Sporting Life

The long-term impact of a collision

One hit at the Yale-Harvard football game changed the course of Jesse Reising's life.

Jessie Kriech-Higdon

Jessie Kriech-Higdon

At home in Decatur, Illinois, Jesse Reising ’11 is preparing to go to Afghanistan to work for a contractor. View full image

As Jesse Reising ’11 lay motionless and barely conscious on the 27-yard line at Harvard Stadium last November 20, a fear flitted through his mind: his injuries could prevent him from becoming a marine.

Reising, who grew up in Decatur, Illinois, was the first student from Eisenhower High School to come to Yale since former football captain Pat Ruwe ’83, ’87MD. “America truly is the land of opportunity if a guy like me could end up at Yale,” says Reising. Grateful for that opportunity, he decided he wanted to serve his country in the US Marine Corps; he spent the summer of 2009 at Officer Candidates School, and he was on his way to being commissioned as a second lieutenant.

But after delivering a crushing hit in the fourth quarter of the 2010 Harvard game—just 9 minutes and 53 seconds before the scheduled end of his football career—Reising found himself being examined by Ruwe, now the team doctor. Tests eventually revealed that the impact had detached two nerves in his neck, rendering his right arm useless above the elbow. Joining the marines was out of the question.

But Reising refused to feel sorry for himself. “A lot of people have it worse off than I do,” he says. “I don’t have any right to pretend I’m some victim.” He began investigating career alternatives, and a vast network of alumni athletes got to work on his behalf.

Darren Gruendel ’91, a former football player and marine, helped Reising secure an assignment working for the construction and engineering giant Fluor, which provides contractor support and logistics work to the US military overseas. Reising’s role will be to help supervise the construction of military bases in Afghanistan. (In early August, he was still awaiting medical clearance from the government.)

In the meantime, Reising and a friend, Nick Rugoff ’11, have been working on a charitable endeavor to complement their day jobs. Combining Reising’s military orientation with Rugoff’s experience as a tutor, they are organizing a nonprofit called Operation Opportunity, which aims to provide assistance in the college admissions process to the children of fallen soldiers. Rugoff’s neighbor Chris Howell ’13, who served nine years with the Australian Army and is now working on his Yale bachelor’s degree, suggested offering similar services to returning veterans, many of whom are as unfamiliar with the college landscape as 17-year-olds.

Reising hopes to launch the two programs—the Gold Star Scholar Project and the Warrior-Scholar Project—next year. He is currently recruiting a team of volunteers he calls the “Ivy Corps” to serve as mentors in person and online.

Reising’s physical recovery is still in its early stages, and the outcome is far from certain. He spends on average 20 hours a week in rehab. At first he barely had the strength to squeeze a tube of toothpaste. Now he can hold a pencil, and if he uses his left hand to guide his right, he can write. In late April he underwent a procedure intended to stimulate movement in his right arm: the best the doctors expect is that in three years he will be able to curl a 5- to 15-pound dumbbell. Humbling goals for a linebacker. But Reising says he has no regrets.

“We know the risks when we step onto the football field,” he says. “I lost the Marine Corps. I was devastated at the time. But it’s just a matter of finding other ways to serve.”

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