BUFFALO, NY - Less than six months after an illegal move left him paralyzed on the mat at the Mid-American Conference wrestling championships and four months after heroically walking across the stage at graduation to defy all odds, Dan Bishop will return to the Buffalo Bulls wrestling program, this time as a member of head coach Jim Beichner's staff.
The team proudly announced that Bishop, a 2010 graduate and four-year member of the team, will join it as an Administrative Assistant. Bishop's duties will include office work and arranging hotel accommodations and the team's daily scheduling, but the help he offers the Bulls outside of his office work will be much more valuable.
"He basically will be helping to keep us organized and help us in the office and help this team run smoothly throughout the year," Beichner said.
"Dan loves Buffalo and he wanted to be in Buffalo and around the team and he wanted to help any way he could," added Beichner. "We're very lucky to have Danny stick around and help the team. For him to want to stay around the program is just a tremendous bonus for us."
With the team becoming an extension of his family, Bishop knew he couldn't turn his back on the Bulls program.
"When I got knocked down, they were right behind me. It's hard to bail out on them now that I have my life back together," Bishop said. "Before I got injured I planned to move to New York City and I had a job lined up, but this is just a better opportunity for me."
A native of Whitehall, NY, Bishop's stature belies his incredible ability on the mat, and he wears the wrestler's badge of honor – a cauliflower ear – but also scars unique to him and his hellish days, weeks and months in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation clinics.
Bishop was rolling to a berth in the MAC 125-pound championship match when a freak landing in the semifinals fractured his C5 and C6 vertebrae and damaged a major artery, leaving him with no feeling throughout his body. He underwent emergency surgery to relieve the inflammation on his spinal cord. The successful surgery fused the two vertebrae back together and his limbs regained feeling soon after.
After initially facing the grim prospect of permanent paralysis, Bishop and his family soon moved towards a new goal – getting Dan to walk on his own power across the stage to receive his diploma in sociology. With the calendar showing just two months before commencement, Bishop went to work, rehabbing tirelessly with that one goal in mind.
"I got woken up to my dad saying 'Danny, there's an 80 percent chance you'll never walk again,' and I just laughed at him," Bishop said. "Most people wouldn't do that but I just thought 'nope, I'm walking.' I think it's a great attitude to have. Before my injury in wrestling, some people said that I was cocky but I was just confident in myself."
"Anybody that knows the story knows that this is a young man who could be in a wheelchair right now and the story has turned out to be a great blessing for him and his family," Beichner said.
With a triumphant march across the stage to receive his diploma and a new lease on life, Bishop put aside his dream of becoming a salesman at a family-owned carpet company and instead moved into a career as a mentor and member of the Bulls staff. It seemed only natural for him to give back.
"When I was doing the rehab and my therapists were helping me out so much, and at that point I didn't know if I'd be able to walk again, or work again," Bishop said, "I didn't know if I'd be able to give back to anybody so once I was able to give back, why not give back to the people who have given so much to me?"
The list of those who gave is a long one for Bishop, because from the moment he hit the mat, he received an outpouring of help and support from many different sources. Athletic trainer Allison Gammell and coach Beichner's staff were the first to his side after the fall, stabilizing him and making sure that all that could be done for him at that time, was being done. Next up was elite neurosurgeon E. Malcolm Field, who correctly assessed the situation and then led the emergency surgery that is credited with Bishop's fast recovery.
Apart from the outstanding medical effort, the outpouring of support began in earnest from across the country soon after his accident to aid Bishop. Even from an unlikely source.
Gabe Ramos, the wrestler from Ohio University who was Bishop's opponent in that fateful match, also reached out.
"It was about two days after the injury, his (Ramos') dad emailed athletic director Warde Manuel and it got to (Coach) Beichner and he sent it to our family. We read the note and it was so sincere so I told my dad to call him right away," Bishop said. "Gabe himself got a hold of me two months later through Facebook. He told me how proud he was of the way I responded and kept fighting."
Beichner can now only sit back and marvel at the personal and physical strides his former wrestler and current staff member has made.
"You can hear it in his voice and see it in his eyes; here's a guy who could have pointed fingers," said Beichner. "You could have heard a lot of different things from Dan and his family, but all you heard was 'this is a challenge but I'm going to overcome it just like I did in everything else in my life.' That's the way they decided to approach it and it was refreshing to see."
When asked about what message of support struck him the most throughout his recovery period, Bishop barely hesitated before coming up with the answer.
"This girl from Chicago wrote me a message after I graduated and told me her story. She said 'I'm 23 years old, when I was 21 I was paralyzed from the waist down and I was ready to kill myself. I read your story and I am so fired up to get back into rehab. You got me so fired up for rehab and a second chance at life,' and I cried," Bishop remembered.
"It's a pretty amazing feeling and even though I've never met the girl in real life and I probably never will, just to know it is a beautiful thing."
Now back on his feet and thankful for the life he's living, Bishop has gained a clarity that he hopes to use to help others.
"My goal is just to give back," Bishop said. "I've seen the worst and I've been to hell and back. I went from being an elite athlete to a vegetable to now being back to somewhat average. Every day I wake up smiling and enjoying life."
Bishop even went to far as to say that the life-changing event was the best thing to ever happen to him.
"When I go and tell my story, and I've given a few speeches, it's amazing because people will be on the edge of their seat and their chins will hit the floor and just to see their response is great," he added.
Fighting and persistency is not a new concept to Bishop. His leadership qualities were well known within the team, as he served as a senior leader who was a positive influence even before facing adversity.
"He was a great kid before his injury, so it isn't like you're talking about a problem child who turned into a saint," Beichner said. "What you are talking about is a young man who learned a valuable lesson in life and somebody who appreciates what he's got in front of him."
The 125 pound wrestler may not have been a problem child, but Bishop had to develop his relationship with Beichner, who enters his 16th season with the program.
"For the first four years we weren't that close, and then my senior year I stepped up as a team player and as a man in general," Bishop said. "We grew closer my senior year and with my injury, I woke up to Coach Beichner. He was shaking me after I had my surgery and he was there from day one. He was calling me every day to check up on me and his kids were checking up on me."
"This (wrestling) is his business, it's his livelihood as a coach, so I finally got to see the other side of Jim Beichner, which is a great side," he added. "He's a great coach and a great individual but when you get to see the real person, he is a special person. He also had to deal with the situation with Jeff Parker (a former Bull who passed away in May), so he has had a pretty tough year and I think he has responded."
Despite his miraculous comeback, Bishop still is trying to build up his stamina and strength, a startlingly basic goal considering the mountainous odds he faced mere months before. He is well aware of where he has come from and also where he still needs, and wants, to go.
"I've been done with rehab for two months. I'm working now and I'm even starting to lift weights. I'm about 80 percent back together, just some internal issues," Bishop said, adding with a wry smile, "I could even go back right now and show some of the guys some moves."