Act of sportsmanship highlights player’s return from a stroke

On the same day Cory Weissman heard his name over the loudspeakers in lineup introductions, shed his warm-ups and entered a game for the first time in nearly three years, the Gettysburg College senior unexpectedly received the chance to reach another milestone.

Washington College coach Rob Nugent wanted Weissman to have the opportunity to score.

When Gettysburg reinserted Weissman into Saturday's game in the final minute for his first real playing time since suffering a life-threatening stroke in March 2009, Nugent instructed his team to foul Weissman intentionally with 17 seconds to go. It was counterintuitive to Nugent to give away free points, yet he knew Weissman's story and felt it was the proper gesture with so little time remaining and his team trailing by 16.

"We were just rewarding a young man who has worked his tail off to just get back and do what he's doing now," Nugent said. "I don't know that you deserve anything in life, but this was something I felt he earned."

Nugent's act of sportsmanship stunned Weissman and his teammates. Weissman had been elated the previous day when Gettysburg coach George Petrie named him an honorary starter for the team's home finale, but the New Jersey native never anticipated checking back into the game after it was decided, let alone having the chance to score a point.

As Weissman strode to the free-throw line for the first time since his freshman season at Gettysburg, the significance of the moment had his stomach doing barrel rolls. The homecoming crowd was silent, players on both benches rose and his mother, father, aunt and older brother stood with clenched fists in the bleachers.

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Weissman breathed deeply, spun the ball in his hands, dribbled three times and let it go. It never had a chance, missing badly to the left.

Undeterred, he took the ball again from the referee and repeated the same ritual. He tried to stay calm, but it was difficult to ignore that this second free throw likely represented his only chance to score a point in a high-level basketball game the rest of his life.

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That Weissman had recovered enough to jog stiffly up and down the court or attempt a free throw is a remarkable accomplishment considering all he has endured the previous three years.

On March 26, 2009, Weissman suffered a stroke that initially paralyzed the entire left side of his body and left him unable to walk for two weeks. One of his primary motivations during rehab the past three years has been to return to the Gettysburg basketball program and experience the joy of playing in a game again.

He refused to give up on his dream when doctors warned him he might never regain the full use of the left side of his body. Or when he regularly suffered from seizures as a result of the damage to his brain. Or when he trailed behind his friends going to and from class because he couldn't walk at the same speed as them.

"I looked at my stroke as a challenge," Weissman said. "It was almost like I was competing against the stroke and I wasn't going to let it beat me. Ever since it happened, I've been working at not letting the stroke beat me. The reason I'm doing so well is because I'm working a lot harder than the stroke is."

It was no surprise to any of Weissman's friends and family that basketball became one of the driving forces behind his recovery because the sport has been his greatest passion since childhood.

Even though Weissman's dad never played organized basketball and his mom had no ties to the sport, he gravitated to it from a very early age. He first dribbled a ball as a toddler, first began playing with his friends in grade school and first attended basketball camps soon after that.

"From way, way, way back, it was obvious basketball was his passion," his mother Tina said. "Anytime he was home, he'd play basketball. He'd come in watch some TV if there was a game on and then go back out and play ball again."

Since Weissman was barely 5-feet tall entering high school and only sprouted to 5-foot-10 after a late growth spurt, he believed he had to compensate by out-working his peers.

At Weissman's request, his parents mounted a light to the top of the hoop in their front yard so he could practice long after dark. He'd create challenges for himself to improve his shooting, stopping only after making a certain number of shots in a row and increasing the number if he happened to miss.

Although the coach at Jackson Memorial High School initially told Weissman he wasn't big or strong enough to make much impact at the varsity level, he proved doubters wrong by the time he graduated. Weissman scored the ninth-most career points in the history of the school, earned all-conference and all-county honors as a senior and played well enough to draw interest from Gettysburg and other nearby Division III colleges.

"He was a tough kid, a determined kid, a motivated kid," Petrie said. "He had all the qualities you want in a point guard. He set goals and he did them."

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Weissman experienced no symptoms or warning signs that suggested he was at risk of a stroke either in high school or college, so he had no reason to be wary when he didn't feel well during a routine weightlifting session soon after his freshman season at Gettysburg.

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Despite a throbbing headache worse than any he'd ever experienced, he kept doing bench presses and bicep curls as though nothing was wrong. Only after his left hand stopped working did Weissman tell teammate Brendan Trelease he thought he should probably stop.

When Trelease took Weissman out of the weight room to get a drink of water, Weissman had to sit against the wall after he began swaying back and forth and feeling dizzy. It was then that Trelease decided he needed to get Weissman to the training room as quickly as possible.

"About halfway to the training room, I started stumbling because my left leg started dying," Weissman recalled. "One of the last completely clear visions I have that I'll never be able to forget was coming through the training room doors. My head was completely down because I didn't have the strength to lift it up. I looked down at my left leg and saw it dragging behind me, just completely dead. That's an image I'll never forget."

Once Weissman burst through the doors of the training room, it didn't take long for first-year athletic trainer Katie Whaley to realize this was more than a typical case of an athlete getting dizzy after overexerting himself during a workout.

Weissman required the help of Whaley and another medical staffer to lift himself onto the exam table. He could only smile on request with the right side of his mouth. And when Whaley put her left hand in his and asked him to squeeze it, he could only do it by reaching over with his right hand.

"At that point I knew he was having a stroke, but I couldn't believe it," Whaley said. "You don't think an 18-year-old is having a stroke. That's not something your mind goes straight to."

The 50-mile ambulance ride from campus to the hospital in Hershey is a blur for Weissman, as are the stream of visits from anxious friends and family members during the two weeks he spent there. All he knows is doctors diagnosed him with an arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal tangle of blood vessels in Weissman's brain that couldn't handle the pressure of blood coming directly from his arteries and resulted in a bleed.

In the five weeks Weissman spent at Kessler Rehabilitation Center in New Jersey after being discharged from the hospital, he regained some function in his left arm and leg and began to walk again using a crutch. On days when he was feeling spry, Weissman would ask his parents or his older brother Jeremy to take him to the patio, let him lean on one of them for balance and allow him to shoot baskets one-handed with his right arm.

"He had no balance whatsoever and yet he was shooting," Tina Weissman said. "I knew at that point basketball was his ticket to a recovery."

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Whereas Weissman's mom worked as a physical therapist and was well aware of the long road to recovery ahead for her son, Weissman himself was an optimist convinced he exceed doctors' expectations through hard work.

Less than three months removed from brain surgery, he persuaded his parents to let him return to Gettysburg College for fall semester of his sophomore year, albeit on a lighter course load than usual. He had short-term memory loss issues, he was experiencing sporadic seizures and he still couldn't walk at a normal speed, yet he walked into Petrie's office soon after re-enrolling in school and insisted he planned to be the hardest-working player on the scout team that season.

"I underestimated the crap out of how hard rehab was going to be," Weissman said. "The first couple months of my rehab, things came back almost every week. One day I'm not able to move my arm. The next day I'm able to do half a bicep curl. The next day a full bicep curl. I thought I'd get better and better at that pace, but once things started slowing down, that was the hardest part. I had to face the fact that things might not get back to 100 percent and that I might not be the same person I was."

Although even Weissman acknowledges there's only a slim chance he'll ever regain his former physical prowess, he has made gradual but steady progress in the three years since his stroke. He no longer repeats the same stories or has as much trouble remembering details from classes he attends, the seizures have stopped and he can now walk at a normal pace without a limp.

The rigidness of Weissman's left leg prevents him from running at game speed or making the explosive cuts necessary to play basketball at the college level, but he still has found ways to participate in the Gettysburg program.

In his junior year, he began doing individual work again during practice and joined teammates for non-contact shooting drills. And as a senior, he has taken on more of a vocal leadership role in practice since being named a team captain and he now participates in warm-ups and layup lines before games.

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As appreciative as Weissman is that the Gettysburg coaching staff has still made him feel like part of the team, he admits he'd have been disappointed if he graduated in May without fulfilling his goal of appearing in a game. Petrie had broached the idea of subbing him in to shoot a technical foul shot if the situation arose this season, but it wasn't until the eve of Saturday's game that the coach informed Weissman he planned to make him an honorary starter the following day.

"When they told me, it was a very emotional moment for me," Weissman said. "I drove back to my apartment, came right up to my room and spent about 20 minutes there. I wanted to spend some time by myself. It was really, really emotional."

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Weissman savored everything about Saturday's game, from the applause of the crowd during Senior Day introductions, to hearing his name called as a starter, to the sight of students waving cardboard cutouts of the faces of him and his fellow seniors. He insists it still would have been the best day of his life even if he'd participated in the opening tipoff, logged his ceremonial one second of playing time and never returned to the game.

Of course, an already great day for Weissman became even better thanks to Petrie's decision to send him back in and Nugent's remarkable act of sportsmanship. It gave Weissman the chance to go to the free-throw line and write the perfect Disney-esque ending to the most difficult chapter of his life.

When he got the ball back from the referee for his second foul shot, Weissman insists he felt less pressure than he did before missing the first one. The crowd was still silent, his teammates were still standing and his family's fists were still clenched, yet he felt strangely confident.

"It went through my head really fast that I didn't want to miss both, but I convinced myself I didn't work that hard for three years for the ball not to go in," Weissman said. "I said just shoot it and it will go in. Sure enough, it was a perfect shot, right through the net. It was a moment I'll never, ever forget."

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