Firefighter refuses to give up after ALS diagnosis

Jessica and Matt Onyshko pose with their daughters, Kendall, left, and McKenna, in this 2013 photo.

A Washington County jury returned a verdict late Thursday morning that the National Collegiate Athletic Association was not negligent in its dealings with Matthew Onyshko when he was a student-athlete at California University of Pennsylvania.

Onyshko’s wife, Jessica, shed tears and embraced her husband, 38, who sat beside her throughout the trial in a motorized wheelchair.

“Obviously, we’re really disappointed – and, crushed – but this isn’t the end” she said, still teary-eyed.

Matthew Onyshko, who used a computerized device controlled by eye movement to give testimony, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, in 2008, five years after playing the linebacker position on the Cal U. Vulcans football team.

Onyshko, who was unable to continue working as a Pittsburgh firefighter due to his disability, contended the NCAA failed to protect him or warn him that repeated trauma he suffered on the gridiron could seriously affect his health.

He learned of a possible connection between ALS and football injuries in 2012 when watching a televised interview with a former National Football League player who had been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease.

Onyshko contended he suffered at least 20 concussions related to playing or practicing college football, but he did not report them at the time.

The issue of negligence was the first question of five the panel had to decide, and in a 10-2 decision, it favored the legal position of the college sports governing body that the organization was not at fault.

If jurors, who began their deliberations late Wednesday afternoon, had found the NCAA to be negligent, they would have gone on to address the issue of damages.

Onyshko’s attorney, Eugene Egdorf, in his closing argument Wednesday afternoon, had asked for compensatory damages of $9.6 million on behalf of his clients.

Instead, the Onyshkos went away empty-handed.

“We fully plan to appeal,” Egdorf said after Judge Michael Lucas adjourned court. “Moreover, when Mr. Onyshko passes away, under Pennsylvania law, we can refile the case as a wrongful death case. We intend to do that as well.”

He declined to elaborate on the appeal, other than to say, “There are just a number of issues and things we were precluded from doing in this trial that we think would have made a difference in the verdict.

“Obviously the jurors deliberated for some seven and a half hours, so there was a lot of fighting going on in that room, it sounds like, and at least two jurors believed in our case and others at some point were persuaded.”

NCAA attorney Arthur W. Hankin of Philadelphia, who had implored jurors to focus on 1999 to 2003, when Onyshko was either practicing or playing football at Cal U., referred comment to a spokeswoman for the Indianapolis-based organization.

“We appreciate the jury’s thoughtful consideration of the issues presented in this case,” according to an NCAA news release.

Jury selection began in late April, with testimony lasting through Monday. Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose research into the 2002 death of the late Steelers great Mike Webster connected repetitive trauma to the brain and spine with diseases found in NFL players, testified on Onyshko’s behalf.

The plaintiffs produced an internal email in which NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline since 2013 branded Omalu, who had undertaken a speaking tour, as being on a “holy crusade” and questioned how to fight back.

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