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Short End of the Stick

Hayden Gruber | Tufts Baseball

Since the age of five I have been playing baseball. In high school, I played both soccer and baseball during their respective seasons. I never broke any bones or even had any minor injuries during my athletic career up until my sophomore year of high school. My first ever injury was in the fall during soccer season. I was blindsided by an opposing player and got a severe concussion for which I was rushed to the hospital. I remember only a few small flashes from that day, but it was frightening not being able to remember the day of the week or my home address. 

My parents and teammates were scared, but after some testing and scans, the doctors confirmed there was no internal bleeding and I was sent home. I was out of school for approximately three weeks recovering from symptoms like insomnia, headaches, confusion, and memory loss, along with gashes in my mouth that had resulted from the collision. In fact, there is still about a day and a half that is completely wiped from my memory. I only remember waking up in my bed at home two days later with a hospital band on my wrist, thinking I had dreamt about some kind of hospital visit. 

It was difficult being away from friends, not being able to go out, and especially not being able to do any physical activity. As an athlete, physical activity kept me sane; the immediate removal of that from my life was very hard. I couldn’t stay still, and my parents got completely fed up with me at home because I would juggle a soccer ball around our small house all day damaging various items and blocking the hallways. Finally, I was back at school and feeling good, winter had come, and baseball training was beginning for the spring. Little did I know, this was just the start of what I would face that year.

Just a few weeks after fully recovering from my concussion, I sprained my ankle badly while playing pickup basketball – there was severe ligament damage and I couldn’t walk on it. This was definitely not what I wanted, but I was not too down about it, as I just continued my baseball training while swinging and throwing from my knee. Taking any more time off didn’t seem like an option. About a month later, my ankle was good enough to jog around on, and I could practice normally with a brace. I was excited for my sophomore year after coming off a freshman campaign hitting .474 with a few home runs and making the All-Main Line team as an honorable mention. A few games into the season, I was pitching, and I felt a tweak in my lower back. Figuring it was just muscle tightness, I pitched the remainder of the game. The tightness and pain continued on our spring trip to Myrtle Beach; in one game, during a slide, I felt a sharp pain that I knew I could not play through. I told my coach I could not play for the remainder of the trip, and he was unsupportive.

 It was very frustrating being injured and not being able to compete after training for months while simultaneously being looked down on by your coach. When we got home from the trip, I visited the doctor and he informed me that I had actually fractured my L-4 vertebrae (toward the bottom of the spine, right above your butt on the left side). He said that it appeared I had a stress fracture which I had tried to play through causing me to fracture it completely. I was told that I would have to be in a full back brace for about 3 months. This was absolutely devastating news. I really wondered if I would make it through this injury mentally, as it had felt I was finally back and home-free after the prior months of depressing recovery time, only to be hit with an even more serious injury. The truth is that I became slightly depressed during this time; three months without exercise and watching from the sidelines really took a toll on me mentally. Adding to this, my coach continued to dismiss me, which really made things even more difficult. After practice every day, I would go do an hour of physical therapy to strengthen all the of muscles surrounding the vertebrae. I also dove head first into a stretching and flexibility routine with our fitness trainer which helped significantly. Most of all, I was fortunate to have great friends to hang out with. Even while I was not myself, they helped me think more positively.

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Finally, in the mid-summer, the doctor cleared me to start playing again while wearing a smaller, reduced brace. My first game back, on my first swing, I swung and hit the ball but felt a really sharp pain and knew my back had not healed. I returned to the doctor and they put me back in a brace for 10 weeks. This moment may have been more difficult than when I was initially diagnosed with the spinal fracture. For so many months I had sat on the sidelines, doing physical therapy and flexibility training for that moment when I could step back on the field, and it was immediately stripped away from me. I took some time away from my summer team to travel with my family and not think about baseball. When I finally got my brace off and had really healed completely, it was the fall again, and I had lost a ton of weight and practically all of my muscle. I was still on the soccer team, but did not really play, as I was still barred from any contact sports for a while. I really hadn’t played sports competitively, besides a few baseball games, since my concussion almost exactly a year earlier. It felt a bit as if I was re-learning my sport, and I was awfulat first.

 Finally, baseball pre-season rolled around, and I really was back to full health, but was not the player I used to be with all that time off. I went 0-22 in my first 22 at bats, after hitting almost .500 two years before. It was beyond frustrating, but I had learned to really enjoy just being able to play; I knew I would get back to normal at some point. I just hoped it was before the summer when college recruiting went into full swing. Fortunately, I began playing well and ended the season with decent statistics- I was ready for summer ball and college recruiting.

After having never been injured before, that was easily the most trying year of my life. At times, I really wondered whether I would play in college, or whether I would even play again at all. I learned that you need to appreciate just being able to play, even when things aren’t going well. I also found that when times are tough, friends and family really do step up to help fill the void. It is hard not to let the sadness that comes from not playing affect other parts of your life like school and relationships, but your friends will always be there for you. 

I ended up being recruited to play college baseball, and my senior year I led my team in every offensive category, received MVP, as well as All-League and All-Main Line First Team honors. It was the validation I had been working toward for what seemed like a lifetime. I knew that getting through that year made me stronger and that I could make it through whatever else came my way. The strength that came from this adversity would come to serve me well just over a year and a half later.

In February of my freshman year of college, just a week before the baseball season was set to kick off, I was hit square in the face by an errant pitch. I tried to feel my teeth with my tongue and couldn’t find them, so I started searching for them on the ground as blood began spilling out of my mouth. I couldn’t find them and realized that it was because I had shattered my jaw and they had all shifted down as the left side of my jaw had practically fallen off. Lying on the ground in a pool of blood waiting for an ambulance to arrive, all I could think was “not again, not again, I can’t believe this just happened, this is going to suck”. I looked in a mirror on the way out of the building and the left side of my jaw looked like a grapefruit was growing out of it – it was not a pretty scene. 

I was sent to the hospital and given the option for two separate surgeries: the first would involve an incision into my neck where they would place a permanent metal plate in my jaw to help me heal faster, but it was possible that the incision would cut nerve endings in my face and I could lose some facial control and sensation in my tongue. That didn’t sound very appealing, so I went with Option B. This included having metal wires drilled into my gums and having my mouth wired shut completely for 3 months. Neither option was great, but I definitely wanted to make sure I would be able to smile again! Nevertheless, my season was over. Those three months were tough. I couldn’t eat anything; my teeth were super sensitive to anything hot or cold, so I drank liquids through a straw and they had to be room temperature. Worst of all, I wasn’t able to lick my lips. During the harsh winter months my lips got extremely chapped… I was probably Chapstick’s #1 customer. 

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During this time with my jaw broken, I was actually able to keep a pretty positive attitude – I remembered my terrible year of injuries in high school and was just thankful that I still had my teeth and my eyesight. I considered all the worse things that could have happened to me and the hardships that others around the world go through every day, it helped me to realize that things aren’t actually that bad. The hardest part about breaking my jaw was seeing a year’s worth of training lost; we had lifted three times a week the whole year, and I was setting personal bests in all my lifts. Honestly, I was in the best shape of my life, but by the end of my recovery, I had lost about 40 pounds and all of my muscle during those three months. I really looked like a shadow of my former self and it was very obvious that it was not easy for me. Even then, I knew I would get it back. I knew from before that as bad as things seemed after my recovery, I would get back to where I was before. I trained all summer and was able to get back in shape before returning to school in the fall. I was lucky to not have anything worse happen to me. When people tell me that they feel bad for me because of my poor luck with injuries in high school and college, I tell them that I was lucky, not unlucky, and that it only made me stronger. I have extreme sympathy for other injured athletes; my advice to them is to really take time off to completely let your body heal and to keep the mentality that you will get back to where you were and further.

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