After a ‘Kill Shot’ to the Eye, a Wrestler Restarts His Life
PHILADELPHIA — It was a small moment that would have been unremarkable before Richard Perry’s traumatic brain injury, a wrestling coach staying after practice to speak with a younger wrestler, playfully clutching him, making a razzing joke.
Until recently, Perry, known as Rich, would have headed immediately for the showers and then to the train station for an hour-and-a half ride home. Nearly five years into his recovery, he was not his old magnetic self but quieter, more introverted. Sometimes he stared into the distance and still needed a prompt to smile and to hug his daughter and tell her that he loved her.
Every spontaneous gesture, like leaving an affectionate note for his wife or a flower with her morning coffee or joking with a protégé after training, seemed consequential, a step forward.
“He’s smiling,” Gina Perry, 34, Rich’s wife, said in early May as she watched her husband from a room above the wrestling mats at the University of Pennsylvania, which also serves as a regional training center for Olympic-caliber athletes and elite aspirants. “To see that is beautiful.”
On Aug. 27, 2018, Perry, now 33, was working toward qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics when he attended a mandatory wrestling training camp at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. The Marines are a sponsor of USA Wrestling.
The camp included a military drill in which participants simulated attacking an enemy by delivering so-called kill shots to the head with a padded baton.
Perry was given a football helmet, whose face mask left a gap that exposed his eyes. A molded plastic rod — part of the baton — used by his partner escaped its padded exterior as he thrust it into Perry’s face, fracturing the roof of the bony socket, or orbit, that protected Perry’s left eye. He was left unconscious and immobile. Shards of bone pushed into the left frontal lobe of his brain, according to medical evidence in the case. A pressure wave resulting from the blunt force sheared connective nerve fibers in the brain and caused multiple hemorrhages.
A seizure 10 days later left Perry unable to speak for weeks. For a time, he could not move the left side of his body. Brain surgery was required, and physicians amputated a portion of his frontal lobe — about the size of a grape — that had protruded through the fractured orbit and died. According to Perry’s wife and lawyers, doctors told her to prepare for the possibility that he would not live, and if he did, he might remain bedridden.
Relying on intense rehabilitation, his faith, his wife’s refusal to concede what seemed inevitable and the embrace of the wrestling community, Perry relearned to walk and talk, to run and jump, to cook and feed himself, to become independent again.
In 2020 the Perrys sued the United States government, USA Wrestling, and Armament Systems and Procedures, the baton manufacturer, saying Marine Corps and USA Wrestling coaches and staff “negligently and recklessly” encouraged head shots and baton jabs by the wrestlers, who had received only a few minutes of training with the equipment.
The Perrys’ lead lawyer, Robert J. Francavilla of the San Diego law firm CaseyGerry, said he believed the primary responsibility for Perry’s injuries rested with the federal government because the Marine Corps conducted the exercise, provided the equipment and had chief oversight. “It was insane that they put him into this,” Francavilla said. Wrestlers are trained to perform within the rules of sport, he said, but “they’re not trying to kill each other.”
Two months ago the United States, representing the Marines, agreed to a $12 million settlement without admitting liability or fault. Separate settlements with USA Wrestling and the baton manufacturer remain confidential, the Perrys’ lawyers said. A lawyer for Armament said in an email that the company continued to deny liability for Perry’s injuries, and USA Wrestling did not respond to requests for comment.
All of this has left the Perrys, who have four young children, with complicated feelings.
The injury affected Perry’s motor skills and impaired his so-called executive function, affecting his ability to plan and meet goals, control his emotions, initiate tasks and remain focused amid distractions. He cannot drive a car. Four days a week, he has been commuting for three hours round-trip by train between his home in Lancaster, Pa., and Philadelphia to coach wrestlers at the regional training center.
He continues to experience weakness on his left side, and some memory loss. He needs cues for tasks like taking out the trash. He lacks impulse control for such things as time management and maintaining his weight, which was vital as one of the country’s top wrestlers. Expressions of endearment that once came automatically to him must now be thought out, such as hugging his children or consoling them when they cry.
“We’re grateful to be where we are, because the other option is that he’s in a vegetative state or he dies and my children don’t have a father,” Gina Perry said. At the same time, she said, “It kind of sucks. There’s no other way to put it.”
‘Poked in the Eye’
In June 2018, Perry made the national freestyle wrestling team for the first time and was ranked third in the 86-kilogram, or 189-pound, category. He became eligible for a monthly training stipend. The Tokyo Olympics seemed within tantalizing reach.
Perry was known for his tenacity and his ability to score points repeatedly after taking an opponent to the mat. He was in terrific shape. Before heading to training at Camp Pendleton, he completed a challenge of 60,000 push-ups in 30 days. None of his training partners could beat him in a sprint of 200 meters. He seemed invincible.
On Aug. 27, 2018, when Gina Perry received a call at home in Pennsylvania that her husband had been “poked in the eye,” she thought little of it. He would wear an eye patch for a while and be fine. But the news grew more alarming. After Rich Perry was injured at Camp Pendleton, he was flown by emergency helicopter to Scripps Memorial Hospital in the San Diego community of La Jolla. A doctor told her to get there quickly.
She prayed on a cross-country flight and met with doctors who, she recalled, said that “the chances of him walking out of the hospital were slim to none. And if he did leave, it was going to be in a hospital bed where he’d spend the rest of his life.”
Rich and Gina Perry were still in their 20s and had three children at the time, a 6-year-old daughter, a 2-year-old son and another son who was 5 months old. Their plans and dreams for the Olympics, for living the life they expected, evaporated in a dreadful instant. To see her husband lying in a hospital room, motionless, essentially lifeless, Gina Perry said, felt like a fictional horror.
“Your whole world kind of crumbles,” she said.
After being stabilized in late September 2018, Rich was flown to Philadelphia, where he entered a rehab facility for nearly two months. The couple’s older son, Beau, considered his father a kind of Captain America, and to keep Beau from being frightened, Gina told him that his dad had been injured in a superhero battle. But the challenges of providing care were enormous. Gina gave up her career selling cosmetics. Sometimes she sat in the shower and cried for an hour.
“It was literally like having a newborn and starting all over again,” she said.
Her strength came from her faith, she said. “God put it on my heart that he was going to heal Rich and bring him through this.”
She refused to let doctors give bad news to her husband. During the pandemic, when Rich could not attend rehab indoors, Gina improvised at home. She placed colored circles on a wall so he could reach for them on command to enhance his alertness and reaction time. The family played memory games at dinner. She created an obstacle course in the driveway with cones and a horizontal device called a speed ladder to enhance Rich’s agility and help him lift his left foot. She and her husband also lugged foam mats to parks around Philadelphia so that Rich could continue to work with his physical therapist.
“She’s really gone to war for me, which I’m so grateful for,” Rich Perry said.
The family has grown more hopeful over the last eight months or so, Gina Perry said. Rich’s interactions with others are more fluid. In a recent interview, he spoke expansively and laughed easily. It was the first time in his recovery, his wife said, that he did not rehearse questions and answers before speaking in public. He has found renewed ambition and direction in coaching. In early June, he will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“Rich found purpose in pain,” said B.J. Futrell, an assistant wrestling coach at Penn and a former teammate of Perry.
Jennifer Ellis, Perry’s physical therapist and a specialist in neurological trauma, said, “With a brain injury, you’re never going to be 100 percent yourself, but Rich’s physical recovery was really remarkable,” which she largely attributed to his superior physical condition before the injury.
Discipline, persistence and resilience learned from wrestling, where an athlete is alone on a mat with his opponent, unable to rely on teammates, helped him persevere and surmount obstacles that doctors once doubted he could, Perry said. The Overcomer, some call him in wrestling circles.
“In wrestling, you’re always in the match until the ref raises the other guy’s hand,” he said.
The family is in the process of moving from Lancaster to the Philadelphia suburbs, which will significantly reduce Perry’s commuting time to the regional training center and increase access to continued therapy.
But her husband lost a part of himself with the injury, Gina Perry explained, and his family lost a part of their husband and father. Rich Perry is not the same husband who regularly left a note and a flower with his wife’s coffee. Who immersed himself in his children’s lives because his father was absent during his own childhood in Middletown, Conn. Who invited his daughter, Mya, age 6 at the time of the accident, on pretend dates on which she wore a princess dress. Who put on a button-down shirt, a vest and dress pants to take her to Chuck E. Cheese. Who left stuffed animals for his kids and held dance parties and sang and acted silly with them.
No amount of money in a settlement could make up for that kind of loss, Gina Perry said.
“But you can’t focus on the bad,” she said. “And when we find ourselves doing that, we snap out of it, because if you can’t you would go to a deep, dark, dark, dark place very quickly. And I know because it’s happened.”
Coming to Acceptance
About six months after the accident, Gina Perry said, Rich reached out to the fellow wrestler who accidentally injured him in the military exercise at Camp Pendleton, telling him he was blameless, urging him in a text, “Don’t carry this with you.”
“I’m going to get back on the mat one day, so don’t let this deter you from your dreams,” Perry wrote, according to his wife.
He began training again in the fall of 2019 with the intent of resuming his wrestling career. But he experienced a lack of timing in processing information, a disconnect between his intentions and his actions on the mat. He could no longer think three steps ahead. Training partners who once struggled to score points against him now beat him easily.
Self-doubt crept in and he began to ask himself, “What am I doing this for?”
One day late last summer, after taking the train into Philadelphia, Perry did not continue the several blocks to the regional training center. Instead, he sat inside 30th Street Station for four hours, his wife said, acknowledging to himself that his wrestling career was over.
To have his career end in such a harrowing accident, Perry said, “was very hard to deal with at the time” and to understand “this is what God had meant for me.” Eventually, he came to acceptance, saying, “My story inspired hope in a lot of people. I wouldn’t change having to go through this if I could.”
Brandon Slay, a 2000 Olympic gold medalist, coached Perry at the time, but was not in attendance at the training session at Camp Pendleton. A former head coach of the national Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, and the current head coach of the regional training center in Philadelphia, Slay said he would not pass judgment on USA Wrestling. But, he said, he hoped that if he had been present for the military exercise, “I wouldn’t allow it to happen.” And he believes that the leaders of USA Wrestling “wish they would have made better decisions.”
Perry described himself as someone who sought to “prove myself to people” after getting a relatively late start in his career as a high school junior and who was a willing volunteer when presented with a task. When his coaches asked him to do something, Gina Perry said, he did it. But Rich Perry said he hoped his accident had altered what wrestling officials considered appropriate exercises at training camps.
“Let’s just say,” he said, “it’s one of those situations that you’d hope never happen again.”