A deacon at Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, Don Grossnickle hesitated before agreeing to meet and pray with members of the Rolling Meadows High School football team on Oct. 7, 1999. The team was reeling from the shock of seeing 17-year-old teammate Rob Komosa paralyzed and clinging to life after an injury during practice the day before.
"I was very reluctant," says Grossnickle, a retired school administrator and father of three. "I'm kind of a soft guy. I can cry."
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Grossnickle emerged from that meeting inspired and more than strong enough to single-handedly start a community effort that began on behalf of Komosa and blossomed into Gridiron Alliance, a nonprofit charity that advocates for other athletes who suffered catastrophic injuries. Komosa, who now lives with his mother and full-time caretaker, Barbara, in their specially designed Barrington Hills home bought with money from a settlement with the school district, remains active with the charity when he is able.
Gridiron Alliance grew out of "my conviction for peace and justice, and looking out for the weaker ones in God's kingdom," Grossnickle says.
To raise money for the charity, Grossnickle recently wrote "Unbreakable Resilience," which he summarizes as a book detailing the "leap-of-faith stories to live by" of eight injured athletes. On the 13th anniversary of his involvement, the 64-year-old Grossnickle turned over the chairmanship of Gridiron Alliance to Kenneth Jennings, a longtime board member who was profiled in the book because of his active life after he was paralyzed from the neck down in October 1988 while playing football for Simeon High School in Chicago.
Any suggestion that Grossnickle will cut back on his passion and effort in this cause draws a chuckle from fellow board member Steve Herbst of Palatine.
"He still wants to be involved," says Herbst, who also is profiled in Grossnickle's book. Herbst was a 14-year-old Palatine High School freshman a week away from the start of basketball season and looking ahead to his high school baseball career when he was tackled during a football practice on Oct. 20, 1980, and left with no movement in his legs and very limited use of his arms.
"We want the book to get out there. It's a good resource for people facing any challenges in their lives," says Herbst, 46, who works full time in IT at Allstate, coaches and helps run a youth basketball program, and, with his wife Kathy, is busy at home with their 8-year-old twins, Jack and Grace, both of whom play sports.
Last week, Herbst and his son, who plays flag football and "loves" the sport, were invited to a practice of the Chicago Bears along with other Gridiron Alliance members, including executive director Deborah Nelson. An Arlington Heights resident, Nelson also works as a sales consultant for the Daily Herald Media Group and has a 23-year career working with nonprofits.
"That was a blast. My son was on cloud nine the whole time, and so was I," Herbst says of the Bears practice.
After shaking hands with Bears captain Brian Urlacher, Nelson says she bought an Urlacher jersey for her 7-year-old son, Wyatt. Urlacher, other players, coach Lovie Smith, the franchise-owning McCaskey family and top members of the Bears organization have been big supporters of the charity's efforts, even allowing the charity to sell the new book and autographed Bears memorabilia at a booth during home games at Soldier Field, Nelson notes.
"One hundred percent of the proceeds go to our mission of advocating for school sport safety. If and when the next athlete becomes catastrophically injured, we're in position assist them on many fronts," says Nelson, who adds that the charity helps with fundraising, resources and providing emotional support.
"I was just inspired by these guys," Mount Prospect's Jim Thomas says in explaining how the injured athletes motivated him to get involved 13 years ago. The 44-year-old contractor has done everything from building wheelchair ramps to serving on the board.
"I see so many good things," Thomas says. "It's amazing and inspiring to me."
While admitting that his work with the charity has been draining, Grossnickle is gearing up for what surely will be a passionate presentation this Thursday before the Northwest Suburban School District 214 board to talk about insuring student athletes against catastrophic injuries.
"I will not quit until we get our way," vows Grossnickle, who was hesitant to get involved but shows no signs of giving up.