Tonight is his All-Star game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the summer of 1996, life was good for Robert Florio.

The 14-year-old had fallen for a girl with long, brown hair. He and his best friend, Jeff, talked of one day crisscrossing the country in a gutted school bus. And he dreamed of being a baseball player.

Florio threw so hard his father bought a new mitt to play catch. Cal Ripken Jr. was his favorite slugger. The Orioles were his real love.

But before the end of that summer, Florio lost his childhood in a swimming-pool accident.

Tonight, he will take the field inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, not as a player - as he once dreamed - but as a 21-year-old man who, despite severe limitations, will finally be able to feel the joy of being 14 again.

Baseball couldn't get him here, but Florio has uncovered a link to both his childhood and his dreams: art.

The accident that changed Florio's life occurred days before he was to play in his first baseball All-Star game.

The 5-foot-2, 110-pound teen climbed his best friend's deck in Glen Burnie. From there, he dived into a 4-foot-deep, above-ground pool, crushing his neck and spinal cord on the bottom.

Instantly, he couldn't feel his legs. He couldn't move them. He floated, facedown.

Jeff pulled him to the surface.

Florio told him he couldn't swim, but Jeff thought he was joking and let him go. Florio fell back underwater.

He looked at the bottom again, and then closed his eyes. He thought his soul was going to heaven because he just couldn't hold his breath any longer.

The next thing he remembers, he was above water and alive. But a lot of him died that day.

New version of normal

Today, Florio is 5 1/2 inches taller, and he finally weighs 110 pounds again. He's paralyzed from his upper arms down. A tube protrudes from his neck, evidence of the tracheotomy he had to help him breathe.

In his motorized wheelchair, he scoots across the dull green carpet on the bottom floor of his parents' Glen Burnie home. His room is like any other 21-year- old's. The computer screen displays a picture of Angelina Jolie. A Matrix Reloaded poster hangs in the corner. His compact discs include Ricky Martin, Garth Brooks and Leann Rimes.

His bed is narrow. His nightstand is crowded with medical equipment. And he goes upstairs only on holidays.

Florio can move his bone-thin arms - a little.

His everyday apparel is a T-shirt - on this day it's Austin Powers - as well as shorts, white socks pulled to mid-calf and sandals.

He wears a ski cap - he gets cold easily. And he sports a tuft of hair under his chin.

One of three nurses flanks him nearly all day, six days a week. They help him turn pages in his textbooks. They feed him stuffed peppers and chocolate milk. They help him reach the water tube connected to the canteen in the bag strapped to his chair.

On a recent weekday, Robert is studying for a Modern Logic test at Anne Arundel Community College and growing frustrated.

"New line. Undo that," he says into a headset that controls his computer cursor.

A box appears on his screen.

"I hate it when it does that," he says.

In response, the computer types "I hate."

"I need to change subjects," he says. "This one's bothering me."

A little more than a year ago, Florio says, his outlook improved rapidly. He began to accept that some things would never be the same. He would, for example, never be able to play baseball again.

Before that, he felt sure that God would heal him. His motto was, "I'm not accepting this. This is not going to be me."

It sounds like the theme for a motivational video. But for Florio, it was denial.

Four years after his injury, he had arm surgery he believed would let him grasp objects with his left hand.

The surgeon implanted a box in Florio's chest. He has sensors strapped to his body, and by shrugging his right shoulder, he can lock his left hand and arm into five different positions. But nothing allows him to grasp, as he had hoped.

He can't grip a baseball. He no longer has a best friend. He doesn't have a girlfriend.

But he has found painting - again.

Art came first

Before baseball, before soccer, before football, Florio liked art.

In first grade, he drew pictures of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and sold them to his friends for 50 cents apiece. He told them to hang on to the pictures - he was going to be famous someday.

But he let art go, minus a doodling here and a sketch of a dream house there. He started getting into trouble - skipping a class every so often, smoking a cigarette now and again, letting his grades slip.

After the accident, a therapist gave Florio a special brush to paint with during his five-month stint at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore. Painting would help him relax, the therapist said.

He was to bite down on a mouthpiece that connected to a pole. The pencil-thick pole extended from Florio's mouth and had a hole for a paint brush. By moving his head, he could make art again.

He wanted nothing to do with it.

In fact, he didn't even get out of bed much.

After returning home from Mount Washington, he left for rehabilitation in Hershey, Pa. When he returned from there, he finally gave art a second chance.

He started with his old standby, the Ninja Turtles.

Using his mouth stick, he drew 11 turtle heads on a sheet of paper, filling some of them in with a green colored pencil. Some look nothing like heads. Others had a strong resemblance.

He kept drawing every so often, at least on his good days.

In 1997, he returned to school, enrolling at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. About a year later, he made what he calls his first painting, a scene that resembles the Bay Bridge.

Since his injury, he has been afraid of water. But bridges bring comfort. "For some reason that relaxes me, bridges over water," he says.

From then on, he was a painter. His pictures fill his room.

There's the painting of his dog, Fluffy, above his bed. Across the room there's a painting of his other dog, a black Labrador named Jasmine. And nearby, a lighthouse.

Art became a safe world. "Even though things are so hopeless," he says. "There's an energy there, there's a hope."

In 2001, while he was a student at Chapelgate Christian Academy in Marriottsville, he took a drawing class at Anne Arundel Community College.

After graduating from high school last year, he enrolled at the college and began taking more art classes. In January, he will begin classes through the Art Institute Online. He would like to become a painter or designer of video games for the disabled or an architect. His art will be unveiled next month at the Anne Arundel County government center in Annapolis, and a state agency for the disabled has asked him to paint its Christmas card.

Using a mouthpiece molded to fit his teeth, he can paint for five hours on a Sunday afternoon without getting a headache. It's a tedious process, but one he enjoys.

This summer, he took on his biggest challenge: painting his new favorite baseball player, Orioles outfielder/first baseman Jay Gibbons.

They share the same birthday - March 2, five years apart - and since a chance meeting last winter in the television section of a Best Buy store in north Anne Arundel County, they have exchanged e-mail.

Tonight, they meet again.

Game night

It is all Florio has thought about.

Tuesday of last week, he checked the weather on the Internet. It predicted rain. It can't rain. It just can't, he kept saying.

The same night, he scolded his mother for touching the oil painting of Gibbons.

Last winter, the baseball player and the painter brokered a deal. Florio said he wanted to paint a picture of Gibbons. In return, Gibbons said he would have Florio to the stadium, show him around and give him a signed baseball bat or two.

Florio finished the portrait late last month. It's his largest - 16 inches by 20 inches. The detail extends to the blood vessels in Gibbons' right forearm.

Late last month, Gibbons extended the formal invitation in an e-mail from Oakland, Calif., where the Orioles were playing.

"Hey man," he wrote. " ... I admire your passion for baseball, I feel the same way."

Handing Gibbons the portrait will be Florio's All-Star game - seven years late.

"I hope I can sit on the field," he said last week. "I wish I could play with him, but to be out there ... "It's like me getting my dream."

To view the art work of Robert Florio, visit the Web site www.geocities.com/arts144/index.html.

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