FORT WAYNE – The first quarter still has a few minutes remaining when Sean Sonderleiter unfurls his 6-foot-10 frame off the Mad Ants’ bench and walks toward the courtside scorer’s table at Memorial Coliseum.
With a pull on the sides of both legs, he unsnaps the sweatpants and tosses them aside. He bends on one knee and waits for play to stop to get buzzed into the game. And when he finally enters, he puts on his clear goggles.
It used to be the Jonas Brothers-style hair that was his calling card; now it’s the goggles.
They get sweaty, Sonderleiter said. You’ll have sweat dripping down. It’s like looking through your car windshield when it’s raining, and sometimes they’ll fog up. But I’m getting used to them now.
After what he’s been through, the 31-year-old Sonderleiter can get used to anything.
The reason for the goggles began nearly two years ago when he was with the Mad Ants, who were playing a mid-March game in Erie, Pa. The season was all but over, and the Ants were essentially playing out the string.
There’s a loose ball, and Sonderleiter is in the mix. There are hands and shoulders and elbows flying. And then somebody’s finger – he still doesn’t know who’s – pokes him in the left eye.
Like jammed fingers and sprained ankles, a finger to the eye is part of the business of basketball. And Sonderletier’s been poked before, but not like this.
After the game, doctors in Erie tell him that he has a torn iris and a concussed eye, and that it will eventually heal so long as he doesn’t play the remainder of the year. He does what he’s told.
He lands a job in Germany, where the season is short but the money is bigger than usual. And even though his left eye is still blurry, Sonderleiter goes overseas and plays the entire season.
I figured if I would’ve said something they would’ve sent me back home, Sonderleiter said. I was basically playing with one eye over there.
Then it started getting worse and worse. By the time I got back home, it was like I was looking through a straw. There was no peripheral vision; none whatsoever. Sonderleiter raises his left hand to a 45-degree angle from his face. I wouldn’t be able to see my hand, even right here.
Time to see an eye surgeon.
He said, You have two tears in your retina, and fluid is going behind the retina, creating a detachment,’ Sonderleiter said. And he said, You’re going to go blind if you don’t have surgery immediately.’
Post-op rehab meant bed rest. For two weeks, in a dark room, he had to lie on his left side all day, every day, Sonderleiter said. I’d only get up to go pee. I’d have to eat sideways.
Eventually he could shift positions, but he was still confined to the bed and eye drops every five hours.
It was six weeks of totally being in bed, not moving, can’t tense any muscles, Sonderleiter said. Any increase in blood pressure can cause your retina to detach from the wall of your eye.
In a little more than three months, he went from bed to chair, from chair to walking, walking to swimming, swimming to lifting weights, lifting to Fort Wayne.
He was big time out of shape, Ants coach Steve Gansey said. I don’t know if he could’ve started on my YMCA team when he first came in.
But there will be Sonderleiter tonight, back in the game, keeping his eyes on the prize, even behind the goggles.