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Matt Imhof: I won't be defined by my worst day
Philadelphia Phillies pitching prospect Matt Imhof sustained a traumatic injury to his right eye in a training accident in June. The 23-year-old details the moment his life changed and shares the plans he has for the future.
It was my normal postgame routine to use exercise bands after I pitched. They were already hooked to the wall when I walked into the athletic training room, so I grabbed them and started my workout.
Same thing, different day.
It was the fifth repetition on the second set of my third exercise. I was facing the wall, about 25-30 feet away from it, with a band in each hand. I pulled them back hard above my head so that my right hand was above my right ear and my left hand was above my left ear. As I got to the top of my motion, I felt the tension break.
It's a surreal moment; the moment you realize you're screwed and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.
I saw a flash of silver and then felt the metal hook smash into my face. Everything went numb as I hit the ground screaming. I could feel the warmth of the blood running down my face and taste it in my mouth. I couldn't breathe. I tried to move and look around, but my vision was blurry.
Everything was shaking so violently that I didn't know which way was up. After a couple of minutes, my trainer, Mickey Kozack, got me seated on the table. At that point, my face was swollen and all I could do was spit up blood in between dry heaves. I was convinced my nose was broken, but the pain had gotten so intense I couldn't tell where it was coming from. All I knew was I wanted it to stop.
Sitting on an athletic training table in Brevard County, Florida, on June 24, 2016, a brief moment of clarity came amid the chaos.
"Mick, am I going to lose my eye?"
I didn't ask because I didn't know the answer; I asked because I needed to hear a lie. I needed the fake reassurance that everything was going to be OK because, in that moment, I honestly didn't know if it would be.
I got to the hospital and once the doctors realized how bad the damage was to my eye, they sent me to Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, the leading eye hospital in the country. Mickey couldn't make the trip with me, so from this point on, I was on my own.
I woke up in a hospital room and three doctors walked in. They were holding my CAT scans and clipboards and had the standard "I have bad news" look on their faces.
The doctors explained to me I was never going to see out of my right eye again. They said some of the best surgeons in the world were going to try to reconstruct my eye but, in all likelihood, I was going to need a second surgery to have the eye removed.
I've never felt as alone as I did in that moment; my world had been completely shattered. Not only had I lost half my vision, but now I was going to look different too.
You tell yourself to plan for the worst and hope for the best, but when they told me that, the last little bit of hope I had was gone.
The doctors left my room so I could compose myself and make a decision, but I broke down and cried until I was out of tears.
What was I going to do?
Who was I going to be?
Could I play baseball again?
Could I live a normal life?
I felt like the person who walked into that training room in Brevard County was not the same person sitting alone in this hospital room. Everything I thought I knew, everything I had planned for myself, was gone. Baseball, my future, my vision, all of it.
"I felt like the person who had walked into that training room in Brevard County was not the same person sitting alone in this hospital room. Everything I thought I knew, everything I had planned for myself was gone. Baseball, my future, my vision, all of it."Matt Imhof
I was scared beyond anything I'd ever felt because I knew what decision I had to make. I told the doctors to go ahead with both surgeries, the one to repair my eye and, if that didn't work, the one to remove it. There was no going back, so I strapped in and told myself it was all going to be OK.
The following days were a blur, but I ended up having both surgeries.
I'm not going to lie, it made me angry. I was depressed. I was confused. But mostly, I was scared. I felt like I had lost a lifetime of work. But it was more than that. I hadn't lost it, it was taken from me. I wasn't Matt Imhof anymore; I was a shell of him. The real Matt Imhof died in that training room along with his future. The only thing that defined me now was an injury.
Luckily for me, I had Dr. Wendy W. Lee to set me straight. Lee performed my second surgery and, in for all intents and purposes, is a certified badass. She walked into the room and asked me how I was doing.
"I'm fine," I said.
It's the same thing you tell someone when you just want them to leave you alone.
She looked at me and smiled, "Matt, the worst part is over. You survived."
She continued, unaffected by my silence, "You have suffered a life-altering injury, not a life-ending one. It may be hard for you to see right now, but you can still do anything you want. You can play baseball again. You can drive a car. You can even be a brain surgeon. Anything that was possible for you before the accident is still possible for you now."
At first I didn't want to listen to her. What did she know? She wasn't the one in the hospital bed and she wasn't the one with bandages covering half his face.
In spite of my attitude, Lee repeated that speech to me almost every time I saw her. I lay in my bed for hours repeating it in my head. After a week or so, her message finally clicked.
I then realized that I had another big decision to make.
What type of person was I?
How was I going to move forward?
I had two options. I could let this injury define me. I could be angry -- no one would blame me for that. I could be depressed, feel sorry for myself and live in the past. I could let the rest of my life be defined by the worst day of my life. Or, I could pick myself up, dust myself off and move on.
Our field coordinator with the Phillies, Doug Mansolino, used to say the difference between baseball players and other people is that baseball players get up. We play a hard game. We get knocked down. But we always get back up.
So that's what I did.
It seems simple now, but at the time it was the hardest thing I ever had to do.
I had to relearn how to walk down stairs, how to drive and even how to play catch. Routine things like walking in crowds became hard, but I soon realized the physical limitations of my injury weren't the only things standing in my way of a normal life.
Walking through San Francisco International Airport in early August, I had to keep my head on a swivel to avoid tripping or falling over. I wasn't used to my new field of vision and, as a result, I kept running into people on my right.
Ultimately, I managed the crowds fine, but then I started to notice the way people had been looking at me. My prosthetic wasn't ready yet, so I had a bandage over my right eye with glasses on top of it. I mostly avoided public places in the initial months after my injury because everywhere I went people looked at me with the same sad, confused look. I could feel the pity through their stares and I hated it. It made me feel weak that I was letting strangers' perceptions of me dictate how I chose to live my life.
I eventually figured out that the only way for other people to see me without seeing my injury was if I was able to do it first. In the battle of self-perception, I couldn't let the injury win and so I began to embrace the struggle. I had no choice.
My identity used to be wrapped around baseball, it was who I was. This injury allowed me to see past that. I might not want the same things as I used to, but that's only because I have learned more about myself than I ever thought I would.
I still love the game of baseball and I'm proud of everything I accomplished in the game. It's opened doors for me I never thought I'd walk through. It's allowed me to represent my country on the biggest stage, and it's given me a platform to effect positive change in the lives of those less fortunate than myself. I am blessed that I was able to play this game for 18 years and will never forget the lessons it taught me along the way.
I'm a firm believer that baseball, through all my struggles on and off the field, prepared me for this moment. But the greatest thing baseball ever did for me was teach me who I could be without it.
To be completely honest, I don't know what is next for me. I want a career that allows me to make a positive impact on the community, but I'm still trying to find the best fit. I re-enrolled in classes at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I'm currently finishing my degree in business finance and I'm the undergraduate assistant pitching coach to the baseball program. I don't know if my career lies in coaching or in business, but I do know that I cherish every moment I'm able to step on the diamond and help these kids achieve their dreams. I have never doubted my ability to be successful in life and I don't plan on starting now; whether it's a baseball field or a boardroom, I know my future is bright.
With that in mind, I would like to announce my retirement from the game of baseball. I know many of you want me to continue my career, and to those people I would like to say thank you. My injury is not what's stopping me. I made this choice after six months because I wanted to be sure of that. The truth is I need a change of pace after 20 years of doing the same thing.
To my family, I love you and I couldn't have made it here without your love and support. I can't put into words how much you mean to me. To all the friends I made along the way, keep grinding. To anyone else who cares or is facing a struggle of their own, just know you're stronger than you think. Thank you again to anyone who has ever supported me. Although I am stepping away from playing the game, baseball will always hold a special place in my heart.
To bigger and better things.