Rory Gentry has a special bond with Richie Zuniga. Yes, Gentry was Zuniga’s coach for four years on the Concord High School boys soccer team. Yes, Zuniga helped Gentry turn a moribund program into a playoff contender. Yes, Gentry helped Zuniga through years of waiting his turn in goal, then helped him shine when it was finally his time.
But this bond goes a little deeper.
In 1991, Gentry began having severe back pain. It was eventually discovered that he had a large tumor on his spine and a second one wrapped around it. The tumors caused permanent nerve damage to his spine, and even after they were removed he was told he had no better than a 25 percent chance of ever using his legs again.
Those odds are 25 percent better than the ones Zuniga has been given. Within a year, though, Gentry was walking with a cane. He also had gastric bypass surgery and lost 270 pounds, which helped alleviate stress on his back.
Now he’s turned into Zuniga’s biggest fan, cheering on his former player as he battles through the paralysis he suffered in a car accident last October. Gentry will soon need another surgery, this an unrelated procedure on his neck. If he doesn’t, he’s told he’ll never walk again. He’s heard that one before.
And when he has that second surgery, the two will reverse roles. Zuniga will be coaching Gentry, and he’ll be his biggest fan.
“He keeps reminding me that he’s worse off than I am,” Gentry joked. “I keep reminding him that I’m older and wiser.”
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I’ve received three e-mails already this morning about how to make donations to help Richie Zuniga’s family modify their home to make it more wheelchair-accessible. I’m told there is a Washington Mutual account into which donations can be made. The account number is 3133503066 and the name on the account is Richard Zuniga Jr.
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One fact that didn’t make it into the article was that soccer was not Richie’s only sport. He was a wide receiver and an all-league punter on Concord’s football team, and he played baseball for the Minutemen, too. His senior year, he was chosen as the school’s athlete of the year.
After his year at Contra Costa College, he was looking into attending Diablo Valley College and becoming the Vikings’ punter.
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If there’s one thing I really hope came across in the article about Richie Zuniga, it’s the amazing attitude he carries despite his situation. Interviews for stories like these are always difficult, but with Richie it was incredibly easy.
I’ve only talked to Richie very briefly, so I’m certainly not qualified to make any judgments of his character. All I know is that if I were in his situation, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be as upbeat or positive. I don’t think I’m that strong.
You hear stories all the time about people who were told they’d never walk again or something of the sort, then overcame the odds and did it. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to read a story like that about Richie 10 years down the road. His family is already taking steps in that direction, and they’re hoping to enroll him in a training program at Project Walk in Southern California.
Of course, Richie really might never walk again. But he strikes me as a young man who’d be ready and willing to deal with that, too.
I asked Richie if he believed his doctors when they told him he’ll never walk again.
“That’s what they always say in the beginning, but I’m starting to get a little feeling here and there,” he said. “Before it was only in my thumbs. Now it’s all the way to my middle finger on my left hand. I’m slowly getting some back. My spine wasn’t severed, it was crushed. So I could still get feeling back here and there. It’s just up to nature how much I get back.”