Jets' Rich Bedell hasn't let wheelchair stop or define him
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) There is no wheelchair in Rich Bedell's dreams.
He can walk wherever he needs to go. Just as he used to.
It has been just over 22 years since Bedell left his upstairs bedroom in his parents' home on Long Island and headed to the hospital to have the tumor strangling his spinal cord removed. He has never been back up those steps since.
''I don't want your pity,'' said Bedell, the New York Jets' manager of football operations. ''Don't feel sorry for me. Don't think I'm sick. I'm not sick. I'm as healthy as anybody else.
''The only difference with me is that what you do standing up, I do sitting down.''
Bedell is paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the cancer that attacked his body when he was 17. He has refused to let that stop him from rising through the ranks within the Jets organization. He has gone from receptionist to one of the most important behind-the-scenes roles on the team.
Since 2006, Bedell has been responsible for handling everything from travel itineraries and hotel accommodations; from the food programs offered for players to moving scouts around from pro day visits; from dealing with free agent visits to players that get released.
''No matter what it is, operations-wise, we touch everything,'' Bedell said. ''It's cool. It never really gets repetitive, never really gets old.''
Bedell has learned to live in the moment, especially having gone through enough struggles to last a lifetime.
He was a standout football player at Oceanside High School, a running back and safety with aspirations of playing at the next level - and perhaps beyond.
All of that was put on hold when Bedell tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee as a junior in 1992. He rehabilitated for months and was preparing for his big comeback as a senior.
But something wasn't right.
''My legs,'' Bedell recalled, ''they just started getting numb all the time.''
Bone scans, MRIs and visits to specialists followed - but his knee and legs appeared structurally fine. His doctors began running tests of Bedell's brain stem and spinal cord.
They found the tumor.
''It was slowly cutting off circulation to my body,'' Bedell said. ''So, within a couple of weeks, I would've been a vegetable.
''Within a month, I would've been dead.''
Bedell has the dates etched in his memory. He found out about the tumor - one of 65 people in the world at that time had that particular cancer, he was told - on Oct. 28, 1993. He met with his surgeon on Nov. 3. Bedell had surgery five days later.
He was told he would likely experience ''temporary weakness'' when he awoke from the surgery.
''But I couldn't feel my legs, and that's when it clicked in that, `OK, something isn't right here.'''
His doctors believed he'd be fully ambulatory within six months, so Bedell began counting the days as he pushed through rehabilitation.
Six months came and went with no progress. A year went by and still, nothing. Not 18 months later, either. Or two years.
''All my friends were going to college and everybody else around me was leaving home, so my whole inner circle, everyone's gone,'' he said. ''It's just me. Everyone else's life is progressing, but my life isn't.''
His level of paralysis is classified as ''incomplete,'' because there was no tear of the spinal cord. His doctors couldn't explain what had happened, and neither could his family.
''That was the frustrating thing because there were no answers anywhere,'' he said. ''Why can't I walk? I really don't know.''
The toughest moments came late at night, when the house was quiet and Bedell - who stayed in a hospital bed set up in the living room for four years - was alone in his thoughts.
''There's kind of like a dichotomy where the person you were before and the person you are, there's a constant battle of them fighting it out, so to speak,'' he said. ''In my head, I'm that same person. But the way I live my life, I couldn't do those things anymore.''
Bedell refused to give up. He bought a car that he learned to operate with his hands, went to Nassau Community College, and worked on getting a psychology degree. He ended up at Hofstra University and got a job as a vocational rehab counselor. In 2001, the Jets hired the company Bedell was working as consultants.
A year later, he was offered a full-time position and has been with the Jets since. He answered phones at the front desk for a few years, and also worked as a scouting and coaching assistant for a couple of seasons. In 2006, Bedell was offered his current position under Clay Hampton, the team's senior director of football operations.
''He never has a bad day,'' Hampton said. ''He's always the guy who shares a laugh or makes you feel good. He's got a tough situation, but I don't think of him being in a chair. When I first met him, I did, but not now. And that's a tribute to him.''
Bedell has done everything he can to make the wheelchair he sits in virtually invisible.
''I wouldn't say I'm accepting it, because honestly, I'll never accept it,'' Bedell said. ''I'm never OK with not walking. I'm not OK with being in a wheelchair. But I'm not bitter about it. It's just kind of one of those things where in life, you can't play the hand you want. You have to play the hand you're dealt.''
Today, Bedell is 39, been married for three years and living in Northern New Jersey in a home completely accessible, with ramps, a roll-in shower, everything he needs.
He's also uncomfortable with being labeled an ''inspiration.''
''There's no reason anyone should let anything stop them,'' Bedell said. ''There's really only so much feeling sorry for yourself. It's going to get you. I'm going to wake up tomorrow and the chair's going to be by my bed and I'm going to get in it and I'm going to go to work. That's just the way it is. I can't change it, so why let it drag me down?
''So, turn it around. Let that be the driving force of this is why I'm going to do it, not that I can't do it. Do the opposite. It's so easy to do nothing. It's so easy to quit. The hard thing is to fight back and not accept it.''
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