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Covering prep sports offers refuge, inspiration for Utah reporter

Published March 6, 2017 3:26 pm

Standard-Examiner's Comer receives support from coaches and athletes as his wife suffers from MS.
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Layton • Ryan Comer positions himself near the visiting student section at Viewmont High, equipped with his iPad and tripod. He constructs his own media station before the Vikings face Region 2 rival Davis in boys' basketball.

He'll tweet various 10-second highlights he captures immediately, keeping fans updated with the progress throughout the game. Viewmont eventually holds on for a three-point victory, but Comer hardly is done working. As the high school beat writer for the Standard-Examiner, he is responsible for covering the northern prep teams from Salt Lake to Cache County for every sport.

Many view the prep beat as an entry-level job in the media industry. The low-end of the totem pole. Not Comer. Covering prep sports is his passion, but it's also his escape. And it's been a tremendous support.

At the end of another 60-hour workweek, Comer finally closes his Twitter app for the final time. He arrives home, kisses his two young children goodnight, thanks his mother-in-law for watching them and puts his head on the pillow. He has to rise early tomorrow to see his wife, Shannon.

He weaves through the South Ogden Post-Acute facility until he reaches Shannon's room, where she's resting in an adjustable bed. As he enters, she smiles — her main form of communication these days. Shannon was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in high school in 2006, and the disease has left her disabled.

She struggles to vocalize her thoughts, though she occasionally does manage several words. Her motor functions are random, with movements in her extremities often appearing to have a mind of their own — common symptoms for someone living with severe MS. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.

Ryan sits adjacent to Shannon and cups her smaller hand between his two palms.

"She's always smiling," he says. "She has a really happy personality, even when all of this is going on."

'I didn't even know what it was'

Ryan was lovestruck when he noticed a sophomore while he was studying journalism as a senior at BYU. He asked her on a date to Smart Cookie, a Provo-based ice cream shop.

It was like any other first date in the beginning, with simple, harmless questions to learn more about the person sitting across from you. Then Shannon revealed she had MS.

"I didn't even know what it was," Ryan said. "I heard it was bad, but I had no idea what it did to people. You couldn't tell it did anything. She was just like any other college student, so I was like, 'Whatever.' She thought I would be a lot more nervous than I was."

Their relationship progressed, and Ryan asked for her hand in marriage. They were married in May 2009.

Ryan was working for DirecTV and Shannon was at a temp agency when she suffered the first major attack in July of 2009.

"She had a seizure and was in a coma," Ryan said. "The neurologists thought she was going to be a vegetable the rest of her life. They were preparing me for the worst-case scenario."

But Shannon pulled through. She steadily regained her health, and life returned to usual. So the couple decided parenthood was the next step, and two baby boys soon joined their family. Shannon suffered only minor flareups throughout her pregnancies.

When asked what it's like being parents, Shannon manages to express her thoughts. "Awesome," she says.

Ryan interjects. "Stressful," he adds, which makes Shannon giggle.

Pictures of their sons are found throughout Shannon's room in Ogden. The kids currently are at her mother's place. Ryan says he doesn't know where the family would be without the help of his mother-in-law, Dianna Elliott.

"There must be some sort of Super Woman gene that runs in that family," he says.

Shannon's second major attack started in August and progressively has worsened. However, the goal is to help her improve her health enough to travel to Chicago in April to meet with a doctor who has had success treating MS with stem cell therapy.

Each day is a new endeavor with new stresses for the Comer family, but, unlike the first attack, Ryan has a support system now.

'My heart just went out to him'

Ryan's phone buzzed recently as he was navigating his daily responsibilities. The name Chris Smith appeared. This wasn't out of the ordinary. Smith is the girls' basketball coach at Northridge, and the two communicate regularly. In the middle of practice, Smith called Ryan to say a prayer with him over the phone. Multiple coaches from various sports have reached out, too.

"I was shocked. I don't talk to any of these coaches beyond high school sports," Comer said. "Sometimes I wonder if I annoy these coaches too much, calling them for scores. It was nice that they care about me beyond covering their athletes."

Davis High girls' soccer forward Olivia Wade, who was named The Tribune's Player of the Year in the fall, reached out to Ryan on Twitter. It helped him get through a difficult day.

"My heart just went out to him" said Wade, who added that she values Ryan's work because he is so involved with preps. "Honestly, Ryan is one of the sweetest people I've ever met. I know all the other athletes in Utah think the same thing. Obviously nobody deserves to be going through something as hard as that, but especially Ryan. Being able to get to know him through sports and interviews, it has made this more personal for everybody. We all feel like we know Ryan."

When Ryan first started covering preps, it was his opportunity to leave his stresses behind.

"It blocks everything out. When I'm driving to the game, I think about her and our situation, but then when I'm covering something, all of a sudden everything disappears," he said.

Covering preps no longer is work for Ryan. High school sports are his passion, his escape, and, now, his support.

"It's a huge blessing," Ryan says. "Through this job, I've been able to make connections to help me get through this."


Twitter: @trevorphibbs






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