Steve Riley is good at fixing things.
For 30 years, this New Hampshire native worked with his hands, building houses. Then, he would help fix other things that couldn't be repaired with tools.
Relationships. Arguments inside the family. He took care of it all.
"It's what I've always done," Riley, 51, said. "If it broke, I fixed it."
But 51/2 years ago, when a construction accident broke Riley's body, no one could fix it. It left him paralyzed, in a wheelchair.
But, it didn't break his spirit.
"Steve is the same guy he was before the accident," said Joan Kazanowski, his girlfriend of 61/2 years. "He's in a wheelchair, but he's never changed dramatically."
Steve Riley was excited.
For the past year, he had been dating Kazanowski. On Nov. 7, 2003, they planned a romantic dinner to celebrate their one-year anniversary.
It was the only thing on his mind that day. Riley was a worker, a divorced dad of three paying child support. He worked, he went home, and repeated it the next day.
"I missed maybe a week and half of work in 30 years due to being sick," Riley said.
That all changed in an instant.
Riley and his crew were removing a great wall from a upscale home in New Hampshire. The wall was nearly two stories tall and workers were raising it with a strap attached to a forklift.
The wall came up crooked, so Riley went over to the low end to try and balance it out. Just as he looked up at the strap, it slipped off the forklift.
He was trapped, and the wall landed on his stomach. It broke his L1 vertebra and spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down. He also had a collapsed lung, broken ribs and a lacerated liver.
He tells the story slowly, with a somber look, and his eyes glaze a bit as he stares off into the distance.
"It hurt like hell," Riley said.
An unexpected calling
For four days, Riley was in pure pain. His body was more swollen than a sponge. His doctors asked lots of questions, and then stuck him in a rotating bed that made his broken ribs hurt more.
After surgery, he went to a rehabilitation hospital in Salem, N.H. There, Riley would learn how to use his wheelchair, to transfer himself from the chair and to live life as a paraplegic.
"It was tough to hear," Riley said. "I kind of didn't want to believe (the doctor) at first, but in the back of my mind, I knew he knew what he was talking about. It's pretty common that you're going to be depressed.
"I didn't want to be depressed. I didn't want to bring my family down. I just pushed denial away because it is what it is and I had to make the best it."
Kazanowski recalls advice people gave her after the accident. She realized quickly she wasn't going to listen.
"Some people would later tell me about staying with Steve, 'Run. Run for your life,' and I knew I wasn't going to," said Kazanowski, who watched her first husband die from pancreatic cancer. "There was just no way. They were acting like he was a monster, and he didn't deserve that.
"I still loved being with him."
Riley still had to fix things though, but had no idea how or what to do. Eventually, he asked — practically begged — for the rehab center to give him a job.
This one didn't come with a tool belt, but the center set him up to talk to other patients who had recently been in accidents like Riley's. There he could help fix people, trying to keep them out of depression.
"I knew I could talk to people, because if they were anything like me, they'd have a million questions they want answered," he said.
Becoming an athlete
Before long, Riley knew he needed exercise.
He used to golf before the accident, but golf is entirely different from a wheelchair. Actually, Riley now uses a specially designed chair to help him stand a bit and make his swings. He also bowls.
Riley, who splits his year between New Hampshire and Brooksville, has also taken up wheelchair tennis. And the soon-to-be grandfather is always recruiting new players. He and Kazanowski look for new players whenever they see someone in a wheelchair.
With such a full life and his girlfriend by his side, Riley says it's almost — almost — like nothing happened.
"(Joan) stuck by me. I'm very grateful for that," Riley said. "She's stuck by me through lots of tough times and its not easy. She could've left, but I'm thankful for her."
Community Sports Editor Mike Camunas can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 544-1771.