Comeback player savors the moment
The Ursuline tight end recovered from a minor stroke in 2000 to lead his team deep into the playoffs this season.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Ursuline High football player Louis Irizarry made a verbal commitment to Ohio State last August, so when schools like Miami and Florida offered him official visits, he did what any dedicated recruit would do.
He said yes.
"I really didn't think I was going to go, but I talked to a lot of recruits and they said you should take your visits," Irizarry, a first-team all-Ohio tight end for the Irish, said. "It helps you get it out of your system."
He paused, then added with a laugh, "And I hear in Miami they put you in a Jacuzzi."
Don't worry OSU fans, Irizarry is still committed to the Buckeyes. But he's not going to turn down a few days in the Florida sun -- and a few steak dinners.
"Nothing has changed, and if anything it's helped me be stronger about my choice," he said. "It helps me compare and know that what I have is really, really special."
Irizarry -- this year's Vindicator football player of the year -- is a four-year letter-winner for the Irish, who overcame a bad start to advance to the Division IV state semifinal, losing to Portsmouth West.
It was an unlikely finish to an unusual season, and the Irish proved they could overcome adversity to achieve their goals.
And Irizarry has plenty of experience in that area.
On March 30, 2000 -- just a few months after helping the Irish to a state title -- Irizarry was walking to the football office after school when his teammates noticed that his words started to slur. At first, they thought he was kidding around, but the slurring got worse and they eventually called an ambulance.
He was taken to a hospital and woke up three hours later to find the right side of his body paralyzed, his speech still slurred and his future in doubt.
"The first thing they told me was that I might not be able to play football again," he said. "It was unbelievable."
Irizarry officially suffered a minor stroke -- doctors suspect that a small blood vessel burst -- but he was out of action for more than a month. He returned for the disastrous 2001 season, which saw the Irish forfeit four games for using an academically ineligible player and miss the playoffs. Months later, head coach Jim Vivo left, and the Irish hired first year head coach Dan Murphy.
Up and down
This season started rough -- Ursuline went 5-5 -- but the Irish slipped into the playoffs and won their first three games against Akron Manchester, East Palestine and Girard.
"It was a total shocker when we got in [the playoffs], so I made sure to spend extra time with the team," Irizarry said. "I wanted to make sure I had fun and enjoy the opportunity, so I stayed a little longer after practice and made sure I made memories. I knew it would come to an end sometime."
In addition to his natural talent and drive, Irizarry is a good student -- he has a 3.9 grade point average -- and a better person, Murphy said.
"He's a self-starter," Murphy said. "He does a lot of things on his own. He's a very gifted athlete, but he's also a very unselfish player. Even when he wasn't getting the ball thrown his way, he didn't complain.
"He's got a great head on his shoulders and he's very mature. He's going to have a long football future."
The ties that bind
Irizarry has fully recovered from the stroke and, because of it, has grown even closer with his best friend and teammate, Terrence Graves.
Graves, who became friends with Irizarry as a freshman, has Type 1 diabetes.
"At first we just got along great, but then I found out I was a diabetic and he had a stroke and we became stronger friends," Graves, also a Division I college recruit, said. "We originally planned to go to college together, but things happen and it didn't work out. It's going to be hard without him."
Which is why Irizarry makes sure to enjoy the time he has left.
"When the season is over and the dream stops, you realize that you're going to go your separate ways," Irizarry said. "But I feel lucky to have been here. It'll be hard, but it helps you grow up."