Gryphon defensive back Zach Androschuk, left, in a game against Western.

U of G student Zach Androschuk’s life was forever changed by a spinal cord injury. Then 15, he was horsing around with friends at home, talking about football and play wrestling.

One wrong move, a bad landing, and the world turned upside down in an instant − C 5/6 quadriplegia.

It’s been five years, but the rawness and gravity of the accident are ever-present. Finding ways to heal, and to deal, is part of everyday life now – for Androschuk and, more critically, for the friend whose injury he helped to cause.

“It’s a large part of what has made me who I am, and who I will be in the future,” says Androschuk, a fourth-year biomedical sciences student and defensive back on the Gryphon football team.

Yes, he plays football. He wasn’t the one who suffered the spinal cord injury.

“We were just hanging out that day, a couple of young guys razzing each other and horsing around,” Androschuk says of the day his friend Dan Edwards was injured. “I had him in a wrestling clutch, and he took a wrong fall and landed on his head. It was a pretty scary moment.”

Then a junior football player at St. Christopher High School in Sarnia, Ont., Androschuk had always admired his friend. Edwards was two years older and a star athlete in track and field, basketball and football.

The diagnosis was a broken neck at the fifth and sixth vertebrae, and incomplete quadriplegia. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” Androschuk says.

On the practice field in Sarnia, Ont., Dan Edwards, left, chats with Zach Androschuk, centre, and an unknown St. Christopher High School teammate.

He continued to play high school football, with Edwards often watching from the sidelines. The two have become very close. “Whenever things are not going well, I call Dan. I always feel better after talking to him. He is so motivating and very inspiring. He doesn’t want sympathy − ever.

“He appreciates everything that he has, everything that he can do. It gives me perspective. He always says ‘don’t feel bad for yourself, don’t feel bad for me; go and do something to help someone.’ So that is what I am doing.”

On June 12, Androschuk will volunteer at Guelph Wheels in Action, a new spin on U of G’s annual Wheels in Motion fundraiser for people living with spinal cord injuries. He’s organizing the wheelchair sports challenge and helping with other events.

At St. Joseph’s Hospital, he helps out in a weekly spinning fitness class for people in rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries. That program will benefit from the Guelph Wheels in Action event.

At U of G Androschuk is working with Prof. Lorraine Jadeski, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, on a research project in spinal cord injuries. “There is so much to learn, I want to know and do more,” says Androschuk, who plans to attend medical school.

“After the accident, I wanted to become a doctor and cure spinal cord injuries. Now I am more realistic. I want to go into medicine, but I don’t know what I want to do. I do know that I want to make the most out of what I can do, and that I want to make the people I care about proud of me.”

That pleases Edwards, now 23 years old and studying marketing at Lambton College in Sarnia. Speaking of Androschuk, Edwards says, “I’ve always encouraged him to do something positive whenever he says he is feeling down. No negative energy allowed. My attitude has always been ‘Hey, man, these things happen, and the beauty of it is that we can get through stuff like this together.’”

Edwards recalls telling Androschuk: “Don’t feel that this is something that has to hinder you for the rest of your life. We are brothers now, so you go and do your own thing, go off to school, and I will get my act together.”

For Edwards, “getting his act together” meant finishing high school; he spent two years in rehabilitation hospitals after the accident. He has had several surgeries and can now use one hand and wrist, his arms, and his upper back and neck.

He hopes to become a public speaker and fundraiser.

After the accident, his community raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate his home. “It was an eye-opener. It made me think about people who get injured who don’t, say, play sports enough to get their names in the papers and get some recognition. I want to help raise money for them.”

Even earlier, his life philosophy had been “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“Everything I believed before is being put to the test now,” says Edwards. “I could feel sorry for myself forever, but it still wouldn’t change anything. I always tell Zach sympathy is as much good to me as my legs are now. Yes, sympathy is heart-warming but only for a short period of time. Healing, overcoming and thriving through things: how good that feels lasts forever.”

Note:  At Guelph Wheels in Action, people of all ages and abilities will wheel, bike, skate, run or walk through the University of Guelph campus to raise funds, encourage hope and celebrate all of the possibilities of living with spinal cord injuries. Registration begins June 12 at 10:30 a.m. at the W.F. Mitchell Athletics Centre, and the event will kick off at noon. Wheels In Action will include a free BBQ, on-site entertainment and activities for kids.