Published Saturday, February 2, 2002

Raider spirit has victim, 35, walking again
* Phil Villapiano loaned his Super Bowl ring to an injured fan to inspire him to walk again; Livermore man to return it Sunday

By Bonita Brewer

LIVERMORE -- Former Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano's Super Bowl ring may have just the kind of magical powers it takes to help Mitch Oellrich walk again.

On Sunday, Oellrich's goal is to make it 10 yards on first down, using only a cane, during a Super Bowl Party that Villapiano is cohosting at the Silver Legacy in Reno.

"Yeah, the ring has magical powers; it got me going again," 35-year-old Oellrich said from a wheelchair at his Livermore home Friday as he prepared to head to Reno to return the ring to Villapiano. "It's served its purpose. It got me back deep into therapy."

Oellrich had broken his neck in a diving-board accident at a backyard pool in Livermore in May 1999. Doctors had told him they didn't believe he'd be able to walk again, but weren't sure because he hadn't actually severed his spinal cord. Oellrich was then blinded in his left eye from an injury while on the operating table.

In May 2001, after enduring a grueling schedule of physical therapy and a corneal transplant, Oellrich became discouraged and stopped exercising. "I got complacent. It was easy to come home from work and lay on the couch and watch TV."

All of that changed during a tailgate party following the Nov. 18 Raiders game in Oakland against the San Diego Chargers. Oellrich, his wife, Bonnie, and some friends were in the parking lot when Villapiano and others walked up to them and asked if they had extra beers.

Villapiano, seeing Oellrich in a wheelchair, asked about his injury and what it would take to get him walking again. Soon, Villapiano was offering Oellrich his Super Bowl ring to motivate him to resume his rehabilitation and redouble his efforts.

Oellrich protested, but Villapiano said he could return the ring only when he was able to walk.

"It was just one of those things where you had to be there," said Villapiano, a Raider from 1971 to 1979. "They were such nice people. When Mitch was talking to me, I just felt something in my heart, that maybe I could help this guy."

Villapiano said he was especially touched because the wife of one of his best friends, former St. Louis Cardinals player Conrad Dobler, had suffered a similar injury July 4.

"I almost did it for Joy Dobler," he said. "Here I had an opportunity to help someone and I just did it. I never thought twice about it until I was walking away. I didn't care if I got the ring back or not. If he was sincere about walking, then I was sincere about giving it to him."

A Raider diehard whose garage is filled with Silver and Black paraphernalia, Oellrich -- with help from friend John Bailey of Livermore -- started working out daily in a makeshift garage gym. He said more important than the ring itself was Villapiano's encouragement.

"This man was willing to give up one of his prize possessions to help me get farther along in my life. It definitely helped that he was a Raider and it was a Super Bowl ring. But the fact that he entrusted me, someone he'd just met in a parking lot, was my real incentive."

Villapiano, who lives in New Jersey, has since called Oellrich regularly to chat.

Oellrich started using a walker, then crutches and later a cane and extra support. But Sunday will be the first time he tries to walk using only a cane.

Though originally shying away from publicity, Oellrich said he and Bonnie decided it could inspire others. "I thought, 'Bring it on.' I hope it helps someone.'"

Reach Bonita Brewer at 925-847-2120 or