There may not be a Husky more proud, more thankful, more appreciative of the opportunity to play the game he loves than Ryan Wirth.
Saturday will mark the last time the 6-foot-3, 271-pound defensive tackle is going to walk onto the Rentschler Field turf. And make no mistake, there will be some reflecting. The opportunity to play was almost taken from him during a traumatic experience as a high school freshman.
"You know, if I could go back, I wouldn't take it back," said Wirth, a brawler in the trenches all season. "I wouldn't take it back because it's made me the man I am today. It's given me the work ethic. It's given me the faith. It's helped in my relationship with God. It really has molded me into the man I am today. It was just part of my road, that adversity."
Paintball guns were a fad back then and Wirth's buddies had them. Wirth's father, Dave, a former All-America guard at Division III Rowan University, told Ryan no, he wasn't getting one and that he was going to play sports instead.
"The first lesson I learned was deceiving my father. I told him I was going to play basketball with my buddies but me and friends were out in the woods, running around like Rambo with no helmets on playing paintball so at the end of the game, it was just me and one buddy left and we're shooting back and forth at each other. So I stick my face out. Lo and behold, right through the eye."
What happened next? Shock.
Wirth started running around the New Jersey woods near his Medford home "like a chicken with his head cut off," he said. He ran into a downed tree that took his knees out. He flipped over it and landed on his back.
"After that, I just remember waking up in Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia," said Ryan, who took the blast in the right eye.
"In the beginning, the doctors told me I wasn't ever going to see again," said Wirth, who spent much of his freshman year home-schooled because of the accident.
He had glaucoma, an eye disease that damages the optic nerve. They thought he could have brain damage, a potential blood clot.
"And I went through that for a while," said Wirth, who as a freshman had only played two years of organized football.
Wirth had 10 surgeries from February of his freshman year through the summer. He played his sophomore year of high school with one eye and lined up at right defensive end so he could see to his left.
"So you could imagine how goofy I was," Wirth said. "Depth perception? Gone. Athleticism that I might have had? Gone. After the season I started getting operations again."
Ultimately, Wirth said he had a corrective lens put in and had 20-35 vision. He had to learn some things over again. He threw and caught tennis balls off a wall to help with depth perception.
He played his next two seasons of high school football but he had not qualified academically to come to any Division I-A school so he went to Cheshire Academy where his aunt was interim headmaster. His classroom work improved and his vision progressed to about 20-30.
He thought he was a good football player and wanted to follow in his father's footsteps.
Eventually, he did and was put in a situation where he could succeed — behind two of the best defensive tackles the UConn program has ever had in Kendall Reyes, who plays for the San Diego Chargers, and Twyon Martin.
"I got an opportunity to play, then I started rotating in with Kendall and Twyon and I was happy with that role because I didn't know what I could be," Wirth said. "I just was so happy to be on the field when I got the chance. I was happy to keep working. I was happy to keep lifting."
When Reyes and Martin moved out some wondered if Wirth, who is smaller, would be able to wrestle bigger offensive linemen. Wirth's power and drive immediately caught the coaching staff's eye, not to mention the players across from him.
Coach Paul Pasqualoni might not have mentioned a player's name more this year than Wirth — except maybe quarterback Chandler Whitmer.
Take, for example, this comment from the coach when asked what he will miss most from this senior class.
"This team is resilient," Pasqualoni said. "This group of seniors is tough; they persevere; they keep coming back. There is excellent leadership in the group. Guys like Ryan Wirth, when this is over, I'll miss because of their toughness."
In his first season as a starter Wirth is seventh on the team in tackles with 45, including three sacks and a fumble recovery and many run stuffs.
For the last nine years he has learned to appreciate football, life, everything more than he did before.
"I go into games wanting to win every one, Wirth said. "Don't get me wrong, but when you're at a point where you don't know what direction your life is going, that things could be taken from you. … A lot of people haven't had that experience in life so I have an appreciation for things that maybe some people don't."