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Teammates inspired him

Pictured at top, Kiel Eigen walks under the watchful eye of OFHS Trainer Angie Kleback. Above, Eigen stands with senior teammates Connor Fultz, Dom Avvisato, Tony Goodall, Tim McGrath, Mario Martinelli, BIll Nocera and Brian Palma.

photos by rick notari

photo by rick notari

It takes Kiel Eigen anywhere from 25-30 steps to walk from the baseline to halfcourt in the Elio Ghigiarelli Gymnasium at Old Forge High School.

That’s right. Read it again.

I wrote walk.

It has been four-and-a-half years since the Old Forge High School senior suffered paralysis on a simple tackle on a kickoff during a freshman football game in early September of 2006. Since that day, Eigen has had one goal etched in his mind – to walk again.

Tuesday night he will do just that for the first time in public.

For almost a year, Eigen has been practicing his steps with the aid of Angie Kleback of Physical Therapy Associates of Northeastern Pennsylvania - who serves as the OFHS team trainer - and a set of leg braces and a walker.

“I have been walking with the braces for almost a year and at the school since November about 3-4 days per week,” said Eigen. “Usually I go through a stretch for about 10-15 minutes and then the majority of basketball practice, I walk.

“Right from day one, the only thought I had was that I was going to walk. This was the goal. But it’s baby steps. First you have to crawl, and then walk and then run. My first goal was to be able to move my arms, and then to push the manual chair, and then to start walking. It actually was a hop at first because there was a bar holding my legs together. Then we got rid of the bar and it was one foot in front of the other with the walker.”

Always a fierce competitor, Kiel views the process of getting back on his feet as his way of feeding his desire to be on the winning end of things.

“Everything I do is a competition,” said Eigen who is also a member of the Blue and Gold Chapter of the National Honor Society at OFHS. “Whether it is walking, lifting weights, any games, cards, checkers, I always try to win in any way I can.

“And this is just another one of those things.”

Like every competitor, Eigen has been dedicated to the sports he once actively participated in despite not being able to step on the playing surfaces with his teammates. Honored recently by the Old Forge Quarterback Club with the retirement of his jersey, Eigen has never missed a football or basketball practice or a game in either sport. It is something his teammates take notice of every day.

“The injury to Kiel was devastating when it happened,” said Connor Fultz, a senior member of both the football and basketball teams at Old Forge. “But seeing him grow from the injury and going through the recovery process, he hasn’t changed a bit. His personality is still the same.

“And he is still as dedicated as ever. To see how dedicated he is just pushes the whole team. To see him here everyday is an inspiration to us. When we are having a rough day, you see him sitting there and you know he wants to be out here with us as much as anyone else. It helps you get through the hard times.”

That inspiration is also recognized by veteran Blue Devils basketball coach Al Semenza.

“Kiel is an unbelievable inspiration,” said Semenza. “I don’t think I have met an individual with any more determination than this kid. He just has an unbelievable outlook on his situation. I’m sure there are days that it’s on his mind that he wishes he was out there with his teammates but he doesn’t ever show us that. He just continues to come here every day with a smile on his face and continues to plug away and keep working.

“I truly believe one day he is going to walk without the walker, without the braces.”

According to Eigen, it was Semenza’s idea for him to walk with his teammates and parents before the Blue Devils last home game of the season against Holy Cross.

“Coach Al asked me before the season started about how I felt about walking during practice,” said Eigen who will attend King’s College in the fall to study History and Pre-Law. “I had no problem with it and he talked to Angie and we worked out a schedule. Basically every time we have practice I have walked in the gym. The guys have been great. Dom (Avvisato) and Tony (Goodall) are always giving me compliments at practice, and Coach Al screams something to me as if I were practicing with the team.

“After a few weeks of practice he came up to me and asked if I would be willing to walk out for senior night.”

Asked if he would be nervous come Tuesday night, the confident competitor that Kiel is answered quickly.

“Losers get nervous. Winners have confidence. Coach Luke (Former Old Forge assistant basketball coach Art Lucarelli) put it to me that way. People have always told me I am going to get there. The support I have received from my friends and teammates has been great.

“I think that I finally see that I gave them motivation going through what I have gone through, and I see it more when I am walking during practice. But I don’t see it as me being anything to them. I see it as them being something to me. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am now. They are a great support system for me and my family too. Without everyone I don’t know where I would be or where I would end up.”

Where he hopes to end up is where Semenza envisions him – walking without the walker.

After basketball season is over, Eigen says his next goal will be to walk with the aid of canes, and then to walk with just braces.

“The next goal is to get rid of the walker and get to the canes,” said Eigen. “Baby steps. Just like I have been doing so far.”

But before that can happen, Eigen and his teammates are focusing on Senior Parents Night on Tuesday.

“It is going to be a special moment,” said Fultz. I can’t wait for it. I have been egging him on to do this for a while, and I am glad Coach Al has gotten him to do it. It is going to be a special day, especially at our last home game.”

Semenza agreed. “I think it is going to be an unbelievable night, and that anyone who witnesses it will never forget the rest of their lives him walking out there.”

The magnitude of what will happen Tuesday night isn’t lost on Eigen either.

“I always had it in my head that I would (walk in public). But I never thought it would be this soon. The things I want to accomplish, I have not necessarily put a deadline on, but this time I did. This will be the first – senior night. It’s not exactly how I wanted to celebrate senior night, but I’ll take it.

“I think a lot of people are going to be pretty amazed come Tuesday night.”

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