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Michelle Bearden

Disabled Tampa man's indomitable spirit overcame all odds

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Published:   |   Updated: September 2, 2013 at 08:51 AM

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TAMPA — Everything changed in a matter of seconds on a late spring morning in South Florida's grove lands.

Barbara Shuck was at the wheel of the family's Oldsmobile Cutlass, heading to a nearby plant nursery to buy a few saplings. With her were her husband, Pat, and their 18-month-old son, Ryan, strapped in a car seat in the back.

As she crossed an intersection on the tree-canopied country road outside of Homestead, another car seemed to come out of nowhere, slamming into them on the left side.

Pat Shuck, uninjured, pulled himself from the crumpled vehicle. His wife had a broken neck but was still breathing. His son, turning blue, was not.

Heart racing, he cradled the limp toddler and ran to a nearby house to call for help. As the local fire-rescue unit raced to the scene, Pat gave his son mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Slowly, Ryan's cheeks pinked up.

He was far from out of danger, though.

With traumatic brain and neck injuries, Ryan was given a 50 percent chance to make it through the night. And when he did come out of his coma, he was paralyzed on his left side.

After six weeks in the hospital, Ryan came home. He was too young to comprehend the words delivered by the doctors to his grieving parents: Your son will have a very difficult life, and certainly not a productive one. It's unlikely he will have much brain function or motor skills.

He defied them all for 29 years.

***
Ryan never considered himself “different.”

He wore a leg brace, rode a three-wheeled scooter, fished, bowled and played baseball. He was a fierce competitor, besting two-handed opponents in endless rounds of Nintendo.

When Ryan's younger sister Kellyn started crawling, she followed her brother's example, using just one arm and one leg. That's how she thought everyone did it.

The family — which grew to three girls and a boy — settled in Temple Terrace after Pat retired as a commander from a 24-year career in the Coast Guard and got his dream job teaching and coaching at Tampa Catholic in 1996.

There would be numerous trips to Shriners Hospital and other medical facilities in attempts to help Ryan walk again. Though he would endure more than a dozen surgeries, most related to his back, he never complained.

“It just wasn't his nature,” his mother, Barbara, says. After a particularly painful procedure in fourth grade that left him flattened, he even refused to take Tylenol. All he wanted to do was return to school as soon as possible.

Ryan's drive to be like everyone else was stronger than the obstacles he had to overcome. Because of his disability and stunted growth — likely caused by the accident — he only grew to be 5-foot-3, and he had to work three times harder to maintain a semblance of normalcy.

Privately, family members knew nothing was easy for him. The rest of the world saw otherwise.

“He was just one of the Shuck kids,” recalls Kellyn, a marketing coordinator who now makes her home in Memphis with her husband and son. “For vacations, we would all pile in the car and travel sea to sea. Whatever adventure we took, Ryan was right there in the thick of it.”

A sports fanatic, he was a boisterous supporter of every home team; the Rays, Buccaneers, Lightning and University of Tampa Spartans got his undivided loyalty. When his dad's alma mater, Indiana University, played Maryland in the Final Four in Atlanta, he was right there with Pat, cheering on the Hoosiers. He went to the Indianapolis 500. Crowds weren't easy to navigate in his condition, but they never deterred him.

“I don't think there was anything he wouldn't try,” Pat says with a chuckle. “That doesn't mean he was successful at everything. I can tell you that golf definitely didn't work out.”

At Tampa Catholic, Ryan would park his scooter near the side entrance and laboriously climb the stairs, step by step, using his good hand and leg to hoist the rest of his weight. With near-perfect attendance and a strong work ethic, he would eventually graduate with honors.

When it was time to get his driver's permit, he and Pat went to a special class for disabled drivers in Orlando. Ryan passed with flying colors. After getting a Ford Explorer outfitted with controls designed for one-handed drivers, he took over carpool duties, driving his sister and friends to school.

It wasn't until Ryan's graduation day in May 2000 that Kellyn began to see her brother in a different light. All those years of him downplaying his accomplishments and striving to be like everyone else melted away when his name was called in the auditorium.

Hundreds stood and gave Ryan a rousing standing ovation.

“I was overwhelmed,” she says. “Here I was in the presence of someone so truly spectacular my whole life. How did I miss this? So I started to pay more attention.”

In 2012, Kellyn ran her first big race, the Boston Marathon, in honor of her brother. In telling his story, something he only reluctantly agreed to, she raised more than $10,000 for Team Hoyt and the Hoyt Foundation, a nonprofit that builds the character and confidence of disabled young Americans through sports and community activities.

***
The University of Tampa was the right choice for Ryan. Close to home, but not too close, and just big enough with about 4,500 students at the time. As always, he wanted to be independent and live on campus. His favorite expression —“I can do it myself” — served him well as he established life on his own.

That didn't mean his parents weren't worried.

“You were always afraid of getting the call, such as an accident or something,” Pat says. “But we had no choice but to let go. Ryan wouldn't have it any other way.”

With his positive vibe and outgoing personality, Ryan made friends easily at UT, where he majored in sports management. Larry Marfise, the school's athletic director, had Ryan in one of his classes and calls him “the most inquisitive young man” he's ever known.

“He always came prepared and with a million questions,” Marfise says. “And what a sense of humor! He was a joy to be around.”

It only took one time for Marfise to learn that Ryan did not want special treatment. The athletic director ran into him at a Spartan basketball game and offered him help in navigating the bleacher steps.

“He just looked at me straight in the eye and said, 'We all have handicaps. Some are just more visible than others.' Then he proceeded on his own.”

When Ryan graduated in 2004, Marfise admits he “teared up a bit” thinking about how UT was losing one of its most passionate supporters. But the university never lost Ryan, who continued to be an involved booster.

“We have students who get their diploma, never to be seen again,” Marfise says. “Not Ryan. He never let the challenges of his disability keep him from being engaged at this school. I wish we had a lot more kids like him.”

Ryan wanted to work, but his degree, technology skills, sharp wit and engaging personality were not enough to break through unspoken barriers. The first thing they likely saw, his dad says, was the disability, worsening every year with severe scoliosis. It put him at a disadvantage in a competitive job market. It also got in the way of his unfulfilled dream of having a girlfriend, getting married and raising a family.

***
His parents established a savings account for him early on to make sure their son would have an income. It afforded him some luxuries that he embraced: taking cruises with friends, visits to Las Vegas and New York City, attending professional and college sporting events. As in his high-school days, he had a specially outfitted Ford Explorer to get him places. He added a pillow on the driver's seat to give him some height.

Ryan bought a two-bedroom condo at The Madison at Soho, located right behind MacDinton's, one of his favorite watering holes. He was a fixture in the South Howard neighborhood, negotiating the streets and sidewalks with his three-wheeled Pride scooter. Local wait staff and restaurateurs — Bella's, Bern's Steakhouse, Soho Tavern, The Patio — all knew him by his first name. And wherever he went, he quickly made new friends. They gave him a host of nicknames. The Shuckster. Muttley. Speedy. And his favorite, the Mayor of Soho.

“He had such a big voice for a little guy,” says Jeff Single, operating manager of The Patio on south MacDill. “He was so smart and so genuine. But what I’m always going to remember is that cackle when he laughed. And did he know how to laugh.”

Though Ryan spent a considerable amount of time atop a bar stool, it wasn't for the drinking. It was for conversation. He would nurse a bottle of Coors Light, only drinking it halfway, “until the Rockies lose their blue.”

He had a standing appointment with personal trainer Mike Roshaven at Blast Fitness Performance Center in Tampa for an hour every Tuesday and Thursday, which he kept faithfully for 10 years. The two came up with creative ways to work out, given his physical limitations. Their business relationship quickly became a long-term friendship.

“He was amazing, always looking for ways to challenge himself,” Roshaven says. “Ryan never looked for shortcuts.”

Of the hundreds of people Roshaven has worked with over the years, he says he will remember Ryan for the “warmest smile and the fewest complaints.”

“He showed me that it isn't the body that you come into the gym with that will determine your outcome,” Roshaven says. “But it's the heart within that leads you to success.”

***
The close-knit Shuck family uses any excuse to get together for barbecues. On May 12, the celebration du jour was Mother's Day.

Oldest sister Jamie came to her parents' house with her husband and three children, and youngest sibling and bride-to-be Nikki with her fiancé. Missing were Kellyn, back home in Memphis, and Ryan.

Where was Ryan?

Hours passed. They couldn't reach him by text or phone — very unusual. Pat checked Ryan's Facebook page and saw no activity for the past 24 hours, also uncharacteristic of his son. He tried to keep the worry off his face.

“Think I'll head over to his condo and see what's up,” Pat offered.

He tried not to think of all the possibilities as he made the 35-minute drive across town.

Ryan's truck was there; so was his scooter. Pat entered the too-quiet condo and called out his son's name. With a sense of dread, he quickened his pace and went straight to Ryan's bedroom, where he found his son's lifeless body. There were no signs of a struggle or an accident; he seemed to be at peace.

Pat wanted to slam his fists into the walls. Instead he collapsed, crying like a baby. His best friend in the world, the boy he carried on his shoulders at the old Sombrero to watch the creamsicle-orange Buccaneers, had died alone at home. This time, he wasn't there to save him.

Ryan was just 31.

It is still raw and painful to think about, much less talk about. Without his steady faith, “there would be no way to handle this,” Pat says. When Barbara feels overwhelmed by the incomprehensible loss, she shuts her eyes and thinks of her son running free, in a place where his body is whole again and he no longer has to struggle.

An autopsy found no obvious cause of death, other than reoccurring problems brought about by his childhood head and neck injuries.

Kellyn has her own theory.

“He packed in more living in his short time and worked harder at it than most people do over a full lifetime,” she says. “And then his heart just gave out.”

***
No one was ready to say goodbye. Not his neighbor Kevin Logan, retired from the Army, who still looks out in the courtyard, expecting to see his affable buddy pulling up in the scooter, ready to share a funny story or rant about the Rays' lineup.

“He never quit. Just living his life, he taught us all about patience and passion,” Logan says. “He taught me about the meaning of what a true friend is. That's what he was to me.”

This community of friends has found a way to honor the young man who made such an indelible impression on each and every one of their lives.

Eddie Kabbage, a bartender at MacDinton's, was part of a loosely formed group that got the idea going. After getting Pat and Barbara's blessing, he helped assemble a board that put together the Ryan Shuck Foundation. The nonprofit will sponsor four to six events a year, splitting its fundraising efforts between charities that help the disabled and a scholarship for a disabled student in Ryan's name at University of Tampa.

“If he was around, he would not want all this attention,” Kabbage laughs. “But then he would think about it and know that it would help someone, and he'd get over it.”

Fellow board member Larry Whitman, agrees.

“There's a good chance he'd be ticked off at us for being so emotional about his passing,” he says.

But they're doing it for a reason: Ryan's example is a reminder to smile, conquer life's challenges and be kind to others.

The first event is Sept. 8: the Running 4 Ryan 5K Run for Fun at Al Lopez Park, followed by live music and food at MacDinton's. Coors Light, naturally, will donate a few kegs.

Ashley Cantin, a former Tampa Catholic classmate of Ryan's, will take part. She knew him casually from school, but didn't think too much back then of what he had to overcome to be part of the mainstream. Then four years ago, she gave birth to Sandra, who is afflicted with severe cerebral palsy. Her daughter is unable to speak or walk.

“Ryan is our inspiration,” Cantin says. “He taught us that it's not OK just to be satisfied with the status quo. If all she ever does is learn to hold her head up, then that's something. We'll work together and we'll work hard, and maybe that little push will turn into something bigger.”

Barbara Shuck used to wonder if her son had many friends. As close as he was to his family, he wanted his own space. He preferred that she wouldn't make surprise trips to his condo. Did people accept him for who he was and see the beautiful human being she knew him to be?

She sees now that she had nothing to fret about.

 
mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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