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Wrestler Dan Bishop fights back from serious injury to help others succeed on and off the mat
Story by Charlotte Hsu; photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89
He did not hear a crack. He does not recall pain.
What UB wrestler Dan Bishop does remember is blacking out for a split second after his opponent in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) championships lifted him into the air and returned him to the mat head-first.
Bishop landed on his hairline.
He lost consciousness for only a moment. When he opened his eyes, he struggled onto his stomach so his rival could not score points by pinning him on his back.
Then he began to convulse.
Jeff Catrabone, an assistant coach for the Bulls, and Allison Gammell, the team’s athletic trainer, hurried to Bishop’s side. Bishop reported that his neck hurt badly. He said he felt electricity surging through his body. On the floor, he writhed, allowing his body to rest only after the referees ended the match early, calling it in his favor.
Then everything went numb.
He exited the arena in a stretcher. When he tried to give onlookers the traditional thumbs-up to signal that he was OK, he found that he couldn’t move.
The match in question took place on March 6, 2010, at Central Michigan University. Doctors determined that Bishop had fractured two upper vertebrae, damaging his spinal cord. He underwent emergency surgery that night at the regional trauma center in Saginaw.
When he awoke, he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Today, less than a year later, Bishop is part bionic, with metal pins supporting his spine. He jokes that he has an old man’s bladder. But such problems are minor compared with the challenges he has overcome.
Bishop hopes to wrestle again one day. Meanwhile, he helps other UB wrestlers learn the techniques and moves he displayed as a UB grappler.
In May, he amazed his doctors, friends and family by walking at his UB graduation without assistance. In September, he teed off for a game of golf. To his mother’s horror, he hopes to wrestle again one day.
Bishop is forever an optimist. His injury was life-changing, but he says the changes haven’t all been bad. He is happy to go to work each morning, thrilled to be able to complete mundane tasks like brushing his own teeth.
“Before it happened, it was always ‘me, me, me,’” Bishop says. “Now, I want to share my story, to help younger kids appreciate and take advantage of what they’ve got. If I can change just one person’s life, that would mean a lot.
“When I got hurt, the whole city got behind me,” he adds. “People sent me cards, get-wells. A reporter for The Buffalo News wrote a story about me, and the guy still calls me to see how I am. I got to see the positive side of everybody, and now I have the opportunity to give back.”
One day he was an athlete competing for a chance at his first conference championship. The next, he was confined to bed, unable to lift a leg. His parents had to feed him. He could not bathe himself. He had a jagged scar running down his neck. His arms were a tangle of snaking, intravenous drips.
From his father, Bishop learned that doctors were saying he might never walk again. He reacted to the news by declaring that he would.
It was his senior year, and prior to the accident, he had been in the best shape of his life. He had spent his first four years of college partying, and in his fifth, he had renewed his commitment to his sport. At practice, he worked harder. Outside the wrestling room, he began to take better care of himself, refusing to drink alcohol.
Bishop had always been feisty: The way he tells it, he had ended up wrestling for his school in eighth grade after brawling in the cafeteria with a kid who had bullied another student. A wrestling coach saw the fight and gave Bishop a choice: Take a suspension or join the team.
He finished high school with 172 wins and 17 losses. In college, he took second place at the New York State Intercollegiate Championships three years in a row. He came in fourth at the 2009 MAC championships. But even considering past achievements, Bishop’s coaches and Gammell agree that his senior year was by far his best. In his last season at UB, he had trained harder than ever, and his dedication had yielded results. He went 19-7 before getting hurt.
And after his injury, he was determined to continue on an upward trajectory—even if, in those first, terrible days, he could not feel his toes.
“I’d have 18 Cheerios, and end up with one,” Bishop says, grinning, recounting how he struggled to spoon cereal after regaining some motion in his hands.
He says it is impossible to describe what it’s like to be paralyzed. Then he tries: “You look at your leg and say, ‘Move,’ but it doesn’t move. It wasn’t painful, wasn’t numb, didn’t feel heavy.” In his hospital gown, with a white brace engulfing his neck, Bishop would attempt each day to force his limbs into motion.
On March 12, he moved his left leg and both feet. Five days later, he stood up twice, for two minutes each time. He checked into Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y., in mid-March, and soon after, on March 30, he reported to his friends on Facebook that he had walked with a walker. Less than two weeks later, on April 10, he walked for 30 minutes without assistance.
In photographs and videos from Sunnyview and from the hospital in Michigan, Bishop is smiling. Even in the most difficult times, he refused to feel defeated.
His low point came one night in March when he watched a video of himself taking his first steps at Sunnyview. In the recording, he grasps a pair of metal parallel bars and staggers forward—one step, two steps, three—before returning to his wheelchair. It is a laborious walk. His whole body trembles. His therapist struggles to hold him up, encircling his torso with both her arms.
Bishop cried himself to sleep after viewing the footage. The next morning, however, he awoke with a new resolve. He told his caregivers that he wanted to intensify his therapy. He made such rapid progress that he was able to check out and go home to Whitehall, N.Y., on April 13.
“Danny’s fighting spirit has helped everybody,” says Jim Beichner, the Bulls’ head wrestling coach. “His whole family has such a positive spirit. This is a family that never once pointed fingers at anybody. They forgave the opponent. It was never about blame. It was about, ‘What do we do from here?’ I think these are valuable lessons.”
Bishop moved back to Buffalo in June.
He had a job waiting for him. Catrabone, the assistant coach, was vice president of Braendel Painting and Services—a painting and contracting company in Amherst—and wanted to bring Bishop into the business.
Over the summer, Bishop shadowed Catrabone, learning how to make painting estimates, bid for projects and file paperwork. Catrabone, a rapid talker who moves as quickly as he speaks, didn’t slow down for Bishop.
On one particularly memorable trip to inspect a high-end apartment building that needed work, the two climbed up about 10 flights of stairs. Both Catrabone and Bishop laugh at the memory.
“For the last four months up to that time, Danny had been nothing but pampered and babied,” Catrabone says. “Not that that wasn’t welcome, but he was at the point where he needed a little more of a whip, someone to say, ‘Hey, let’s get going, you’re OK. We’re not taking the elevator, you’re walking.’ He realized he could do it. Being his coach, too, I’m always pushing him to go harder and work harder.”
The encouragement helped Bishop get stronger faster, and in the fall semester, less than half a year after incurring his life-threatening injury, Bishop took a second job. He rejoined the wrestling team off the mat as a part-time office employee with duties that included arranging travel and hotel accommodations. In December, Bishop completed three final classes at UB, closing out a whirlwind senior year.
Bishop says that years ago, when he discovered wrestling, he reveled in the sport because “I was a violent little kid, and little boys like that stuff.”
Today, while he still loves the intensity of the sport, wrestling holds meaning for other reasons. Bishop says his UB team is his second family. The outpouring of get-well wishes and visits from fellow wrestlers kept him upbeat in the days that followed his accident.
He remembers, with emotion, how Jeff Parker, BA ’08, who had captained the 2008 team, called frequently to offer support even as Parker fought his own battle with melanoma. Parker died on May 22, 2010.
Parker, a heavyweight, was the biggest guy on the squad. Bishop, in the 125-pound weight class, was one of the smallest. The two had become instant friends when Bishop visited UB as a high school senior on a recruiting trip, and Parker acted like a big brother to Bishop once the younger wrestler joined the Bulls.
The week before Parker died, Bishop visited the Parker home in Foxborough, Mass. “He just told me to be strong, stay strong, stay positive,” Bishop remembers. “If I could be half the man he was, I’ll be a very good person.”
Bishop’s wrestling career ended when he was closer than ever to achieving the kind of success he had dreamed of. But he is not upset about what happened. Instead, he is grateful—grateful to Parker, to Catrabone, to so many others. He is grateful to Gammell, who cradled and protected his head on the day of his injury. He is grateful to E. Malcolm Field, the veteran neurosurgeon in Michigan who performed the operation that saved him. He is grateful to the friends and strangers, including former opponents, who called or wrote to him as he recovered.
Bishop hopes his story will inspire others to focus on the good in the world, to see the kindness in people and to relish life. He has spoken to groups, including UB’s basketball team and about 150 participants in a wrestling camp UB hosted this summer. At this fall’s freshman orientation, he told incoming students about how he had partied too much in college and how the changes he made his senior year had helped him to reach the top of his field in wrestling. If he could do it all again, he said, he would have showed a greater commitment to the sport—and his education—from the start.
He is excited to be alive in a world full of opportunity. His message: You should be, too.
Charlotte Hsu is a staff writer with University Communications.