Plight of ex-UNC Tar Heel Ryan Hoffman moves Terp Charlie Wysocki

Ryan Hoffman holds a panhandling sign in Lakeland, Fla. Hoffman, renowned for his toughness and durability, is now plagued with short-term memory problems and lives on the street, sometimes begging for money from passing cars.
Ryan Hoffman holds a panhandling sign in Lakeland, Fla. Hoffman, renowned for his toughness and durability, is now plagued with short-term memory problems and lives on the street, sometimes begging for money from passing cars. NYT

Ryan Hoffman’s story touched a nerve with former Maryland football star Charlie Wysocki. Now, Wysocki would like to help.

Hoffman is the former North Carolina offensive lineman who has been homeless in Lakeland, Fla., panhandling for money on street corners. UNC has offered him assistance and the opportunity to return to Chapel Hill for evaluation and treatment, to diagnose the reasons for the mental health problems that may have been caused or compounded by playing football.

“I understand what he’s going through,” Wysocki said Friday. “I was on the streets once, in and out of mental institutions, on the verge of dying. I was real, real sick.”

Wysocki was a tailback for the Terrapins in the early 1980s and was considered a potential Heisman Trophy candidate after his junior season. An injury in his senior season ended any Heisman hopes. Undrafted by NFL teams, he tried out for the Dallas Cowboys in 1982 but was cut.

“And then he soon disappeared,” said Dave Pacella, one of Wysocki’s teammates at Maryland. “People thought he was dead.”

About five years later, Pacella received a late-night phone call. It was Wysocki, seeking out a friend, seeking help.

“He had gone through severe depression and had tried to commit suicide,” Pacella said. “He had been in institutions, nursing homes. He weighed 400 pounds. It was a heartbreaking story.”

But the Maryland football community rallied around Wysocki. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he is taking the proper medications. He gives lectures in prisons, schools and churches in Pennsylvania, raising awareness about mental illness, about treating it and functioning in a normal, productive fashion.

Wysocki, 55, would like to touch base with Hoffman, who told The New York Times he was addicted to drugs and alcohol and had been in prison. Hoffman, 40, believes football could have been responsible for his cognitive problems but told The Times there also are instances of mental illness in his family.

UNC has not confirmed that Hoffman has been in Chapel Hill this week but issued a statement saying “appropriate resources” would be used to assist Hoffman.

UNC has some of the most respected researchers in the country in sport-related brain injuries. Kevin Guskiewicz, a UNC professor, is the co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center.

Guskiewicz on Friday said he could not comment other than to say, “I’m very optimistic there will be a positive outcome to the Ryan Hoffman story.”

A former UNC linebacker, Beau Parry, used his Twitter account Thursday to post what Parry said was a statement from Hoffman:

“I thank everyone for their immense support and well wishes, especially my former teammates and the UNC football family. I am taking this time to get better and start to rebuild my life. It is my goal to try and use what I learn to help others through my recovery. I am humbled that so many people are interested in my story, but I hope you understand that I want to focus right now on getting well.”

Parry, who could not be reached, also has posted photos of Hoffman at UNC.

At Maryland, Pacella, Dr. Mark Sobel, another of Wysocki’s former teammates, and Dave D’Addio created the Charlie Wysocki Benefit Fund in 2013. They saw to his medical care. They’ve helped him get dental implants. They’ve arranged for mental health counselors to see him regularly.

“It’s an ongoing challenge,” Sobel said. “Every day is a new challenge for Charlie.”

They also brought him back to Maryland to serve as an honorary captain at a football game, where he was surrounded by old friends and others offering encouragement and support. Wysocki, who rushed for a then-school record 3,317 yards, was inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014.

“In the football fraternity, we’re all brothers and it’s a brotherhood that transcends playing football games on Saturdays,” Sobel said. “It’s the same way at North Carolina, I have to believe. They want to help their brother, and I think it’s great.

“All the proper steps need to be taken: getting the proper health care, getting the proper drugs and then the proper treatment. But the story can be a success.”

Hoffman was a starter on the offensive line with the Tar Heels and like Wysocki went undrafted and soon faced life without football. He told The Times he had lost about 100 pounds from his playing weight, although saying he was physically fit.

“It’s my brain that keeps me from being a productive member of society,” Hoffman said in The Times story.

Wysocki, who lives in Plymouth, Pa., doesn’t blame football for his mental illness. But he said he did have some advice for Hoffman.

Wysocki believes in the power of prayer, saying, “God helped me overcome the things I went through.” He said Hoffman also must trust those trying to help him, trust the medical diagnosis and not vary from the use of the prescribed medications.

“He has to crawl before he can walk, and walk before he can run, and then things will be OK,” Wysocki said. “The football fraternity at North Carolina will come through for him.

“I’m fortunate to have the things I have now, and I’m looking forward to great things in the future. You never know, this man may do something great, too. He can do this.”

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