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DE Blair’s 1st Pitt start continues miraculous recovery from stroke

Jerry DiPaola
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt's Rori Blair (92) celebrates with David Durham after a sack against Delaware on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, at Heinz Field.

Rori Blair knew something was wrong when the doctor sat down with him and held up a pen.

“What is this?” the doctor asked.

“I’d seen it before,” Blair said. “I could not say it.”

When his grandmother Dorothy Kenney asked him to recite her name, he said, “Grandma.”

“No,” she said. “What is my real name?”

“I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

That told Blair all he needed to know. He suffered a stroke April 8, 2012, but never imagined the intensity of the recovery.

“I had to find a way to learn,” he said.

Today, Blair has chased away the demons. He recovered from his stroke in eight months, regained strength and weight, played football at Upper St. Clair last year and earned a scholarship to Pitt.

Then, as incredible at it may seem, he lined up as Pitt’s left defensive end Saturday against Iowa, making his first collegiate start only four games into his freshman season. His only concession to the stroke? A hearing aid in his left ear.

His memory is improving, he no longer leans to one side while walking and his words make sense, only occasionally saying sentences backward. “I don’t know why it comes out like that,” he said.

No one is more impressed than Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render, a frequent visitor to Children’s Hospital and Children’s Institute during Blair’s recovery.

“The nurse told me, ‘Coach, you are witnessing a miracle,’ ” Render said. “Only about 1 percent of the kids that come in here in his condition will survive.’ ”

Render used to work with Blair helping him regain his memory. In one exercise, he asked him where he had played his last game, giving him three choices: Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Heinz Field.

“The last one,” Blair said, remembering the 2011 WPIAL championship game.

When the stroke occurred, doctors found bleeding on the brain, caused by a rare condition called arteriovenous malformation. Brain AVMs, which occur in less than 1 percent of the population, are caused when a tangle of blood vessels bypasses normal tissue and diverts blood from arteries to the veins.

Blair was lucky to be alive, but he wasn’t surprised he was able to return to football .

“I believe in God Himself,” said Blair, 19. “If I wasn’t supposed to (return to football), it wasn’t His plan. I was supposed to do something else.”

Blair was scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2013, but his hospital stays delayed that until the end of the year.

He enrolled at Pitt in January, and his hearing disability was evident during spring drills when he couldn’t hear signals. He was fitted with a moisture-resistant hearing aid before summer camp.

“A lot of hearing-impaired kids were pushed away from team sports,” said UPMC director of audiology Dr. Catherine V. Palmer, who wrote a book “Time Out! I Can’t Hear You.” “The feeling was they wouldn’t be able to communicate. It shouldn’t be like that.”

Blair said defensive ends coach John Palermo was sensitive to Blair’s condition until the hearing aid improved his comprehension. “He said, ‘Now, I’m going to treat you like everybody else.’ ”

Render said Pitt remained committed to Blair throughout his recovery.

“Some colleges just backed away. Pitt wanted to look at the medical results, but they stood by him.”

“I didn’t think anybody was going to give me a chance,” Blair said.

Blair weighs about 220, 10 fewer than before the stroke after he lost 50.

Sometimes, he thinks about where he might be if he had remained healthy.

“I wouldn’t say I get depressed, but I get down on myself, knowing I have to get better,” he said. “By the time I came to Pitt, I would have probably been what a ‘D’ end is supposed to be, 250, 260.”

He said he doesn’t know what caused the stroke, other than, possibly, stress and a desire to excel.

“I am surprised I am actually playing, competing and not getting tossed around,” he said. “This is an honor knowing coach would actually put me in. I must be doing something right. I must be learning.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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