THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
If anybody knows what it's like to live in a snow globe, constantly having your world turned upside down and shaken wildly, it's Michael Mathews.
On Aug. 18, the University of Toledo redshirt freshman walk-on quarterback from Walbridge tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. It happened during his second practice working with the Rockets' kickoff unit, a stroke of bad luck that was just the latest development of a whirlwind that has encompassed Mathews' life in the last year and a half.
During the winter of his senior year at Lake High School, Mathews' mother, Beverly, was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer after doctors found it had spread to her liver and lungs. Because the cancer hadmetastasized, doctors originally gave her just two years to live - a prognosis she's close to beating.
Then in June, an EF-4 tornado ripped through northern Wood County, missing the Mathews' home by "a couple cornfields" but destroying Michael's alma mater.
Somehow through it all, Mathews has been able to maintain a positive outlook on life and has grown tremendously from the experience.
"It's one of those things," Mathews said. "When I first found out about my mom, I had trouble dealing with it. I thought, 'Why would this happen to her?' She was so involved at my high school, and so many people cared about her.
"But as a I grew up, I started to understand that you get dealt certain things and you have to deal with it the best way you can. All of this has made me a better person."
Growing up between UT and Bowling Green State University, Mathews knew plenty of Rocket fans and Falcon supporters, but his rooting allegiance in the rivalry has always been with the midnight blue and gold.
His father, Gary, had a short stint as a walk-on at UT after a stellar career at Genoa, where in his three seasons as the Comets' starting quarterback the team went 26-1-1 and he set a school record with 2,155 career passing yards.
But during Mathews' junior year at Lake, he took an interest in the United States Naval Academy, and the football coaches there took a liking to him as well.
Following an extensive recruitment and application process in the fall of his senior year, Mathews learned in January that he had been accepted.
The day he received some of the best news of his life also just happened to be the same day he learned his mom had cancer.
"It was good news and bad news at the same time," Mathews said. "My mom's prognosis at the time wasn't good, and I couldn't live without seeing her because I'd be so far from home and my schedule would be pretty intense [at the Naval Academy]. I decided that I couldn't do that. I had to see my mom if this was going to be it for her."
That following March, Mrs. Mathews underwent an operation at the Cleveland Clinic to have the tumor removed from her colon. Soon after, she began chemotherapy, which was helping to beat the cancer but had to be stopped after it caused adverse side effects.
The next round of chemotherapy wasn't effective, and the tumors on her liver started regrowing.
Finally, more than a year after her diagnosis, doctors put her on another type of chemotherapy combined with a cancer-fighting drug last May, and the results have been outstanding.
"Her cancer count when she first got diagnosed was like 80, and now it's down to a three," Mathews said. "They're managing it really well, and she's doing a lot better."
Through it all, an already tight-knit family pulled together even closer.
"You appreciate life more," said Mrs. Mathews, who also has a daughter, Emily, a radiology student at Owens Community College. "You never take anything for granted. You just never know."
With his mom battling cancer, Mathews sent out highlight tapes to 10 colleges closer to home during the spring of his senior year at Lake, and UT offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on.
"Here I am being treated for colon cancer, and it seemed like everything was about me," Mrs. Mathews said. "That's the only thing that really bothered me because I didn't feel that we gave Michael maybe the attention that he needed as far as picking out a college. But I'll be honest with you, I prayed about it, and two weeks later Toledo called and offered him that position on the team."
Just as grateful as Mathews and his mom were for UT's offer, the Rockets' coaching staff feels the same way today about having him as a part of their program.
"You're not going to find a better person or family anywhere," UT quarterbacks coach Scott Isphording said. "He's done every single thing I've ever asked him to do and does it with a smile. I can't ask anything more from him, and it breaks my heart that he's not able to be out here with us right now."
UT head coach Tim Beckman echoes those same sentiments.
"He's a great kid, awesome kid," Beckman said. "He's one you want on your team because he does such a great job for you. He's the prototypical team guy and wants the team to be successful."
Mathews and his family saw themselves standing at the doorstep of a second calamity when a twister caused a path of destruction in Lake Township on June 5.
"I worked that night just down the road on [State Rt.] 795 at this little ice cream shop called Rudy's Dairy Bar [in Perrysburg]," Mathews said. "I got off work around 10 and came home, and it was just me and my mom. We get tornado warnings all the time, so I kind of took it lightly.
"I heard what sounded like hail hitting our house, so I went outside to check it out. But it was actually debris hitting our house. It was crazy."
Fortunately, the Mathews' home wasn't damaged, but dozens of other homes and businesses weren't so lucky, including Lake High School.
"About half an hour later, a buddy and I went driving around and they already had the area around the school blocked off," Mathews said. "Right down the road from us, there were steel beams, and it looked like somebody just stuck them into the field.
"Then the morning after when I found out the school was completely destroyed, it was devastating. You have so many memories there, and so many people cherished that high school."
Mathews was excused from a few days of the Rockets' summer conditioning program to help with the recovery and cleanup efforts in Lake Township.
"I knew a couple families in Millbury that had their homes leveled, so we helped them just pick up stuff and tried to find valuables that they had lost," Mathews said. "I also went over to the school and helped out with the weight room equipment a little bit, moving it to a new location so they could work out."
Like most people in the area, Mathews has monitored the speedy rejuvenation of his community.
"You always knew the people at Lake would be able to rebuild and move on from what happened," Mathews said. "And it's just going to make everybody at Lake better for going through it."
Just as things seemed to be turning around for Mathews, he faced another setback two weeks into UT's training camp.
Listed No. 5 on the preseason depth chart at quarterback, Mathews approached the coaching staff about possibly earning a spot on special teams.
During his second day while going through a kickoff drill, Mathews engaged a blocker, and his knee buckled.
"The doctors, you know, don't really know what your reaction is going to be," Mathews said. "They're doing tests on your knee, and they basically know before you get the MRI that you tore your ACL. It was funny because they were real solemn, and I looked at them and was like, 'I've heard worse news from a doctor, so I'm pretty sure I can handle this.'•"
Mathews' upbeat, mature attitude immediately lifted the cloud of despair in the trainer's room.
He has undergone surgery to repair the torn ACL, which will keep him sidelined for the 2010 season.
"What my mom went through has definitely put things in perspective for me," Mathews said. "I mean, yeah, it stinks not being able to play football for six-to-eight months, but it could be a lot worse. I still get to see everybody that I love, and I'm going to get through this. This isn't something that's going to kill me."
That positive demeanor, shaped by trying times for such a young person in the last 20 months, is what has allowed Mathews to carry on with his day-to-day life and continue to lift the spirits of those around him.
"Ultimately, God came through and showed me and my entire family through the cancer and the tornado and everything else that's happened that He gives you certain obstacles and you're going to stumble a little bit but eventually you're going to get through it," Mathews said. "Overall, I feel like I'm a better person for everything that has gone on in my life. That's the coolest thing about it."