Despite handicap, Buckeyes coach Matta presses on, stays active

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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BOSTON -- No one notices the special chair that rests a few inches higher than the remainder of the coaching staff's seats, the black brace concealed underneath his pant leg or even the limp that is rarely noticeable while he walks up and down the sideline in front of the bench. No one is aware of the days when Ohio State coach Thad Matta's two daughters had to yank off his sneakers, how he is laid out, relegated flat in his bed following a game or a recruiting trip, and how he cannot lift a suitcase or take out the garbage.

Matta's life changed on June 16, 2007.

"I just tell them it's a sprained ankle if they ask," he said.

But Matta is handicapped, or "handi-capable" as he likes to call it.

Matta, barely able to walk, isn't in the business of feeling sorry for himself. (Provided by Jeff Goodman)  
Matta, barely able to walk, isn't in the business of feeling sorry for himself. (Provided by Jeff Goodman)    
The back pain began when he was 15 and resulted in a trip to the Mayo Clinic. His first surgical procedure came shortly thereafter. However, Matta managed to battle through it as a teenager, played college basketball and even participated in marathons and triathlons. Matta's wife, Barbara, was well aware that stress made the back pain worse -- ever since they met at Butler in the late 1980s. His playing career ended in February of his senior season when his back gave out and he was sprawled out on the Kiel Auditorium court in St. Louis.

There were times when it got "crooked" and he would need medication, massages -- or a combination of both. Shortly after the Buckeyes' Final Four run in 2007, where Ohio State lost to Florida in the national title game, Matta was on the golf course when his back gave out following a routine swing.

"He couldn't walk," Barbara Matta said. "The disc was pushing on the nerve. We took him to the hospital it was so bad."

Two days later, Matta underwent four hours of surgery.

Matta and his wife were informed the odds were about 200,000-to-1 that something could go wrong. He was the one.

Matta woke up and couldn't move his right foot. He had "foot drop," which meant his foot literally flopped over and had no support or stability.

"They told me it should come back in a couple days," Matta said. "Then it was a couple weeks, then months and then years. They knew it wasn't coming back."

So too, after a while, did Matta.

"I came to that realization," he said. "But it took a while."

Matta, with no use of his right foot and barely able to walk, traveled with his family to New York City less than two weeks later to support Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. at the NBA Draft.

A couple weeks later, the night before the start of the all-important July recruiting period, when coaches are able to watch the top high school players from around the country, Matta went to grab his toothbrush out of the bottom of a cabinet, rolled his ankle and thought he broke it. While on the road, saddled with a cane, the ankle swelled up, became black and blue, and Matta beckoned the pilots to take him back to Columbus.

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Then came the surgery performed by Dr. Antonio Chiocca on Aug. 1, 2007, in an attempt to save the foot.

"We tried to clean up the nerves to see if we could give him a chance of getting better," Chiocca said. "But it didn't work."

Matta wasn't allowed to drive. That's when he was given the ankle-foot brace orthosis that enables him to walk without dragging his foot. He's got about 15 of them, just in case he misplaces a couple.

He constantly falls while getting dressed because of the difficulty balancing on one leg. He even had to attend handicapped driving school, but probably the most difficult aspect of this was it occurred back when his two daughters, Ali and Emily, were 7 and 8 years old. Matta wasn't able to pick them up or even put them on his lap, so he wound up reading more books and playing more board games with them.

"They wanted to be on Daddy's lap," Barbara Matta said. "And Daddy wanted them."

"That was brutal," Thad added. "Not being able to pick them up. They're older now, but that was difficult after it first happened."

But Matta rarely looks in the mirror and feels sorry for himself. Although, Chiocca has instructed him to spend much of practice in a chair that sits in the middle of the court, the seat is almost always empty. During games, Matta roams the sidelines -- wearing black tennis shoes -- with a slight limp. However, few are aware of his condition.

"His close friends," Barbara Matta said. "But it's not like he hides it, either."

"We've kept it quiet," Thad Matta added. "I have a new sense and appreciation for handicapped people."

Matta went out on the football field -- in shorts and with his black brace -- in front of 100,000 fans. On Wednesday afternoon, a day before the Buckeyes' Sweet 16 contest against Cincinnati, Matta took the court in Boston for an open practice wearing shorts -- and his brace clearly visible.

"It's not as if he's ashamed of it, but he's a private person, so that's why he hasn't told people," Barbara Matta said.

Matta is ready to disclose his condition to the world. His close friends are aware. Former assistant Sean Miller, now the head coach at Arizona, said Matta was one of the most avid workout guys he knew before the surgery.

"He'd run eight miles a day," Miller said. "We'd run around the tennis court when we were at Xavier and he'd be two laps ahead of me. He was the most physically fit guy I've ever been around in my entire life. To see him not be able to do those things anymore is incredible. It's hard for me to see it, but he's handled it so well. Very few people could have handled it like Thad has."

Matta still does as much as possible to remain in shape. He tries to spend 40 minutes a day on the elliptical and lifts light weights, but it's nothing compared to the old days -- when on his birthday, he would try and run a mile in five minutes plus his age (in seconds).

"It is what it is. It's the hand I've been dealt," Matta said. "It's definitely affected my mobility, but I can't let it completely change my life. I've never really asked, 'Why me?' "

Ohio State senior guard William Buford and the rest of his teammates rarely, if ever, hear Matta talk about his foot.

"I've never heard him mention it," Buford said. "He has never complained about it. Not once. Not to have any feeling in your foot, it sucks."

"You can tell it bothers him sometimes, but he never brings it up," sophomore Aaron Craft added. "The only time he does is when we talk about being sore, he says how we have no idea. But he doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him."

Matta is 44 years old and is in his eighth season as the head coach at Ohio State. He has a 219-64 career mark in Columbus, has seven years left on his contract and said this won't alter how long he winds up staying with the Buckeyes.

"The biggest fear you have is being debilitated," Matta said. "I'd like to see 50 or 55. Quite honestly, when you've got a staff like I do, it makes things easier. This is a tough job, but I enjoy what I do."

Matta gets an aisle seat, one that is able to recline completely, on charter flights. He has his own chair down at the Peach Jam event in Augusta, Ga., in which he's down the far end in hopes of avoiding any potential collisions. There are still injections, muscle activation training and days when he has difficulty getting out of bed. There was some discussion about a nerve transplant in another country, but he has opted against it.

Every now and then, Matta still gets that burning sensation down the side of his right calf. He used to get excited, run into the trainer in hopes maybe feeling was coming back.

Nowadays, he knows what it means.

"It would be a miracle," Chiocca admitted.

"I know I'm not getting it back," Matta added. "And I'm OK with it now."

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