Story and photos by Mark Newman
Every hockey season is filled with comeback stories, but they usually have to do with teams rallying from three-goal deficits.
Serge Payer's story has nothing to do with game-winning goals, perfect passes or stick saves. It's about one man bouncing back from a rare disease that had left him a crippled shell of a human being.
Today, Payer is a center for the San Antonio Rampage. Four years ago, he questioned whether he would ever walk again, let alone skate or play hockey at any level.
Payer, then 19 and playing for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, woke up one January morning in 1999 with aching lower back pain.
"Throughout the day I got weaker and weaker, but I still played that night -- I barely made it through the game," recalls Payer, who was told by the team doctor that he probably had the flu, in addition to having pulled some muscles.
Bedridden but unable to sleep, Payer went several days before he saw a doctor at a clinic. "He basically told me the same thing, but he gave me a shot of Demerol and I slept for the first time in almost a week."
The relief was temporary.
"When I woke up at three o'clock in the morning, the pain was worse than it had even been," he says. "I went to the hospital."
After five days of tests, he was transferred to a hospital in London, Onta rio, where he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre (GHEE-yan Bah-RAY) syndrome, an inflammatory disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system (those outside the brain and spinal cord).
A relatively rare condition that afflicts one in 100,000 persons, Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) can strike at any age, regardless of gender or background. The first symptoms include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs, which can increase in intensity and spread to the arms and upper body.
GBS victims quickly become weak and often suffer paralysis. The illness, which has no known cause or cure, destroys the mylelin sheath that surrounds the nerve cells and can be devastatingly debilitating if not caught soon enough.
"It was tough to accept," Payer says. "One day you're healthy and walking and playing hockey and the next day you're too weak to even brush your teeth."
Although Payer was fortunate to have been diagnosed as quickly as he was, the recovery process was painfully slow. He spent two months in the hospital as his condition stabilized and he began the long journey back to health.
"I couldn't even go to the bathroom on my own," Payer says, explaining that just getting out of bed was a major triumph. "The improvements are so little and so slow. I don't think I could have gotten through the disease without my parents."
Paul and Lyse Payer were at their son's bedside for two months. "There were so many good people who offered me amazing support -- family, friends, teammates, the organization and even opponents," says Payer, who was confined to a wheelchair.
He needed all the help he could get. "As tough as it was physically to regain strength and rebuild muscle mass, it was even tougher mentally," Payer says. "I fell into a pretty serious depression."
In the beginning, Payer tried to follow his team's fortunes, but he soon lost interest in listening to the radio or watching television. "It got to the point where I didn't want to do anything," he says.
Hockey was the furthest thing from his mind as he dropped 50 pounds during the illness. While at London University Hospital, he underwent five days of treatments, which included a spinal tap to feed liquid protein into his system.
He tried his best to fight his way back. It wasn't easy. "Deep down I was determined to come back and play, but there were points in the recovery process where I didn't think it would be possible."
After a month at London University Hospital, he was transferred to a rehabiliation hospital, where he spent three weeks before continuing the recovery process at home.
When the feeling started to return to his legs, he went to a Kitchener game -- in a wheelchair. The ovation he received gave him hope. He still had a long way to go.
Eventually, he worked his way to a walker, and finally to a cane. By August, he was back on skates. His dream was to play in the NHL and nothing was going to keep him from pursuing that dream.
"I wanted to get back and attend Florida's training camp," recalls Payer, who had signed as a free agent with the NHL's Panthers two years earlier. "I pushed and pushed. I probably pushed too much."
In late August, he contracted mononucleosis.
"It was another slap in the face, that's for sure," Payer says. "I was just feeling like I was coming around, finally had enough strength to ride the bike and lift a little weight. I couldn't believe it."
Mono was a setback, but it didn't stop Payer. Through rest and rehab, he got himself back on the ice and finished the 1999-2000 season in Kitchener.
The following fall, he was one of the final cuts from the Florida roster and was assigned to Louisville, Ky., where the Panthers had their AHL affiliate at the time. He didn't stay there for long.
Just 16 games into his professional career, Payer was recalled to the NHL. It completed his amazing comeback. He calls it "a big relief."
Payer played 43 games with Florida during the 2000-01 season, recording five goals and one assist. His first NHL goal came at Ottawa during his fourth game, playing in front of about 50 family and friends.
The Panthers made Payer their nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy, the annual award given to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. The honor went to another player, but it didn't matter.
Payer was already a winner.
"When you go through a sickness like GBS, it really puts things in perspective," he says. "It helped me appreciate the little things in life.
There are so many things we take for granted."
Payer is back in the minors this season with the expansion San Antonio Rampage, but he isn't letting it get him down. "Through my illness, I learned a lot about patience," he says. Besides, he carries a constant reminder of what could have been.
"I still have some numbness in my ankles," he says. "It's nothing like it was, but it's still there."
While he was in the hospital, Payer had a lot of time to think. He thought about what he might do if he ever got back on his feet. He thought about other people who might have to go through the same things he did.
So Payer started his own foundation. Three years ago, he held a skate-a-thon in Kitchener. The last two years he has staged a charity golf tournament. Proceeds in the past have gone for Guillain-Barre syndrome research. In the future he would like to support other worthy causes as well.
Payer got himself back on his feet. Now he wants to help others do the same.
In the meantime, he is doing everything in his power to earn as return ticket to the NHL. He knows his chances are best if he can excel as a checking centerman or a penalty-killing forward.
"If you're extremely skilled offensively, you've obviously got a better shot at making it. For the other three-fourths of the players like myself, you've got to be able to play defensively. I take a lot of pride in my defensive abilities." That he has been relegated to playing that role for San Antonio this season has not discouraged him.
"You learn every day," he says. "There are so many different aspects to the game, that you 're always learning, whether it's the mental aspects of the game or skillwise." If there's anything that Guillain-Barre taught Payer, it's not to rush things. "I think it helped me become more patient," he says.
Indeed, Payer feels confident that his time will come. "Every player in this league hopes and dreams about playing in the NHL and that's mine, too.
I have to keep competing if I want to get back up there." Having beaten the odds once, Payer is ready to do it again.