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InterMat Rewind: Comeback

Mark Palmer

9/14/2011
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

"I sustained a major head injury and my life had been tragically altered forever. I will never have that pre-accident swagger again."

Those are the words of Richard "Dickie" Bouzakis, a former high school and college wrestler who survived a serious car accident in 1986 that killed the driver, and put the former matman from Orange County, New York in a coma for nearly two months.

The past 25 years has been a series of challenges for Bouzakis, who shares his story in a brand-new book, Comeback: A Wrestler's Story of Triumph and Tragedy.

Before the accident

Bouzakis was introduced to wrestling as a fifth-grader, getting involved with his younger brother Troy in the Orange Crushers kids wrestling club. At Pine Bush High School, Bouzakis crafted an impressive mat career. As a freshman, he compiled a 27-3 record; as a junior, he earned Outstanding Wrestler of the Orange County League tournament. In his senior year, Bouzakis placed second in the New York State Championships.

After graduating from Pine Bush High in 1985, Dickie Bouzakis headed to James Madison University in Virginia to continue his wrestling career. However, the transition to college was rough one for Bouzakis on and off the mat. As Bouzakis told Scott Casber of Takedown Wrestling in a recent audio interview, "In college I learned to party. I didn't always make the right decisions."

Richard Bouzakis
That may describe what happened in July 1986, when Dickie Bouzakis left one party in search of another. Bouzakis climbed into a car with a friend; that friend lost control of his car, crashing at high speed. The driver was dead at the scene; emergency crews arriving on the scene saw no sign of Bouzakis for a while, until they found him attached to a shoe that was the only portion of him visible in the wreckage.

The outward signs of injury to Bouzakis were serious -- a broken jaw and dislocated elbow were among the obvious injuries -- that would heal in time. Doctors credit Bouzakis' survival to his wearing a seatbelt, and being in peak condition as a wrestler. (At the time, Bouzakis was in training for the Empire State Games in New York.) However, the upper brain stem injury was a more formidable opponent.

Coming out of a cocoon into recovery

Bouzakis opens his book Comeback: A Wrestler's Story of Triumph and Tragedy describing his time in the hospital immediately after the accident. In his recollection of coming out of the two-month coma, Bouzakis compares the process to a "human butterfly" as it emerges from a cocoon.

Being comatose for nearly 2 months in the summer of 1986, it was much like a dream world to me. I was dreaming thus my mind was working trying to explain my surroundings. I was non-verbal, non-communicative and non-functioning ... I had no physical functioning to do much more then twist and arch in bed. I could not speak due to a wired jaw or a problem in the motor area of speech communication. Diagnosed with an upper brain stem injury, a severe closed head injury, I was a mere blueprint of my former self. My motor skills, my coordination, my balance and control centers were severely damaged.

In his interview with InterMat, Bouzakis said, "I poured my heart and soul into coming out of the coma." When asked if his wrestling background was a factor in his recovery, Bouzakis responded, "The physical pain I could deal with, no big deal. The mental pain was the roughest part. I had to keep telling myself, 'I'm going to remake myself.'"

During the coma, Richard Bouzakis lost 35 pounds of muscle
The opening chapter -- appropriately titled "Emerge" -- goes into incredible detail of Bouzakis' long process of recovery and rehab from the near-fatal accident. One of the byproducts: during the coma, Bouzakis lost 35 pounds of muscle. Some basic skills that we all take for granted -- talking and walking, for example -- had to be relearned. Not to mention seemingly small "activities of daily living," such as discovering that the purpose of a toothbrush is not to comb your hair ... or that drinking out of a regular glass or cup was perilous without a lid and a straw.

Bouzakis also had to learn to control tremors in various parts of his body that prevented him from sitting still while unsupported. It required all the focus and concentration he could muster -- and then some.

While at the Hillcrest Head Injury Recovery Center in Milford, New York, therapy became Bouzakis' full-time job. Seemingly endless hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy. As he writes in his book, "Wrestling gave me an internal drive and an iron will."

There were times the frustration threatened to win out. Bouzakis told of a time when he was working on an exercise inserting pegs into a pegboard, describing it as "like trying to put a football into a golf hole." His therapist -- who went on to become a boxer -- sensed the frustration, and took the wrestler to a room with a mat on the floor, and let Bouzakis take out his frustration and aggression using a pugil stick, a long pole with padding at the ends, used in military training for hand-to-hand combat.

Putting into words

When asked how the book came together, Richard Bouzakis responded, "Once I wrote the first chapter, discipline was no problem."

"The whole thing was my idea," said Bouzakis. "With my disability, I can spend hours at the computer."

The entire process took approximately a year and a half. As Bouzakis puts it, "I went to college to study health. I'm not a writer."

That said, Bouzakis followed up by saying, "Head injury people often discover a creative talent. Writing was mine. I really enjoy writing poems."

"I don't believe any head-injury guy has written a book about coming out of a coma and his life since."

"(Writing is) a form of therapy," Bouzakis continued. "I wanted to get my story out."

And, he wanted the story to be his, down to the way he put words together for his book.

"I'm very aggressive, and that's the way my story is, and it's staying that way."

He asked a former girlfriend -- who is now a newspaper writer -- to go over what he had written. "She said I should keep it in my own words. She didn't make any structure or grammar changes."

A story worth sharing

Now 44 years old, Richard Bouzakis wants to share his story. Not just with his new book, but in other ways as well.

Olympic champion Ed Banach visited Richard Bouzakis
"I speak at monthly victim-impact panel meetings," said the author of Comeback of his presentations to various groups in the hope of changing risky behaviors and making smart choices by stopping and taking time to think before acting.

"I don't want people to feel bad for me, but I want people to be safer."

"I know that I'm getting through to these guys."

Bouzakis is also passionate about letting others know the importance of getting proper care for head injuries of any type, no matter the cause -- whether it's a car accident, or from participating in sports.

"Once you've sustained a head injury, it's important to get a medical report to document the situation," Bouzakis told Takedown Wrestling's Scott Casber as he talked about advising a woman whose son had suffered a concussion during a wrestling match. "If you have problems in the future, that documentation could help in terms of getting better care in the future, when you're not able to communicate for yourself."

Even with time spent writing the book and sharing his experiences with others, Bouzakis still finds time to be active in the sport he loves. He serves as a volunteer coach at Pine Bush High School, saying, "I coach every day of the season."

He also has made his presence felt at clinics put on by Cornell University, and at the New York State Wrestling Championships.

"They can appreciate me for my wrestling prowess, but I'd rather be doing what I'm doing."

Richard Bouzakis with his mother
Comeback: A Wrestler's Story of Triumph and Tragedy tells the story of one former wrestler's life since a near-fatal car accident, overcoming obstacles tougher than any opponent on the mat. Richard Bouzakis shares his story in a very honest, unflinching way. His writing style is very conversational; in fact, as a reader, you feel as if you're listening to Bouzakis -- or reading a private journal -- as he shares details of the most recent 25 years of his life, painful and challenging as they are. Yet, in the tragedy and challenge and frustration, there is triumph and success and inspiration, too. All of these elements make Comeback especially vital reading for wrestlers, coaches and fans.

The book resonates beyond the world of wrestling. Awareness of brain injuries has increased in recent years, with news stories about concussion dangers in various sports, including football, soccer, and, yes, wrestling ... as well as reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involving soldiers suffering trauma in battle, along with the well-publicized stories of injured TV war correspondents Bob Woodruff and Kimberly Dozier.

Bouzakis' background as a wrestler may have made him uniquely strong for the challenges he continues to battle to this day. "From my days on the mat, my life has changed dramatically and I never foresaw this injury happening to me," Bouzakis writes. "Believe me, it can happen to you, too. It feels as if it has taken my whole life to get to this point. Throughout my life, the one thing that remains constant is competition. An inbred brain mechanism such as competition needs no prompting, no cueing, no learning at its basic level. It is done without thinking ... Despite brain injury, competition indeed fuels my cells and is no doubt responsible for my survival. When my brain is ready to function, my body will be ready. Even as I sit here today, I cannot wait for tomorrow.''

Comeback: A Wrestler's Story of Triumph and Tragedy is available for purchase online as an entire book, or on a chapter-by-chapter basis, by visiting the official website, www.AcomebackStory.com.

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