Mark Hardie is a unique high school softball coach.
The assistant coach at Crystal Lake South is also a dad of softball players. His triplet daughters -- Kaitlin, Megan and Samantha -- all played softball for the Gators, with their dad as Scott Busam's assistant.
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That in itself isn't all that unique, although dads coaching in high school is somewhat of a novelty.
Hardie achieved the unique status after the 2009 season, when he stayed on as South's assistant coach. You'll find very few dads who would do that after their kids graduate, especially when two of the three said kids were moving on to play the game at Winona State University in Minnesota.
But Hardie, who started coaching with Busam when the Hardie girls were in eighth grade, had a passion for softball and for the kids and program at Crystal Lake South and he and Busam have continued to make things work.
Until this spring that is. Hardie won't be in his usual place hitting flies with one hand in pregame warm-ups with a glove on the other hand, nor at first base waving Gator runners around the bases and reminding Busam when he needs a pinch-runner or a courtesy runner. And he won't be spitting sunflower seeds at his sidekick in the dugout either.
Call it a freak injury, or just call it another in a long line of Hardieitis but on March 27, while running straightforward during a team baserunning drill, Hardie felt a sharp pain in the back of his right knee. After the morning practice, he went to his job as vice president and treasurer of Elgin Sheet Metal in South Elgin. The knee stiffened a little and around 5 p.m. he elevated it.
"That's when it started getting numb," Hardie recalled earlier this week. "I went to Sherman (Hospital) and they thought I might have compartment syndrome."
What the heck is compartment syndrome? That was my first question a few days later when I learned Hardie, who has also been a coach with the Northern Illinois Lightning summer softball program the past six years, was in the hospital.
What I learned is that compartment syndrome is a potentially limb and life-threatening condition. It generally occurs after an injury when there is not a sufficient amount of blood to supply the muscles and nerves with oxygen and nutrients because of the raised pressure within the compartment, such as the arm, leg or any enclosed space within the body. It can lead to nerve damage because of the lack of blood supply.
Once doctors figured out what was wrong with Hardie they told him had he waited 12 more hours to come in, he may have lost his leg.
"They said that night it wasn't a classic case so they admitted me," said Hardie, a 1977 Irving Crown graduate who played baseball in high school, and then at Rockford College. "The next morning I felt great and was ready to go home but they wanted to do an ultrasound and they found a clot."
Even with blood thinners things didn't immediately get better, instead worse. The leg stiffened again.
"You could have cracked an egg on my lower leg," Hardie said. "I was literally crying I was in so much pain."
The next step was an emergency Fasciotomy. So, again, what the heck is a Fasciotomy? It's a surgical procedure where the fascia is cut to relieve the pressure. It is, in fact, a limb-saving procedure. Fortunately, the procedure has a high rate of success with the most common problem being accidental damage to a nearby nerve.
I'll tell you this. I've seen the post-op photos, and you don't want to.
It's doubtful Hardie will be back on the softball field the remainder of the high school season (will anyone, for crying out loud?). He's in a leg boot, on crutches, and any kind of trauma to the leg could mean some very serious repercussions. At this point, he hopes to coach this summer, but his No. 1 goal is to be healthy enough June 20 to head to Hawaii with his wife Kelley and the girls, a celebration of the triplets graduating from college (Kait and Megan from Winona and Samantha from the University of Illinois).
His absence from the softball field is grueling to him, as well as to Busam and the Gators. Jason Wirth has stepped in and done a commendable job on Hardie's place, but there's something about the Busam-Hardie combo that just ... well, let's just say watching the two of them in action sparks up even the most boring game.
It's not just softball they share, it's the fact the two have become incredibly close friends in the nine years they've been together.
"I started coaching when I was 24," said Busam. "He was a dad and he was running a company. We came from two totally different places and we were two very unlikely friends, but we found a common denominator in coaching softball. I was young and fiery and he was the older calming influence. He adapted quickly to my fiery side and over the years I've calmed down and I've learned a lot about the game from him and now he's one of my closest friends and that's part of the fun.
"He came in when his kids were in junior high and that's been lost on a lot of people. And when they graduated he didn't hesitate to come back. That's unique and he's unique."
"My daughters came through and now they're gone, so these (Gator girls) are like my second set of daughters," Hardie said. "Not being there to help them and be around them is awful. When your kids are in college you need something, and this is my hobby. I don't drink. I can't stand sitting around watching TV and this is what I do for fun. Now I can't do it. When they played their first games and I couldn't be there, I was a wreck.
"Busam and I are really tight and we're really good friends. We hang around together outside of softball and I miss him as much as the girls. He trusts me and treats me like an equal. It's a great partnership."
The Gators miss him too.
"I was on varsity my freshman year so I've been around him for awhile," said CLS senior Kara Zybko. "It's definitely a blast with him and Busam and my favorite high school memories. They put things in perspective for us and make you realize it's just a game. Even if we're losing, Hardie keeps spitting sunflower seeds at Busam and we just keep on going. It's just different without him there."
Hardie's injury is far from the first he and his family have had to deal with the past several years. All three girls tore an ACL, Megan twice, and Kaitlin is playing her senior season at Winona with an ACL tear. Samantha broke and dislocated an ankle playing softball her freshman year of high school and Megan broke her ankle when she tore her first ACL. That doesn't even count the broken teeth, the mangled noses and the usual strawberries. Mark himself tore an ACL playing ball.
"This is just a weird injury," he says. "I had never felt anything quite like that."
Hardie is staying as involved as he can with the team, even if he can't be at the field every day. He did make one practice and he was able to attend the game earlier this week against McHenry.
"Being at that game made me realize how much I'm missing softball," he said.
"I miss him being out there and the girls do too," said Busam. "He came to a practice and the girls were running down the hallway screaming 'Mr. Hardie's here! Mr. Hardie's here!' "
And even if Hardie can't be there much this season, Busam and the Gators can rest assured that he's there in his thoughts and his heart.