Cheated out of the perfectly ordinary life he might have lived, Rob Komosa was forced to be special.
Without the catastrophe, Komosa might have grown up to be the auto mechanic he wanted to become. Maybe he would have gotten married and given his hardworking, widowed mom a couple of grandkids to adore. Maybe his Facebook page would have boasted images of a daughter who was the spitting image of his little sister, Ann, alongside photographs of him taking a son fishing, just as Komosa used to go fishing with his dad.
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Instead, Komosa had to build his life out of hope.
"My van is getting up there in years & miles, i think i'm going have to get a new one soon," Komosa wrote Thursday on his fledgling "ParalyzeD-DuDe" Facebook page, where he had recently shared old photographs and happy memories. "Hopefully i get cured & instead of a new van, it can be a corvette."
Paralyzed from the neck down and breathing through a ventilator for the 13 years since a freakish football injury, Komosa died from respiratory failure Saturday night at age 30 in his Barrington Hills "dream house" made possible by a $12.5 million settlement with Northwest Suburban High School District 214, which owned the field where the injury occurred. Tributes are pouring in on his Facebook page and on those of friends and relatives.
"He was the same inspiration to us as he was to everyone else," says his sister Ann Phister, 29, of Mount Prospect. "That smile. That grin. He's going to be greatly missed."
"Rob gave a new face for disability, focusing always on what he could do, never looking back with resentment, grief or bitterness," says Don Grossnickle, a Catholic deacon from Arlington Heights who became Komosa's dear friend and most determined and dedicated advocate since the first days after the 1999 injury. "He was the most positive person I have ever known. I will miss him. He is paralyzed no more. My friend is free, and that is exhilarating."
Known for his upbeat attitude and his messages of hope, Komosa touched thousands of lives throughout the suburbs and beyond. A co-founder of The Gridiron Alliance, a charity Grossnickle created to help young athletes with catastrophic injuries, Komosa reached out to raise funds and personally meet with other injured athletes.
"He had a gift. The community saw how much he fought to survive," remembers Jeff Kroll, one of the attorneys who handled Komosa's legal case. "He's the ultimate fighter."
Once telling Grossnickle that his disabilities made him feel as if he were "trapped under ice," Komosa realized that people on respirators generally don't have long lives. Christopher Reeve, the actor known for his title role in "Superman" movies, died in 2004, nine years after a horse-riding accident left him with the same ailments as Komosa. In 2006, after lung complications killed his friend Travis Hearn, a 19-year-old paralyzed football player from Rock Island, Komosa predicted, "One day, this will happen to me."
Last month on his Facebook page, Komosa posted a photograph of him posing in front of a stuffed elephant that resembled a mammoth. "We make a gr8 couple, one's extinct & soon i will be too ... lol:)," Komosa quipped. "'Tis life i guess:("
The son of working-class Polish immigrants, Stanley and Barbara Komosa, Komosa was 17 years old when he was tackled headfirst into a post along the sidelines during a football practice for his Rolling Meadows High School team. He remembered medical workers telling him, "Blink once or blink twice if you can feel this or feel that," Komosa said, "and I couldn't feel anything."
Weeks later, when doctors had done all they could for the teen, Komosa balked at being released from the hospital. "I'm not leaving here until I can walk and breathe on my own," Komosa told a doctor. "He just shook his head no, and that's when I knew it was pretty serious."
Spurred on by Grossnickle, the suburban community rallied around Komosa, raising tens of thousands of dollars to help the working-class family move from its cramped home in Arlington Heights to a larger, handicapped-accessible home in Mount Prospect. The Duchossois family, owners of Arlington Park, gave him a handicapped-accessible van. Komosa drew support from the Chicago Bears and several of the players. Grossnickle wrote a book titled "Unbreakable Resilience," which profiled Komosa and others who persevered through tragedies and raised money for The Gridiron Alliance.
"He was a true hero in my eyes," emails former high school teammate Frank Zurek of Hoffman Estates. "He was so strong and never wanted any pity."
While Komosa could feel nothing below his neck, he felt love in his heart, Grossnickle says. Noting that Komosa was "very spiritual," Grossnickle says "the community proved to him that the love of God is very real."
Always remembering to thank those who helped him, the quick-to-smile Komosa found ways to connect with most people. His father died "of a broken heart" in 2006, Komosa once said. His mother, a former forklift driver, was Komosa's sole caretaker. While not downplaying the obstacles he faced, Komosa frequently noted, "I'm still a happy person." But he worried about his fate.
"If they do find a cure, how long will it take?" he said in 2009. "I know my mom will have to watch me die. That's hard on her. I know she wishes I could be normal. She can't watch me live my life the way I want, and she can't live the life she wants. But there's so many people worse off."
Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Friday at Glueckert Funeral Home, 1520 N. Arlington Heights Road in Arlington Heights, and from 9:30 a.m. Saturday until a 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Thomas Becket Church, 1321 Burning Bush Lane in Mount Prospect.