In the Yale football team’s past two contests, defensive back Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 has demonstrated the athletic ability and physical style that have made him a force in Yale’s secondary all season long, picking off a pass in each victory. The junior’s noteworthy play makes it hard to believe that just over a year ago, Rymiszewski lay face down on the field of the Yale Bowl, unable to move the entire right half of his body.
In the second quarter of a league matchup against Penn last October, Rymiszewski took a blow to the back of the head while diving to help linebacker Darius Manora ’17 tackle a Quaker player. Unable to move after the hit, Rymiszewski was carried off the field and later diagnosed with a spinal cord concussion. Due to the severity of his injury, Rymiszewski — who had started all 16 games of his college career up until that point — was forced to miss the remaining four games in the Bulldogs’ season.
With his 2014 campaign over, his playing status was no longer the concern — instead, it was the potential long-term ramifications of the horrific injury.
Despite being told that only 5 percent of those who suffer spinal cord concussions are able to fully recover from the injury, Rymiszewski was determined from the start that he would return to represent Yale on the field. Now, after months of hard work, continued medical treatment and intense workouts, the defensive back has not only started in all nine games this season but has also proven to be an essential asset for the Yale football roster.
“I really wanted to come back and contribute to the defense, to the team, in any way possible,” Rymiszewski said. “Being told I wasn’t able to play ever again just motivated me a little bit extra.”
After his injury, Rymiszewski, who remained at Yale during the initial stages of his recovery, could not perform physical activity for almost nine months, he said. In order to bounce back and get into the physical condition he needed to be in for college football, Rymiszewski endured a long and exhaustive offseason training schedule.
Rymiszewski learned his workout regime from Tyler Varga ’15, who starred at running back for Yale in the 2014–15 season before joining the Indianapolis Colts this season. Rymiszewski said he completed Varga’s workouts in the offseason, and once he rejoined his teammates in the summer, he added an extra workout either at night or early in the morning to recover the strength he had lost during his nine-month hiatus.
“I was just trying to do whatever I could not just to be a force but a very influential one in the following season on the team,” Rymiszewski said.
But in addition to being physically able to compete, Rymiszewski also had to mentally prepare himself for returning to the field that left half his body numb.
Although Rymiszewski admitted he was initially nervous to open this season, the first hit he took brought him “back to the old days.”
“You can’t play scared in this game,” Rymiszewski said.
The West Chester, Pennsylvania native added that at first, doctors were hesitant to let him play again considering the near-catastrophic consequences Rymiszewski faced. To return to a sport as dangerous as football — which has been at the center of media attention for its negative long-term effects on athletes, especially those who have suffered concussions — was never a sure thing.
According to Rymiszewski’s doctors, what saved him was the fact that his spinal column is thicker than the average person’s, which typically ranges from six to nine millimeters. Rymiszewski’s, at 15 millimeters, saved the then-19-year-old from potential lifelong paralysis.
“He could have gone one of two ways — like [head coach Tony Reno] said, he could’ve cried in his soup or he could’ve gone to work,” captain and safety Cole Champion ’16 said. “He went to work and then some. He had a really, really great summer where he went to work every single day and came back in the best shape he’s ever been in.”
Rymiszewski highlighted the support he received from both teammates and coaches during his recovery. From the very first moment that he was laid out unconscious on the grass of the Bowl, waiting to be taken to the hospital, Rymiszewski said that his teammates “never once left [his] side and have been 110 percent behind [his] back.”
Rymiszewski added that his teammates have treated him like any other member of the team and have not been overprotective or cautious because of the severity of his past injury.
Reno, who in a Nov. 3 press conference recognized the plethora of injuries the Yale football team has endured this season especially, stressed how important the players’ attitude and willingness to bounce back has been to the development of the team.
With that mindset, Rymiszewski is looking forward to being able to play in the 132nd edition of the Harvard-Yale football game this Saturday.
“It was tough having to stand on the sidelines especially with all the hype last year and with [ESPN] College GameDay,” Rymiszewski said. “I’m really excited to play at home in front of the home fans.”
Rymiszewski leads the Elis this season with three interceptions — no other player has more than one.