Grayslake North's Bernstein bounces back, pursues state meet goal
Holding the shot against his once-broken neck, Grayslake North senior Ryan Bernstein held nothing back.
He twirled his 6-foot, 230-pound frame and unleashed the metal ball.
And never winced.
In Grayslake North's first outdoor meet of the season, against Antioch, on senior day, with family watching, Bernstein sailed the shot a school-record 51 feet, 4 inches. He knew what he had just accomplished.
"It was a beautiful day," he said.
Understand that Bernstein had missed all but one quarter of the football season last fall after breaking two bones in his neck on opening night. He was determined to get back to competition before he graduated high school.
"It was the night before that first outdoor meet," Bernstein said. "I had the realization of what I've gone through. I set the goal at the end of season last year that I was going to go to state in track and field. Once I just realized that this was my last outdoor season, I keep telling myself that nothing is going to stop me."
Fractured C5 and C7 vertebrae haven't stopped Bernstein, who on Thursday night attempts to secure state berths in the shot put and discus, as Grayslake North hosts a Class 3A sectional. His season-best throw in the shot put is just shy of the 52-7 qualifying mark. He has yet to hit the 154-7 qualifying standard in the discus, although he has nailed it in practice. The top-two finishers in each event at sectionals advance to state.
Getting to where he is today hasn't been easy.
"I struggled with the shot at the beginning of the year," Bernstein said. "I kept getting stingers and stuff like that. But we were able to work through that. I went to physical therapy and I was able to strengthen and stretch out my neck. I haven't felt one of those (stingers) in two months."
The journey started in the Grayslake North football team's season opener at Willowbrook. Near the end of the first quarter, Bernstein, a returning starter on defense, started to roll through his tackle, when a teammate hustled to clean up the pile. Bernstein got his head knocked.
"I didn't think it was as severe as it was," Bernstein said. "I kept playing because I thought it was just a pinched nerve or something."
But when he went to the sideline, student athletic trainer Taylor Lerman noticed Bernstein didn't lean his neck back to take a swig of water. Rather, he arched his back.
"I wasn't able to take off my helmet to get my water so I just tried to squirt it through my face mask," Bernstein said.
Within seconds, Grayslake North athletic trainer Caitlin Bender and her staff were unscrewing Bernstein's face mask, cutting his chin strap and jersey, and sliding his helmet off.
He had broken a pair of vertebrae.
"I couldn't really believe it," Bernstein said. "I thought they were messing with me when they said it was 8-12 weeks out. I didn't really think about it until that following Friday when we started taking the field (for the home opener against Sycamore) and I was on the sideline on that opening kickoff. That's when it really hit me that they weren't kidding."
Bernstein's season was over. The Knights recovered from a 1-2 start to finish the regular season with a 6-2 record. They advanced to the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.
"I can't put it in words how tough it was on me (missing the season)," Bernstein said. "I've been dreaming since I was 5 or 6 about playing college football, and that (opportunity) kind of got taken away from me."
Bernstein wore a hard brace around his neck for only a week, but his recovery was just starting.
He credits Bender for helping him stay on the road to recovery.
"I'm not the smartest guy," Bernstein joked. "I was making bad decisions right after (the injury). I was trying to go into heavy lifting. I was trying to stay in shape for football because I thought I was coming back. But she kept a short leash on me and made sure I did what I was supposed to do."
Bernstein's lost season of football means he won't play in college next year. He plans to attend the College of Lake County and see where his future leads him.
Like the shot and discus, considering his resiliency and determination, he could go far.
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