Paul Moran celebrates his birthday every December 31.
The Northfield resident and 1985 New Trier High School graduate celebrates something just as significant every October 18.
“My ‘Lucky to be Alive’ day,” he says. “It’s a day I get introspective. My mom [Noel, of Winnetka] calls me every year on that day.”
Moran was 18 years old and a freshman at Boston College when a trolley hit him in an accident on October 18, 1985. He was pinned to the ground, face down, for 30 minutes, which must have felt like 30 days.
Moran lost his right leg and two fingers on his left hand.
“My roommate in the hospital,” he recalls, “had lost every limb I still had. He used his nose to push buttons on the elevator.”
Moran, now 50, teaches tennis players — able-bodied and athletes in wheelchairs — how to hit a tennis ball on the nose from either the baseline or the net. An instructor at the A.C. Nielsen Tennis Center in Winnetka since 2002, Moran was a four-time USA Paralympian in sitting volleyball (1992, ’96, ’00 and ’04) and a singles and doubles competitor in wheelchair tennis at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China.
And he’s in a Hall of Fame for his achievements in … wheelchair softball. Moran, still active with Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) softball teams, played for national championship teams in 2002 and ’05.
“You can’t beat the fun I have when I spend time with kids and teach them tennis,” says Moran, whose career-best rankings in wheelchair tennis are No. 4 in the U.S. and No. 110 in the world. “I’ve worked with adults who went from not being able to hit a tennis ball to hitting winners in tournaments; that’s incredibly rewarding to see. I love what I’m doing for a living.”
Moran grew up in Winnetka with three older brothers (Chris, Tom and Peter) and three older sisters (Sheila, Cindy and Aileen). His late father, also named Chris, was a gregarious man who worked as a magazine advertising sales representative. Mom Noel worked for Welcome Wagon, in retail and as a grief counselor.
“It was tough, finding opportunities to talk at the dinner table with so many older people around me, but I always looked for the openings,” says Moran, who, as a switch-hitting outfielder, tried out for the New Trier varsity baseball team but got cut (along with about 70 other hopefuls in a pool of 100).
“I was kind of a class clown in high school.”
His tragic collision with a trolley 32 years ago did not claim a shred of his zest for life or his sense of humor. I discover that throughout our filling breakfast at Three Tarts Bakery and Café in Northfield. Over a glass of orange juice and a crowded plate of two eggs over easy, a piece of cornbread, breakfast potatoes and two turkey sausage patties, Moran — a huge fan of St. Louis Cardinals legend Lou Brock but a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan since 1989 — envisions producing a movie about baseball, with Bill Murray portraying the ghost of William Veeck Jr. (who worked as a popcorn vendor for the Cubs and later became an owner of three Major League Baseball teams, including the Chicago White Sox, in a span of 34 years).
Veeck, an amputee who died in 1986 at the age of 71, spoke with Moran in a phone conversation and told him, “Losing a leg is not the end of the world.”
The working title of the book Moran, an English/philosophy double major at Boston College, is thinking about writing: Bouncing Back.
On what he does at concerts in his sports wheelchair, which is held together with Velcro and strips of duct tape: “I like to dance in it, angling it and spinning around.” (Moran worked the midnight-6 a.m. shift as an alt-rock disc jockey for WCBR-FM 92.7 in the early 1990s.)
On his limitation as a tennis instructor in lessons with able-bodied students: “I’m not very good at showing the proper footwork.”
Among his heroes are reigning U.S. Open men’s wheelchair champion Stephane Houdet, of France, and Paralympians Randy Snow and Esther Vergeer. The 46-year-old Houdet topped a 19-year-old in a three-set U.S. Open final last month; Snow, a native of Terrell, Texas, was the first Paralympian (wheelchair tennis and basketball) to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame; and Vergeer, ranked No. 1 in the world in women’s wheelchair tennis from 1999-2013, ended her career with an astonishing 470-match winning streak. The Dutch netter amassed a combined 42 Grand Slam championships in singles and doubles and retired with a career singles record of 700-25.
“She worked so hard on every aspect of her game,” says Moran, who has worked with athletes affiliated with the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA). “Nobody had more self motivation than Esther had.”
The man who helped the USA men’s sitting volleyball team place sixth at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, has set his sights on punching winning volleys at a wheelchair tennis tournament in Hanover Park this month. Moran’s strengths are serving and defense.
“I need to be more offensive in matches,” he admits. “I cover the court pretty well, but I want to own every part of the court when I’m out there.”
His dream is to own or run a facility for wheelchair athletes in a gorgeous setting someday, maybe in Hawaii. He’d welcome tennis, volleyball, basketball and softball enthusiasts under a canopy of palm trees and make them feel like they were at a camp every day.
“I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open for opportunities to be a spiritual leader for athletes, for veterans … maybe veterans involved with the Wounded Warriors Project,” Moran says. “I feel useful, and I feel satisfied with what I’ve been able to do for tennis players who are eager to become better tennis players.”
Interested in contacting Paul Moran or taking a tennis lesson from him? His email address is [email protected]