APART from the result, Matt Walker remembers the play that permanently altered his life as fairly routine.
Blitzing from his outside linebacker position during a game at Butler, the Franklin College junior was closing in on his target when the lights, literally and figuratively, went out.
“I got low and made a move inside,” Walker said, recalling the moment three weeks ago when a freak collision with a blocker cost him his football career and half his vision.
“His hand came up through my face mask, and everything went black for like a split second, and then everything was white on my right side for like five minutes.
“And ever since then, it’s been black.”
The it is the vision in his right eye.
Barring a medical miracle, Walker won’t see out of it again. The hand that inadvertently slipped through his face mask shattered his eye-socket and caused irreparable damage that doctors say is almost sure to result in permanent sight loss.
But for Walker, who has played organized football since third grade, blindness wasn’t the worst possible news.
Informed that his career is likely over was far more jolting.
“It was crazy to hear that I may never play again,” said Walker, who, despite the physical and emotional trauma, is anything but downbeat.
Walker has handled the life-altering circumstance with equal parts courage, determination and a sense of humor that has inspired the Grizzlies since the Sept. 14 incident.
Junior safety John Sittler visited his teammate in the hospital immediately after the game. Despite the severity of his injuries, which included multiple fractures around the eye-socket, Walker kept his visitors — which included his parents as well as other teammates and coaches — calm with his trademark wit.
“He’s a real upbeat guy. He’s always pulling pranks and jokes. He’s just been like that the whole time,” said Sittler, one of Walker’s closest friends. “He was making jokes about his eye at the hospital that night. He hasn’t shown on the outside that it’s bothering him at all.”
Franklin coach Mike Leonard has a similar memory of that night at St. Vincent Hospital. He recalls Walker’s replies when his mother, Carla, asked him if he was hungry. He said yes. She asked what he would like. He said, “Popeye’s.”
Though the Grizzlies are accustomed to the physical, mental and emotional strength of their two-year starting linebacker, Walker’s sunny resolve in a potentially gloomy circumstance still surprises and inspires those associated with the team.
Walker not only returned to classes four days after the injury, he’s participated in every team activity, apart from practicing and playing. He traveled with the Grizzlies and was on the sideline during last week’s 48-27 win at Manchester and helps out wherever he can during practice.
He attends all team meetings and offers the occasional motivational talk when the Grizzlies need it.
Yet he would do just about anything for the opportunity to play.
“That’s definitely the hardest part so far about this,” said Walker, a former standout at Jennings County High School. “I know I’m not going to be out there and perform for the team, but I want to be there for the team as much as they’re there for me. As soon as it happened, they were supporting me. So I want to support them as well and be with them and even coach some of them if I think that it would help.
“I want to be out there as much as possible.”
Not surprisingly, the Grizzlies cherish his presence, to the point of dedicating the rest of the season to a new team slogan: “Matt-itude.”
A giant banner bearing the term, with a subscript that reads “Positive Attitude in Times of Incredible Adversity,” will hang outside the entrance of Stewart “Red” Faught Stadium for the rest of the season. The Grizzlies (1-2) host Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference rival Earlham in Saturday’s homecoming game.
“Inspired is definitely a word you could use,” Sittler said of Walker’s impact on the Grizzlies. “He’s talked to the team a little bit about not taking things for granted, about how if he could have one more practice out there ... like every time you go out there, you don’t know how many you have left, so you’ve always got to do your best and work hard every day.
“I think a lot of guys have been inspired by that.”
Especially in light of circumstances that the average person might have a much harder time coping with.
Though dazed by the contact, Walker instantly knew something was seriously wrong.
“My nose was bleeding everywhere. I was looking for my eyeball on the field. I couldn’t see, so I thought my eyeball was out,” he said. “The doctor said my eyeball went out and went back on.”
When Leonard went onto the field to check on his player, he was startled by what he saw: Walker, sprawled on the ground, his uniform soaked in blood, holding his hands over his eye.
Trainers and doctors from both teams immediately aided the player, who eventually walked off the field and went straight to St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. He was discharged about 2 a.m. and returned to classes the following Wednesday.
He is scheduled for surgery today to repair his facial fractures. Doctors have all but assured him, however, that the vision in his right eye won’t return.
“My vision may never come back, but that’s just something I’m taking one day at a time,” Walker said. “It’s definitely something I have to get used to, but it’s not as bad as what you’d think. But it’s definitely an adjustment.”
Walker attributes much of his inner strength to the outpouring of support from family, friends and the football team.
“After I got out of the hospital I turned on my phone, and my phone was just blowing up with people texting me and getting ahold of me,” he said. “I sat there and thought that I could take this one way and be down about it and hate the world, basically, but how selfish of me would it be to get down about this?
“I just take the positive route and deal with what God gives you and let him take care of the rest.”
It’s a character quality the Grizzlies call “Matt-itude.”
“Through this tragedy, I have gotten to know Matt even a lot better than I did before,” Leonard said. “I just really admire how he has handled this whole situation, incredibly well. This ‘Matt-ittude’ that we’ve created, it’s amazing how positive he has been and will continue to be, hopefully, through these tragic times.”
An optimist by nature, Walker knows know other way way to cope.
“I like to keep everybody in a good mood. I don’t like seeing anybody cry or get upset, especially if they’re upset for me,” he said. “I’ve never been like that. I never want that kind of attention. I want everybody to be smiling around me.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do, keep everybody positive, along with myself.”
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