Jesse Reising ’11 can no longer shake with his right hand, but his left-handed handshake has become just as firm. Reising has been left with no feeling in his right bicep and shoulder after colliding head-first with Harvard running back Gino Gordon at The Game. The only evidence of the terrifying injury that left him motionless on the Harvard Stadium turf is the sling on his right arm — a limb that his doctors say may never be the same again.
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Despite the injury, it is impossible to find a trace of regret or self-pity in Reising’s demeanor. He is matter of fact about his prospects for recovery from the injuries sustained to the nerves that control his upper arm. The damage could mean he will be without full use of his arm for an indefinite amount of time.
“Accidents happen,” he said. “In life, we take risks for fulfillment. Sometimes those risks pay off and sometimes they don’t. Looking back, given the same situation, I wouldn’t change anything about it. … I just feel very blessed that it wasn’t worse than it was.”
At the moment, however, Reising’s injury may have put a halt to his aspiration to become a Marine Corps officer.
Much of the community service work Reising has done, including interning for veterans’ groups in Washington D.C., has focused on the military. He spent the past two summers in Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, and planned to finish his training and take a commission immediately after graduation. The injury has likely rendered that timeline unfeasible. But Reising says that no matter how long it takes to work himself back into Marine shape, he will eventually serve his country.
But he also knows that meeting Marine fitness standards might be a long shot. Many doctors have been pessimistic about his chances of a full recovery. Months, if not years, of physical therapy remain.
“I always like a challenge, and this is how I look at this,” he said. “I understand that all I can do is do my best in physical therapy and try to prove my doctors wrong.”
Many expected worse as Reising lay motionless on the field at Harvard Stadium two weeks ago. Immediately after the injury, Reising could move no part of his right arm except for three fingers.
But Reising made rapid progress. By Saturday evening, he could move all five fingers. By Sunday, he could make a fist. In subsequent days, movement and feeling in his wrist, elbow and triceps followed. Doctors told Reising that it was a good sign. Dr. Peter McCann, chairman of surgery at the Department of Orthopedic Surgery of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, whose specialty is shoulder surgery, agreed.
Still, not all of Reising’s nerves have recovered. He shakes hands with his left hand because of his inability to move the top of his right arm. McCann said that the combination of feeling lower in the arm and problems in the shoulder is a sign of an injury to the fifth and sixth cervical nerve roots.
Those nerves are part of a larger arrangement of nerve fibers called the brachial plexus that runs from the neck down the arm. The severity of an injury like Reising’s can range widely based on what part of the nerve is injured.
McCann identified three common patterns of brachial plexus nerve injury. The closer the injury is to the spine, the more serious it is. The most severe possibility is a tear of the nerve from its root in the spinal column. This is called a nerve root avulsion.
Less severe would be an injury between the neck and the collarbone. The third possible injury of the nerve occurs below the collarbone. Reising said that he is almost certainly facing one of the worst two kinds.
Reising’s injury did not stem from a direct helmet-to-helmet hit, as was immediately assumed. According to Reising, who estimates that he has watched film of the collision 50 to 60 times with his doctor, both players collided helmet-to-shoulder at the same time. The force of Gordon’s helmet drove Reising’s shoulder one way, while his head was forced in another. That movement in opposite directions did the damage to Reising’s nerve. That kind of stretching of the nerve is the classic mechanism for a brachial plexus nerve injury, according to McCann.
At the moment, swelling and internal bleeding in the affected area make it impossible to be sure where the nerve is hurt, Reising said. MRIs and electrical diagnostic testing will help localize the injury in upcoming weeks.
Although Reising’s early recovery in his lower arm is an excellent sign, McCann said no certainty is possible until the exact site of the injury can be determined.
Reising suffered a concussion as well as the nerve damage in the hit. He still feels some of the cognitive effects of the concussion, and pain medication for his arm also clouds his mind at times. Nonetheless, he decided to return to campus after Thanksgiving to finish up his schoolwork. Staying home, the senior insisted, was never an option.
“There was no reason to be at home,” he said. “My legs work just fine.”
Reising has returned to two hours of physical therapy daily and finals that he is trying to finish on time, even though he has been granted extensions on almost all assignments. That devotion to academics is nothing new for the senior, who is known for his work ethic.
“[Reising] is either studying, in class, at football or working out,” added teammate Dan Walsh ’11, who changed his flight home from Thanksgiving in order to be able to accompany his injured friend. “The man sleeps less than anyone I know.”
Reising might not be able to move his right shoulder, but points out that he has enough use of his wrist and fingers to type. He needs only to use his left arm to place his right on the keyboard first.
Even as Reising tries to fight through the injury, he mentions his gratitude for the support he says he has received from every corner of campus. University President Richard Levin and Director of Athletics Tom Beckett have reached out to offer help, as has the entire football community.
“We received so much support from [the football families] that we knew if he needed anything at all we would always have a parent a phone call away,” said Robyn Reising, Jesse’s mother, in an e-mail.
Students showed their concern for Reising within minutes of the hit, and he said that he had over 100 text messages, 100 Facebook messages and more e-mails than he tried to count waiting for him when he first opened his phone and computer after the injury.
His friends and teammates say that he has earned every bit of the support that campus gave him.
“Jesse is the best all-around student athlete I have encountered in my four years at Yale,” said lineman Joe Young ’11, who visited Reising in the hospital on the day of his release.
Reising might be an intensely dedicated student, but Walsh also called him a down-to-earth friend who is first both to the library and to the party.
“Jesse is the guy who will sit down and enjoy a cold beer with you or throw on some country tunes and just hang out,” Walsh said. “He is the most easygoing guy and that is why it was so shocking to me when I saw how smart and hardworking he is.”
The football program echoed the two seniors’ sentiments when it offered Reising its LaRoche Award — which is given to the football player who has done the most for Yale through his character, academic talents and concern for others — at the annual team banquet the day after The Game.
Reising remained in the hospital in Boston and could not accept the award, but the crowd stood in thunderous applause when head coach Tom Williams announced the senior’s name. It was one of two standing ovations the senior received during the event.
“The team’s a family,” said safety Adam Money ’11. “Those are your brothers on the team. You sweat and work hard with them. The fact that [Reising] couldn’t be there to share that last moment made it very emotional.”
The news was relayed to the Reisings almost immediately via text from Walsh’s family, which sent updates throughout the banquet, Robyn Reising said.
Her son’s credentials were also recognized at a national level this season when he was named a semifinalist for the Walter Campbell Award, which is given annually to the college football player who best combines excellence in academics, community service and on-field performance.
A typo in an earlier version of this article misstated the effect of the pain medications Jesse Reising ’11 is taking for his arms. Those medications, Reising said, tend to cloud his mind.