Paralyzed during a high-school football practice in 1999, Rob Komosa couldn't envision a night when the fledgling charity he helped start then would grow to host a star-studded fundraiser at Halas Hall in the company of Bears players and management.
"I didn't even know if I'd make it this far," Komosa says with a chuckle.
On a night with plenty of laughs and a few tears, the Bears and their extended family raise money for the Gridiron Alliance, a charity dedicated to helping young athletes who have suffered catastrophic injuries.
Started in the chaotic months after the injury that left Komosa unable to move his arms and legs and dependent upon a ventilator to breathe, the Gridiron Alliance has grown under the dogged determination and unwavering single-mindedness of Don Grossnickle, who was a deacon at Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Parish in Arlington Heights when he prayed with 17-year-old Rob Komosa immediately after the injury. Now the 64-year-old Grossnickle is a permanent deacon for the Chicago Archdiocese and chairman of the Gridiron Alliance.
"He's got a little Brian Urlacher in him," John Bostrom, the Bears vice president of administration, says of Grossnickle as they both tear up at the memories of their decade-long effort to make the charity into what it is today.
"We've developed relationships with these guys," says Bostrom, who once played basketball for Arlington High School and notes that his wife, Kathy, graduated from the same Rolling Meadows High School as Komosa. "How can you not?"
As the sellout crowd of 120 supporters sits in the Halas Hall auditorium where the Bears hold team meetings, Komosa and fellow injured athletes Kenneth Jennings and Rocky Clark tell their stories and urge people to support their effort to improve school sport safety and prevent injuries while reaching out to injured athletes and their families.
"Football is a part of all of us," says Carolyn Schrenker, director of community relations for the Bears. "We love the game of football, and if there's anyone in our football family who needs help, we want to try to support them however we can."
That message starts at the top, with the McCaskey family, owners of the Bears and loyal supporters of the Gridiron Alliance, Grossnickle says.
"I'm just here to support them," matriarch Virginia McCaskey says as she looks around a room filled with current and former players, management and other members of the Bears staff. "We are all blessed to be here. It's what we should be doing."
Bears players who volunteered to spend their free night at the event shared stories with the athletes in wheelchairs.
"It's real tough to see these kids," says Bears clutch receiver Earl Bennett, who missed several games this year after he was injured by a vicious tackle. "You can't think about (getting injured). You know the risk. You just have to go out there and put it on the line."
Bennett and teammates Kyle Adams, Chris Spencer, Gabe Carimi and Corey Graham sign autographs along with former Bears Otis Wilson, Shaun Gayle, Dan Jiggetts, Glen Kozlowski, Keith Van Horne and James "Big Cat" Williams. Management members including George H. and Barbara McCaskey, general manager Jerry Angelo, Connie Payton (widow of Bears legend Walter Payton), event planner Mary Long and Jeff Joniak, the voice of the Bears, share the night.
"Hopefully it will be an annual event," Angelo says of the fundraiser. "I think it's a great thing."
Komosa, who now lives with his mother, Barbara, in their specially designed Barrington Hills home bought with money from a settlement with the school district, thanks members of his church and community before praising Grossnickle and everyone who has helped their cause in the last decade.
"I just want to thank you guys," Komosa tells the crowd.
"We just want to pay it forward," says Clark, who was paralyzed at age 16 in 2000 while playing football for south suburban Eisenhower High School. Having exhausted his $5 million insurance benefits, the Robbins native now is helping design T-shirts he sells to raise funds.
"An event like this really brings visibility to the charity," says Steve Herbst, who lost all feeling in his legs and some use of his arms when he was tackled during a punt return in a practice as a 14-year-old Palatine High School football player. One of the founding members of the Gridiron Alliance, Herbst, 45, still lives in Palatine and remembers how important the community support was to him after his injury.
"It's hard at times, obviously. Every day, I need help getting out of bed," says Herbst, who works full-time in IT at Allstate and also serves as assistant director of a suburban youth basketball program. "But I'm blessed with a wonderful wife and family."
Herbst and his wife, Kathy, have 7-year-old twins, Jack and Grace, who both play a lot of sports.
While it was hockey, and not football, that left J.J. O'Connor paralyzed at age 16 in 1995, the Mount Prospect resident is another founder of the Alliance and has become a friend and supporter to the other injured athletes. O'Connor is leader in several hockey leagues and also owns SportsClip hair-cutting franchises in Round Lake Beach, Wrigleyville and Kenosha, Wis.
"They are all part of the Bears' football family," Schrenker says.
For more information, to make a tax-deductible donation or to contact some of the founders of the charity, visit gridironalliance.org, rockyclark.org and robkomosa.org.