A Project for Better Journalism chapter
News, WO Alumni

“It’s all about attitude”

Cory VanRhee is a West Ottawa High School graduate and assistant girls Varsity basketball coach.

Ask VanRhee how he is doing today, his answer will always be “I’m fantastic.” 

When someone asks a friend how their day is going, a typical response might be a list of the things that went wrong in their day. 

Fueled by their friends’ negative response, they also reply with all of their issues, and the conversation spirals downward leaving both people feeling sorry for themselves. 

It would have been so easy for VanRhee to feel sorry for himself. It would have been so easy for VanRhee to allow what happened to him turn him bitter. Yet, for VanRhee, anything expected to bring him down strengthens him. Anything meant to tear away his positivity, gives him perspective. 

After knowing VanRhee for three years, my basketball teammates and I have found his positive attitude contagious and his resilience inspiring. 

In high school, VanRhees’ life was ordinary. VanRhee was involved in band and played basketball and tennis all four years. However, only scoring one point in basketball his senior year, his purpose in playing differed from his teammates. 

VanRhee loved the game and he loved people. 

Current Girls Varsity Coach Paul Chapman coached VanRhee when he was in high school. Chapman said, “Cory, ever since I’ve known him, has just loved the game of basketball. He loves to play, he loves to watch it, he loves to coach it, and he just likes being around the game.”

After graduating high school, VanRhee attended Michigan State University. With his love for basketball still growing, he decided to try out for a student manager position with the Michigan State boys basketball team. It took three months of wiping up sweat and filling up water bottles, but VanRhee was one of the eight guys to make the cut. 

Although being a manager paid next to nothing, VanRhee was all in and admitted that he put more time into being a manager then being a full-time student. The money was no concern for VanRhee, however, because he believed the main benefit of his job was the networking. 

And networking might be VanRhee’s greatest skill. Not only does VanRhee love people, but people love him. 

Chapman said, “Cory was one of those kids who everybody just liked to be around; he was kind of everybody’s buddy and friend.” 

During his time as a manager at Michigan State, his friendly personality and sense of humor allowed him to create many lifelong relationships.

Once while gathered at a team dinner, we heard Coach VanRhee’s phone start to ring and the contact read Tom Izzo. VanRhee is still in contact with Izzo, along with many other people he met through being a manager. 

As if committing hours each day to help the Michigan State basketball team and being a full-time student wasn’t enough, VanRhee also continued to grow his love for music. 

During his time at Michigan State, he was in a professional band called The Green Room. VanRhee described their band as comparable to the Dave Mathew’s band and their music as blues-funk-jazz-rock. 

The band traveled all over Michigan and in 2002 was asked to play at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. They performed three times, playing on the Deer Valley stage, the Salt Lake City stage, and the Park City Main Street stage.

VanRhee described playing on the Olympic stage as “one of the top experiences of my life.”

Then one day, everything changed. Or did it?

In 2005, VanRhee was in a horrific car accident. “It ended up being a traumatic brain injury I had. I ended up severing my optic nerve in one eye, which left me blind in one eye and having no feeling on the left side of my body.”

VanRhee spent about a year in recovery. In rehab, he had to relearn motor-related skills. He suffered from severe, random seizures. 

Although, as Taryn Clark, VanRhee’s sister said, “There were good days and bad days and each day was full of different types of therapies…each day he woke up ready to take on the world.”

As someone close to VanRhee and who was routinely there during his recovery, she was able to see that it was his attitude that got him through it all.

Clark said, “I have never seen determination like this before. Each day I was in amazement of his ability to tackle the impossible! He always found a way, and never gave up!”

VanRhee also allowed me to read an online email journal his parents set up for anyone to reach out to him during his time in the hospital. I turned page after page reading hundreds of emails hundreds of people sent him in just over the course of a month. I even found emails from Izzo and the basketball team. 

At first, I was blown away at just how many people not just knew him, but loved and cared about him. At the same time, I wasn’t surprised at all. 

I know how much VanRhee cares about people and therefore, people care about him. 

There is no denying that what happened to VanRhee on April 21, 2005, changed his life. However, it didn’t change who he was. 

Instead of dwelling on all that he had lost, VanRhee embraced all that he had and could still do. 

VanRhee chose to go out and see the world through his one good eye. In the last eight months, he has traveled to France, Los Angeles, Portland, Bali, and Maui. The connections he made at Michigan State allow him to still travel with the team today. 

VanRhee chose to continue playing piano with his one good hand. He currently plays in a duo at local restaurants like Sandy Point.

VanRhee chose to continue to build relationships and put others first by assistant coaching at the same school he once attended. I do not think Coach VanRhee is even aware of the impact he has had on the West Ottawa girl’s basketball program. 

I feel very blessed to have a coach who is always there. In the offseason, he is there. Practice, he is there thirty minutes early if anyone wants him to rebound. Any time I send him a text asking if he will shoot with me, he is there. He is always on the sidelines during a game, reminding me when I am nervous, “You’re okay.”

Roughly 13 years later, VanRhee describes the permanent effects of the accident as simply making him unique. “Physically not having any touch in one hand makes it pretty unique because it could be water it could be a hammer, my brain doesn’t send the proper messages down to it, makes life pretty unique. I can’t really button, it takes me 20 minutes or so to button a shirt by myself, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter because it could be way worse. I am pretty blessed just to be alive, so it’s all good.” 

Now read his words again and replace the word unique with the word terrible. That is how easy it would have been for VanRhee to look at his life and feel sorry for himself. Instead, VanRhee chooses to say “I’m fantastic” every day. 

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