It's a cruel irony that Matt Schafer's knee betrayed him this year. Of all years.
Schafer worked harder over the fall and winter than he ever has during a baseball off-season. He was determined to have an unforgettable senior season this spring. He was determined to have a different role this year, to be a regular starter for Carmel, to be one of those players that teammates count on day in and day out.
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Then, he heard the pop, the pop that no athlete ever wants to hear. It was Feb. 23, two days before official baseball tryouts began.
"I'll never forget that day," Schafer said. "I was playing basketball in the gym with my friends, four or five of us just playing half-court. I went up to block a shot, came down and my ankle kind of rolled, but instead of twisting my ankle, my left knee gave out with it and I heard a pop."
Somehow, Schafer kept playing, but he knew something was wrong. He was in pain.
After returning from the emergency room the next day, Schafer called his best friend Brett Milazzo, a senior outfielder for the Corsairs. The news was bad. Schafer had torn his anterior cruciate ligament as well as his meniscus, and he had sprained his MCL, too. He would miss the entire baseball season.
"I was pretty emotional, I was crying. That first week after it happened, I couldn't go a day without crying," said Schafer, who had surgery about a week after the fateful day. "When I called Brett and told him, he told me that I had worked so hard and I would be back someday. He was trying to encourage me."
Milazzo wasn't done there, which is what makes this story of friendship and empathy and good will a bit unique. It wasn't just "Man, I'm so sorry about what happened to you," and then on with the business of the day.
Thanks to Milazzo, Schafer feels supported every single day, not only by him, but by all the Corsairs. A wristband and a special dedication keep Schafer thinking those positive thoughts.
As Schafer's primary workout partner during the off-season, Milazzo saw firsthand the amount of sweat equity that Schafer put into his game. Milazzo wanted to make sure that Schafer knew his work was recognized and wouldn't be forgotten. He also wanted to find a way to somehow keep Schafer on the field, even though he would be relegated to the dugout for games.
"I just felt so bad for him," Milazzo said. "That would be one of the most devastating things that could happen right now for a senior. Two days before tryouts and your season is over. I saw how hard Matt had worked. He deserves to be out there with us.
"I got the idea for our team to dedicate the season to Matt, and I found a website that makes personalized (sports gear such as) wristbands. They didn't have brown wristbands so I couldn't get them in our school color. Instead, I got black wristbands with his initials in gold."
Milazzo wears his "MS" black wristband during every game and even at some practices. About half the guys on the team bought the wristbands. The others don't like to wear wristbands during games, but they are supportive of Schafer just the same.
"The rehab can be hard, and it's probably 10 times harder mentally than physically. I was really struggling at first," Schafer said. "But the wristbands are really cool. It really helps to know how much your friends and teammates care about you. Everyone has been really great and really supportive. It helps to be around good people and in a good atmosphere. You don't think so much about the injury and what you're missing."
Besides being part of the team on the field, Schafer is also missing out on the new and improved him.
He knew he had improved dramatically since last season, but just how much was to be revealed once he got on the field with the full team this spring.
"That's probably the most frustrating thing," Schafer said. "I was never really a key player last year. But I worked my butt off and I was ready to change that. I looked forward to it so much.
"I set goals for myself for the first time ever and I got bigger and stronger and faster. There was never a day I didn't work on baseball and now I'll never know how much better I would have been."
These days, Schafer settles for being the best team manager he can be. He takes stats like nobody's business. And he can talk a good game about living in the moment.
He recently addressed the entire team about not taking any day, any at-bat, any play for granted. He told them to play as if they weren't guaranteed of a tomorrow or a next year. He knows about that better than anyone.
"Matt is such a tremendous character kid," Carmel coach Dann Giesey said. "He's the kind of kid you love having on your team. He's so supportive of his teammates and our team goals. I think that's why it was so easy for the players to rally around him like they have."
Schafer's teammates have got him feeling so much better that he is even starting to get his hopes up again. About baseball.
A straight-A student, Schafer was accepted to the University of Illinois and will study in its engineering program. His rehab will be done in the fall and he is hoping to try out for the Illini baseball team next spring as a walk-on.
If he makes the team, he says he would look forward to the Purdue games most.
Milazzo will be playing for the Purdue baseball team next fall.
"I was really hoping that Brett and I would be out there in the outfield together this season," Schafer said. "Since that's not going to happen, I'm kind of living through him this year. But next year, maybe we could play against each other. That would be really cool.
"It depends on how my rehab goes, but that's my goal."
Schafer also purchased an "MS" wristband. Perhaps he should wear it during the tryouts next spring for inspiration.