PHILADELPHIA — The date “8-23-14” is tattooed on Avery Marz’s left shoulder.
It’s a constant reminder of the day her life changed, the moment her college basketball career almost ended before it ever began.
She was 17 then, when she suffered a stroke while moving into her dorm at Saint Joseph’s.
Three years, a few months and a lot of hard work later, Marz has made it all the way back.
Last weekend, the senior guard stepped on the court for the first time in a game that counted. She not only entered at the end of the first quarter, she scored in her debut as the Hawks beat Niagara.
“It was surreal, really,” Marz told The Associated Press . “It was a long time coming for me. I didn’t expect it taking three to four years. I knew it would be difficult.”
“But for all the work, for it to be my senior year with my senior teammates that I came in, that was huge. I really wanted to do it when they were still here,” she said.
Marz always hoped that she would get a chance to play in college despite knowing the odds were against it.
While most of the doctors and physical therapists were positive with her during the rehab process, she sometimes had doubts. One doctor, who Marz didn’t want to name, told her she would never play again.
She was thrilled to prove him wrong.
“I think in the back of mind it’s always there,” Marz said. “To do something that some people never thought I would. There was a moment that yes, I was like it’s a miracle in some ways.”
“They told me I’d never walk again, they told me all these things. Here I am walking out on a court playing in a Division I game. That was pretty amazing,” she said.
Sitting in the stands for that first game was her mother, Mary Beth Schoellkopf. She hasn’t missed many of the Hawks’ games over the years, even though her daughter wasn’t on the court.
Mom made the trip to Italy this summer to watch Saint Joseph’s play some exhibitions. That was the first time that Marz got into a game.
“She did make me promise I wouldn’t cry and make a scene,” Schoellkopf said. “I did keep that promise. When we got on the bus, I did start to cry and she yelled at me again. We had a lot of time to talk about it and so I was prepared emotionally to hold it together.”
Hawks coach Cindy Griffin, a constant source of encouragement for Marz, admitted she teared up when her captain stepped on the court in Italy.
“That’s when I got the most emotional, when she scored her first basket there,” Griffin said.
“I teared up. Oh my god, I’m crying,” she said. “Even though it was unofficial, it was official to her. To go through what she went through and score her first basket, I think it was awesome. It was an awesome, euphoric moment.”
Griffin knew that playing in the Italy games helped Marz clear a huge emotional hurdle.
Marz said her body was ready to play last year, but not her mind. She was having panic attacks.
“It wasn’t me having the stroke, but flashbacks to me first trying to get up and walk and me falling,” Marz said. “That’s what I would flash back to. I explained to the coaches that mentally it wasn’t my time. That was hard because physically I was there, but mentally I wasn’t ready. That year I took off last year was the best thing ever.”
Marz started seeing a therapist last year, and said that helped a lot.
“PTSD is what they called it. Figuring out why it happened, but coming to terms with everything that happened and trying to make it better.”
Marz knows there are still good days and bad ones ahead. She tries not to let that affect her, knowing what she’s overcome. The odds of her even getting a stroke were so small — less than 30 in 100,000 children under the age of 18 suffer strokes.
Marz said that the doctors told her they believe hers was due to a combination of a birth control she was on and an elevated blood lipid profile that’s more common in African-Americans.
“They ran every test possible, just because of how young I was,” Marz said. “My heart, lungs, everything was great.”
While Marz was in the hospital, she asked her mom if she could get a tattoo when she got out. Her mom, who had never allowed her to get one in high school, reluctantly agreed.
Last December, Marz called her mom and said she’d gotten a tattoo with a friend. Bracing for the worst, Schoellkopf asked her daughter to describe the ink.
Told it was the date of the stroke, her mother cried.
“(The tattoo) is on the left side, which is where I was paralyzed. It’s on my back because it’s behind me,” Marz said. “It’s something I really wanted to get to remember every day. What happened to me is a big part of me. It’s going to be part of me for the rest of my life.”
Marz plans to graduate with her class this spring and then get an MBA next year while playing one more season at Saint Joseph’s. The NCAA potentially could grant her another year of eligibility after that for the time she missed while recovering.
The communications major wants to get into broadcasting when she’s done with school. She also wants to speak with kids and families of children going through situations similar to what she endured.
“If I can be a positive role model for them and inspiration for them, I would be honored,” she said.
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