'The score doesn’t matter'
Tagliaferro overcomes brain injury to compete for Buckeyes
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- As soon as Vinny Tagliaferro saw his son Nick’s hands slip on the high bar during the 2008 Junior Olympic Regionals, the world went in a blurry haze of slow motion.
Neither of them could possibly have known what was about to happen, or of the pain, disappointment and redemption that was to follow. It’s been more than five years since the slip caused Nick, then a promising gymnast at Washington Township High School, to completely miss the landing mat and strike his head violently on the ground.
The path back was a hard one, harder than any athlete should ever have to experience. The cerebral and vestibular concussions and three damaged neck vertebrae Nick sustained in the accident left him with severe headaches, vertigo and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. At one point, he was partially paralyzed and could barely walk.
His speech slurred and he had trouble reading. He forgot how to perform other very basic tasks, like telling time on an analog clock.
After more than 15 months, he was able to start training again. Then, he tore his left rotator cuff not once, but twice shortly thereafter would have left many if not most on the sidelines for good. The injuries required surgery and still more long months of rehab.
There are miracles in every realm of the sports world -- the Miracle Mets, the Miracle on Ice Olympic hockey team, the Music City Miracle and more. Yet, the very fact that Nick Tagliaferro was at the NCAA championships this week, attempting to qualify on rings for the national finals, is a miracle of the highest order.
Nick did not make the cut, but that doesn't matter. He was a champion the very moment he stepped back onto the mat for Ohio State at the beginning of the season.
“It’s incredibly hard to describe how amazing this year in general has been,” Nick said. “Fighting so many demons in order to just compete in one meet, it meant the world to me. The fact that I’ve been contributing to a program I grew up watching -- this is the top place I wanted to go. This is just extremely special.”
To fully comprehend what it meant for Nick to just get to Penn State for the qualifying rounds, it’s necessary to understand the depths to which he fell not so long ago. One day, he was a happy, healthy gymnast who was talking to colleges about their gymnastics programs and the next he was all but an invalid.
He couldn’t walk without holding onto a wall. Medications gave him nosebleeds for days on end. He wore noise-reducing head phones and ear plugs to guard against headache-inducing sound. The headaches got so bad that he would sometimes dunk his head in ice water in hopes of somehow easing the pain.
Nick was a high-school junior, just 17 years old.
“I really wanted to remain hidden,” Nick said. “People knew me as a strong gymnast, and to be in a state where I was sort of useless was something that I really couldn’t bear. So I really kind of isolated myself. It was tough.”
Vinny and wife Jeanie watched as Nick struggled to get back to form. When Vinny had to work, Jeanie took Nick to doctor's appointments, therapists and more.
They were there, every slow, painful, tentative step of the way. Once, Vinny had to excuse himself from watching one of Nick’s therapy sessions. He walked into a hallway, sat down and began to sob.
Parents aren’t supposed to see their children go through such things. Nevertheless, the family was inspired by the sheer force of Nick’s will and determination.
“He was not going to stop,” Vinny said. “That carried our family through it, the fact that he wasn’t giving up. It’s one of those things where the student becomes the teacher.
“Here you are and you’re a dad, trying to bring up your kid in the best way possible. Brick wall after brick wall was thrown up in front of this kid, and he just said, ‘I’m going to climb each and every one.’”
After spending his freshman year of college at Rowan, Nick prepared to return to gymnastics with a partial scholarship at Ohio State. After everything he’d already been through, the rotator cuff injuries would have ended a lot of athletic careers.
To Nick, it was just another roadblock to clear.
“The amount of mental fortitude it took to come back from the head injury was something, and then to have another injury, it was just like, ‘I can’t catch any breaks. Here we go again,’” Nick said. “But it never deterred me. I always knew I was going to fight through. I guess I’m fortunate that I’m more mentally strong than my body is physically.”
Although Nick's junior season may not have had a movie-like ending, Vinny is certainly happy to see his son competing at the collegiate level again.
“There’s so many people that have so many struggles,” Vinny said. “Nick still has struggles, but I know for a fact that they’re not going to beat him. He’s going to overcome everything that’s thrown at him and be successful and happy in life.
“That’s really what this meet means. It’s another chapter in what’s going to be a really happy and successful life for my son. What else could any other parent want? Just the fact that he’s here -- the score doesn’t matter. The score is what he gets. It’s just the fact that he’s there that’s the inspirational thing.”