SYRACUSE -- The first week of final exams is a stressful time for any college freshman, but Ryan Sloan couldn't have imagined anything like this.
Sloan, who is attending Syracuse University on a football scholarship, found himself in the middle of a storm because of allegations by Kevin O'Connell, a former Bellport High School principal, who said he was forced out this year after refusing to pressure a teacher to boost Sloan's grades.
O'Connell said district Superintendent Joe Cipp Jr., who was Bellport's football coach for 32 years until retiring this year, and other top officials at the school pushed to raise Sloan's math scores so he could meet NCAA eligibility standards.
But Sloan says he went for tutorial help every day toward the end of his senior year at Bellport to boost his grades and believes the accusations against Cipp and his subordinates are false.
Cipp, who could not be reached for comment, said at a school board meeting last week, "I categorically deny the allegations." The board voted to hire an outside agency to investigate the alleged grade fixing.
Sloan said he first learned of the allegations from a Syracuse assistant coach, who told him not to worry, something easier said than done.
Sloan says he'll survive the storm surrounding him, if only because he's got a lot of practice dealing with adversity.
"People don't know all the stuff that I went through to get here," he said last week while studying for finals.
It has not been an easy road for Sloan. On his third birthday, he lost his right eye in an accident. His mother died of heart failure when he was 11, and he never knew his father. He lived with his aunt and a cousin before moving in with a friend's family last year.
"There are people in the world with way worse situations than me and they get through bigger obstacles that are way tougher than what I had," he said. "So you just look at that as motivation."
Sticks and stones
The first thing you notice about Sloan is his size. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 324 pounds, he looks every bit like a defensive tackle. Then you notice his eye.
Sloan ran face-first into the corner of a car door on his third birthday, suffering irreparable damage to his right eye.
Kids made fun of him in school, and Sloan says he remembers being called "Cyclops and other horrible names" because he resisted getting a glass eye.
Once Sloan grew bigger than everyone, the name-calling stopped. But he didn't forget how it made him feel.
"I'd ignore them most of the time," Sloan told Newsday last year, "but it definitely hurt." Over time he learned to channel those feelings into motivation, which he carried onto the football field en route to becoming a three-year varsity starter at one of Long Island's top football programs.
He was so good that few people in the close-knit Long Island high school football community even knew about his lack of peripheral vision, seemingly a necessary tool for a lineman, until it was mentioned in a Newsday story at the beginning of his senior year.
Blind eye little handicap
"The one thing I remember immediately thinking is you never would have known about his eye from watching him on film and coaching against him," Ciampi said. "It's incredible."
Cipp told Newsday last year that college recruiters were initially apprehensive about Sloan because of his eye, at least until they saw him play. "But after they watched his films, they were all over him," Cipp said.
The bond between Sloan and Cipp is strong. Sloan wrote a college application essay about the influence the former Bellport coach had on him.
"He has taught me to never give up and have hope when things don't go my way," Sloan said after Bellport won the Long Island Championship in 2010. "I admire him and he's had a major influence in my life."
Sloan described Cipp as "a good man," saying the coach often warned him to get his act together in the classroom if he wanted to play college football.
Picking up the pieces
After Sloan's mother died in 2003, he moved in with his aunt. But his home life was not often discussed, even among friends.
"People didn't really ask him about his mother and stuff because people knew it was a tough situation for him," said Travis Houpe, a former Bellport teammate who has remained a friend.
Sloan left his aunt's house in November of his senior year and moved in with Edward and Melissa Carson, the parents of his friend and teammate Eddie Carson.
"I needed a little structure in my life," Sloan said on signing day in February. "He had space and they took me in."
This was around the time when it started to become clear that he needed to improve his grades if he wanted to play college football.
Edward Carson said he alerted the school that he and his wife were acting as Sloan's guardians. They were given access to his grades and, that night, Carson said he and Melissa Carson had a blunt talk with Sloan.
"We said, 'Hey, listen, do you want to go to Syracuse or do you want to be one of those guys hanging out on the block after they graduate from high school?' " Carson said. "We had a long heart-to-heart. He really buckled down and did the work."
Carson said that Sloan went to summer school after his first three years of high school but did not need to as a senior.
"The last couple of months were hard," Sloan said last week. "I stayed after school -- I didn't have to but I chose to -- because I wanted to go to [Syracuse] . . . I just wanted to do better."
Surviving the storm
At school, Sloan admits he's embarrassed when his Syracuse teammates ask him about the allegations. He said he tells them that what is being said is not true and he doesn't feel comfortable talking anymore about it.
In the wake of the allegations, Sloan has changed his Facebook profile photo to an image of him studying while donning a Syracuse ball cap. He also posted this message on his page: "I let my haters be my motivators." Several dozen of his friends responded with support.
"There's a lot of people out there and there's some people who are going to be happy for you and some people who just hate," Sloan said. "You just don't pay attention to the negative energy. You just have to stick by the people who have faith in you."
Sloan insists he's not worried about what might happen next. He's been through worse.