Rob Komosa became a symbol of courage and positivity after he was paralyzed during a 1999 high school football practice. He counseled others who suffered similar accidents, starred in a documentary about his recovery and gave his time to a charity that helps catastrophically injured athletes.
Though he endured his share of private frustration, some who knew him said they never failed to come away inspired by his spirit.
"You just couldn't help but be consumed with his energy," said J.J. O'Connor, a friend who was paralyzed while playing hockey in 1995. "He was just a wonderful, wonderful person, and it's just unfortunate that the world lost him when he was so young."
Komosa died at his Barrington Hills, Ill., home Saturday of a suspected respiratory failure, his family said. He was 30.
Komosa was a running back at Rolling Meadows High School in Illinois when three players tackled him during a drill. The momentum sent him reeling over the sideline and into a metal post -- part of a baseball fence that was near the practice field.
The impact fractured two vertebrae in Komosa's neck and paralyzed him from the neck down. He needed a ventilator to breathe, and depended on round-the-clock medical care provided by his mother, Barbara.
The family sued Township High School District 214, accusing it of negligence for failing to pad the fence post, and the case was settled for $12.5 million in 2005. (The layout of the practice field was changed after the accident and the post was padded, a District 214 spokeswoman said Monday.) Despite the accident and litigation, Komosa's sister, Ann Phister, said he never lost his affection for the game.
"He still loved football," she said. "He loved sports in general. All he watched was ESPN. Obviously, accidents can happen. I think he knew the risk [of playing football] and accepted it."
Spinal injuries are relatively rare in football -- fewer than 1 in 100,000 high school participants suffer one each year -- but even so, researchers at the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have counted 324 cases at all levels of football between 1977 and 2011.
Despite the severity of his injury, Komosa served as an inspirational figure almost from the start of his recovery.
He returned to Rolling Meadows' field less than a year after his paralysis to watch his teammates achieve a comeback victory. He astonished reporters and new acquaintances with the depth of his optimism.
"I think it's easier to go through life with a smile," he told the Chicago Tribune in 2000. "Of course, you probably won't smile all the time, but it's just important to keep a positive attitude." Komosa's spiritual nature allowed that attitude to endure for years, said Deacon Don Grossnickle of Our Lady of the Wayside, the Catholic church in Arlington Heights, Ill., that Komosa attended.
"He prayed for people; people prayed for him," Grossnickle said. "It was like fission: One pingpong ball bouncing into another one until it got bigger and bigger. God showed him how much he was loved."
People in Komosa's community raised more than $300,000 to buy a house that would accommodate his wheelchair. The Chicago Bears invited him to practices and games, and he became a frequent interview subject, never bemoaning his fate.
Komosa also served as an inspiration for the Gridiron Alliance, a group that lends support to athletes who suffer catastrophic injuries. J.J. O'Connor, who also works with the alliance, said he last talked with Komosa about a year ago at an event for the group. As ever, he said, his friend was "smiling, happy, gracious -- a kind and gentle person."
But Komosa's sister said that in recent years he had begun to pull back from his public engagements, frustrated by his long struggle. She said that their mother did a heroic job of caring for him, impressing medical professionals by keeping him out of the hospital despite his fragile condition. "Every day was special," she said, relaying her mother's comments. "Every day had memories. She just cherished every day they had together."
Phister said she hopes her brother is recalled as a survivor and a role model -- someone who did the best he could in the face of immense adversity.
"He still remained positive," she said. "He still stayed positive to help people. He was able to be an inspiration to people in the same situation, as well as others of us who take things for granted."