‘I don’t know why, but I’m hearing a lot of sirens. It can’t be Riley though. He’s got to be farther down the road,’” Jen remembered.

“My husband has a sense though. He’s a first responder — a sergeant with Kettering police — and there’s always something in the back of his mind going on.

“I didn’t think any more of it ….until the phone rang.

“It was a police officer and he said, ‘Are you Riley Blankenship’s mom?’

“My heart sank, and I said ‘Yes?’

“He said, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your son was involved in a bad accident and he’s being CareFlighted to Miami Valley Hospital.’

“As soon as I heard that I couldn’t talk, could hardly stand, and I gave the phone to my husband.

“When he finished talking to them, he calmed me down and said, ‘You need to finish getting dressed, compose yourself and we need to get to the hospital. All I know is that Riley has some leg damage.’

“But I knew you don’t get CareFlighted just for a broken leg. I knew it was bad.”

She was right.

‘Brother’ at his side

“I don’t remember a lot of it, I think my brain has blocked out a lot of that memory to help me deal with it,” Riley said.

“I don’t think I was more than five minutes from home — on Centerville Road, which is a two-lane country road — when a guy coming from the other direction went left of center and hit me head on. The speed limit was 50 and my car (a Mazda sedan) was demolished.

“I remember fading in and out after the crash and kind of waking up once and seeing my femur sticking out of my leg.

“Then I kind of remember the EMT or the police or fire department or somebody being there and me being put on the CareFlight.”

His mom said she and her husband managed to get back to the Trauma I room at Miami Valley: “Riley was lying there, and it was bad.

“He had a brain bleed, and his legs were so bad they couldn’t do surgery right away. They had to figure out a plan. One of his kneecaps was almost completely gone and the other was shattered into pieces. His left femur was broken in several places.”

Anthony and his mom got word soon after it happened and, with another friend, they rushed to the hospital, as did some more of Riley’s friends and other family members.

Because COVID precautions prevented anyone but next of kin from entering the hospital, the group congregated in the parking lot and cried and prayed and worried:

“We heard all kinds of things: amputation, paralysis…and worse,” Julie said. “At first, we weren’t sure he was going to live.”

Anthony said: “I had taken that same road earlier in the morning when I was headed to Xenia. To have a head-on crash on that road, he’s lucky to be alive.”

Eventually, Jen came out to the parking lot. While she felt better about her son’s survival, the fear was that he may not be able to walk again. At least not like he once had.

By the second day, Jen knew she had to do one thing for her son.

She had to get Anthony to his bedside.

She managed to get him into Riley’s room and her son was immediately uplifted.

Anthony gave him a new strength, some hope, and the realization he wasn’t in this alone.

His “brother” was at his side.

For the week and a half Riley was at Miami Valley and then through his stay at the Atrium Medical Center in Middletown, Anthony often slept in his hospital room at night.

Once Riley came home — after his parents quickly fitted their place with handicap railings and other safety precautions — Anthony started spending most nights there, as well as any days off he got.

“He was a godsend,” Jen said. “In the beginning Riley couldn’t do anything — couldn’t take a shower or even go to the bathroom without help — and Anthony was there for him.

“Riley would lie in bed and watch TV and Anthony would lie down next to him and watch, too.”

They were side by side for movies, lots of episodes of Law and Order, video games and especially the Cleveland Browns games on Sundays.

When Riley was experiencing excruciating pain in his feet because of nerve damage, Anthony rubbed them to try to give him some relief.

Through Riley’s strenuous rehab sessions, Anthony often was there to push him just like they did with each in football two-a-days.

“That’s what anybody hopes for with your child — that they’ll show kindness and care for others — but it didn’t surprise me with Anthony,” Julie said. “That’s who he is. He’s always had a sweet and tender heart. He’s ultra-sensitive when it comes to taking care of people.

“I had a niece, Anthony’s cousin, who battled brain cancer for 10 years. My kids grew up knowing to take care of her.”

Riley — who first was confined to a wheelchair and eventually worked his way to crutches, knee braces and finally a cane — was forced to drop out of college for a year.

Now he said doctors have told him the rigors of the Guard are too much and he’ll be forced to take a medical discharge.

In the early going, both his mom and stepdad took off from work. “He needed care 24/7.” said Jen, who works at a Centerville hair salon.

Eventually Anthony would come and stay with Riley so Jen and David could go to school activities and sporting events of their younger children. And he helped free them up so they could go back to work.

“I start to cry when I think how they have each other’s backs,” Jen said. “And Anthony taken it to a different level.

“What he’s done, kids that age just don’t do that.”

‘Instant connection’

Anthony and his family moved to Waynesville from Kettering right after Christmas break when he was in fifth grade.

His mom said the boys had “an instant connection.”

It started through sports and then eventually Riley and his family moved across the street from Anthony and his family.

“After that they were inseparable,” Julie said.

That’s especially been the case since the crash.

As Anthony put it, “he lost a ton of weight after his accident” and had to relearn everything from how to stand and walk to how to cope. Riley still has considerable pain and struggles with being on his legs or even sitting for any length of time.

After the crash, the guy who hit him pleaded guilty in court for causing the crash, was fined and lost his license for a while.

Riley, meanwhile, admits he’s had some continuing struggles.

“One of the hardest things was just seeing all my friends going on with their lives and enjoying themselves.

“I’ve worried I won’t be able to be what I once was and I’m not sure of the future. If I have kids one day, will I be able to play sports with them and get out there and run with them?

“Thankfully, Anthony’s been there to help me through it. He’s been my friend for over 10 years and has been one of the most important people in my life. I wouldn’t trade our bond for anything.”

The two buddies — both are 23 — have girlfriends, too.

In January, Riley started dating Bailey Weaver, who had been a good friend and is a BGSU cheerleader from Barberton.

Anthony’s girlfriend, Marcella Sizer, is from Waynesville. She played soccer at Youngstown State for three years and then transferred to Wright State, where she played for the Raiders for two seasons and is finishing her master’s degree.

Both Riley and Anthony agree — since the crash — their friendship has become the strongest it’s ever been.

Riley’s mom feels the connection, too:

“I think of Anthony as my son, too. I love him as much as I love Riley. He’s just a great, great kid with a big heart.”

Next Saturday Riley, who returned to college last year, will graduate from BGSU with a degree in finance.

“Riley fought hard through a horrible traumatic injury with the kind of inner strength that shows what he’s made of,” Julie said. “The sky is still the limit for him. We’re all so proud of him.”

Anthony will be there for the graduation, but like usual, their connection will add another chapter as soon as the cap-and-gown celebration is done.

“About a month and a half ago, Anthony bought a new home in Springboro,” Julie said. “As soon as Riley graduates, he’s coming back and moving in with him.

“They’ll be roommates again.”

And brothers forever.

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