FRANKLIN – When he looked out at his defense on a cloudless Saturday night at Faught Stadium, two things immediately returned him to the past.
The first was looking down the field and seeing a player with the No. 11 jersey in a two-point stance, staring down the team across from him in anticipation of what may be coming at or going away from him.
It’s not just that player that makes the moment significant for Franklin head coach Mike Leonard but it’s also the opponent. Seeing the all white jerseys is a clue, but it’s the helmet with the big “B” on it that really takes him back to 2012.
“I vividly remember being in the hospital room with Matt’s parents,” said Leonard of the last time his Grizzlies’ team face the Butler Bulldogs on the gridiron. “The mood was not very good.”
That’s because the Matt he refers to-linebacker Matt Walker-was getting treatment after taking a hit to his right eye. The hit shattered his eye socket, immediately took the vision away from the junior football player and put an end to his season along with likely his entire football career.
Just the thought of his player functioning without that kind of vision was still on Leonard’s mind the day after the game against the Bulldogs-enough for him to test out a theory.
“The next day I remember getting to the office and just contemplating and thinking about what it would be like to be blind in one eye,” said Leonard. “I got up out of my office chair and walked around the walking track that we have in our gymnasium and tried walking around a couple of laps with my right eye closed and it wasn’t fun.”
Yet a year later he was watching his team face Butler again with his two eyes wide open watching as No. 11 chased around receivers, blitzed the quarterback and charged forward to make a hit on whoever got their hands on the ball.
After all, it’s Walker once again donning the jersey with the two No. 1’s, doing something a full speed with one eye that Leonard couldn’t conceive on just a leisurely stroll just a year ago.
Yet the accomplishment in itself wasn’t a major surprise to the coach, who saw him returning to football without the sight in his right eye the next step in a remarkable journey of physical recovery and attitude.
“I’m not shocked,” said Leonard of Walker’s return to football. “Because of his attitude.”
That’s “Mattitude” a slogan developed by Leonard in honor of Matt for the 2012 season which was placed on a big sign used at games, T-Shirts, and even on a Twitter account during the season.
“Means positive attitude in times of incredible adversity,” is how Leonard described it-but little did he know that linebacker would do more to make it live on into 2013.
Walking into a doctor’s office just two months after a life-changing injury, Walker wasn’t expecting to hear some incredible news.
When he was poked in the eye against Butler, the vision left the linebacker’s right eye immediately and he was told quickly it would never return.
“‘You’re not going to play again’,” is what Walker was told on multiple occasions. “You’re going to be half-blind the rest of your life, pretty much. So I just never thought that it would happen for me.”
But during a regular check-up with the surgeon who worked on his eye following the injury, Walker figured he’d give a simple question a shot: “Would there be a chance that I could play again?”
The response was much more optimistic than he expected.
“He told me ‘It’s completely my decision but, yeah, you’re cleared to go,” said Walker.
For the surprised yet excited linebacker, that was enough to begin his comeback. He immediately went to Leonard, who had planned on Walker being a student coach as he was in the later parts of the 2012 season. Early in 2013, the coach even had a meeting with the senior-to-be about his possible role with the team.
“I just asked him point-blank ‘Hey, what do you want to do this year. Do you want to be a coach for us or something like that just to stay involved with the team’ and he kinda looked at me and said ‘Coach, I don’t expect to start or anything but the doctor has cleared me and I want to go.’
“I was kinda floored by that.”
So was his teammate Zach Zahren. He’s one of Walker’s best friends on the team and was even in the hospital with him after the initial injury left him blind in 2012. While happy that his friend was cleared to play, Zahren was less joyous and more concerned.
“A few of us-like his close friends-kinda talked about it. We really didn’t know if he should,” said Zahren of Walker’s comeback. “We were kinda worried about it. You’ve only got one eye left.”
Just as he was determined to not let the injury get him down the year before, Walker dismissed any possible risks with a comeback and decided to make his comeback during spring practice-a time when there would be no helmet or shoulder pads per Division III rules.
“I knew I wanted to so bad,” said Walker of his reasons for coming back despite the change of perspective with just having sight in one eye. “The perks overdid the risks for me. I know my family and mostly mom was most worried about it but I wanted to do it and there was no fear for it.”
When Zehren remembers it just a few weeks later, there is only one way that he could describe the hit.
“Kind of a cheap shot,” said Zehren on the hit he saw Walker take in his first game back at Mount Union on September 7th.
Some might refer to it as a “Doozie” of a game to return to the lineup, considering the Purple Raiders were No. 1 in the country and hadn’t lost a home game since 2005. Getting a big hit early didn’t make things any better.
“Literally blindsided,” was how Zehren put it-yet his friend was unfazed.
He returned to the huddle and immediately began to describe the play in a manner typical of the past year.
“He got up and I’m like ‘You good man’ and he said ‘I literally just got blindsided’,” said Zehren.
Call it “Mattitude” at it’s best.
“If something bad happens, you have to keep moving and fighting forward,” said Walker. “Because, like I said, there is nothing you can do about any hard times, you just have to fight through them and move on.”
Walker did that so well in 2012 as he got himself and many of this teammates move on following the loss of vision in his right eye. Franklin, in fact, went on to win their Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference title and advance to the Division III playoffs where they picked up a win before being eliminated. This next season he would do so bringing himself back to the field with less vision than he had the last time he stepped on it.
Instead of focusing on what vision he had lost Walker immediately tried to take advantage of what he could see-and how his brain interpreted the world within his range of vision.
“I can see about 75 percent of what people can see with two eyes,” said Walker. “I forgot what it’s like to see with two eyes so I’ve kinda adjusted fully to everything.”
Luckily Walker had the benefit of time to do the same on the football field. He made it through spring practice with no issues and came into full contact training camp with the Grizzlies in August. His playing style may not have changed but the way he went about seeing the players around him took a little bit of adjustment.
“Turning my head more, keep my head on a swivel,” said Walker. “Like if I’m on the left side, I would have to turn my head more obviously to see, read the line of scrimmage. That’s really about it.”
Before the loss of vision Walker had been a starting linebacker on the outside for the Grizzlies and there were hopes that he might back up early in the season as he returned to the game. But as training camp progressed towards the opener against Mount Union, Walker’s play on the outside began to improve and so did his chances of significant playing time.
“Earning a spot back on the field, knowing that I could, and knowing that I could show other people that I could was my main goal,” said Walker. “And just being apart is the feeling that I wanted.”
He got that and more. After watching his play throughout training camp, Leonard elevated Walker to the starting outside linebacker position. Against Mount Union-a game which Franklin narrowly missed an upset-Walker led the team with seven tackles.
“He’s getting better with every game,” said Leonard of Walker. “He’s still the best at that position. Nobody’s beat him out so we’re gonna play the best that we have.”
As the sun sets on Faught Stadium during the second half of the Butler game, a few yellow shirts stick out in the people who fill the stands and even the areas in the back of the endzone.
“Mattitude: MW11” is the phrase on these bright lettered shirts that are still sported a year after they were handed out to support a teammate whose career appeared to come to an end. Yet the meaning is still the same as the player on the sidelines in 2012 becomes an active participant in 2013.
“He really showed that you could overcome any adversity,” said Zehren of Walker-who was given a game ball despite the three-point loss to the Bulldogs on that Saturday night.
Walker would help the Grizzlies to a 48-7 victory over Manchester the following week, collecting 2.5 tackles and a pass-break-up in the lopsided victory.
“I’ve pretty much adjusted to it. From what I can remember it’s all still the same,” said Walker about returning to football without the use of his left eye. “The speed is the same, I’ve reacted the same way. It’s just the same pretty much.”
But as Walker prepares for his final fall of football with the Grizzlies, it’s tough for him not to realize the game and night’s like the one at Faught Stadium are much more of a privilege now than they were just a season ago.
“I thought that I had my last play. I thought I would never play again. So it felt good to be able to get that second chance to go back out,” said Walker. “Just play every play like it could be my last–again.”