Tanner Sweitzer
Tanner Sweitzer (File photo)

The games are the hardest part. That's when it all comes rushing back, the reality hitting Tanner Sweitzer all over again like a sucker punch to the gut.

That's when you'll find Northeastern's volleyball senior as he was last Thursday, his body leaned forward as he watched his teammates play York Suburban. Sweitzer smacked his hands together and shouted encouragement. He sat between his coaches and teammates, his role these days trapped somewhere between the two.

"On a scale of 1 to 10 to get in that game," Sweitzer said later, "it was probably a 13."

Of course, he knows that's not possible. Not since those first pangs he felt in his chest six weeks ago. Not since doctors diagnosed the ailment that robbed Sweitzer of his final high school season -- and could have cost him much more.

The timing could not have been crueler. Sweitzer was supposed to start at outside hitter for the Bobcats this year, the senior centerpiece of a program filled with up-and-coming talent. Northeastern coach Matt Wilson repeatedly referred to Sweitzer as the team's "heart and soul."

Then Sweitzer's own heart began to swell.

 

 

The first stabs hit on a Thursday, in the middle of his morning math class. It was March 8, the first week of volleyball practice. The pain lasted a few hours, then went away. Sweitzer figured it was indigestion. He went to practice that night.

At that point, the upcoming season brimmed with promise. Volleyball had been Sweitzer's favorite sport since the seventh grade. His father, Robert, had played for Northeastern's state championship teams in 1992 and 1993. Tanner would finally get his chance to start this year, the lone senior in Northeastern's top seven.

"He was our leader, basically," said his teammate, junior Steven Braswell.

But when Sweitzer got to school the next day -- Friday -- the knot in his chest returned. This time, it didn't fade.

"I knew something was wrong right away," Sweitzer said.

The rest of the day whirled by. Sweitzer's mom, Dina, shuttled him from one hospital to the next -- first to his family doctor, then to Memorial Hospital, then to Hershey Medical Center. Tanner sat through blood tests and EKGs and X-rays. He later recalled the day felt "like every emotion possible compacted into one."

Finally, doctors came back with a diagnosis: Sweitzer had viral myocarditis, an inflamed heart caused by an infection. They told him the condition, if treated, would clear up with time.

There was a catch. Myocarditis poses a serious risk to athletes. The inflammation, coupled with any type of strenuous exercise or exertion, can lead to a heart attack or cardiac arrest. For three to six months, Sweitzer would need to avoid any activity that might elevate his heart rate.

That meant he would miss his entire senior volleyball season.

"Once they told me I couldn't play, I was an emotional wreck," Sweitzer said.

 

 

The first few days were rough. Sweitzer spent much of the next week at Hershey Medical Center while doctors monitored him. His friends filled his Twitter timeline with messages of support. His volleyball teammates shaved mohawks into their heads to match Sweitzer's haircut.

That weekend, a group of five Bobcats players came up to visit. When Sweitzer told them he wouldn't be playing this season, the heart-rate monitor he was attached to started beeping.

"So we knew that really hurt him, that he couldn't play," said junior Malik Jefferson, one of the five who visited.

By the time he left the hospital the following Wednesday, Sweitzer had plenty of time to reflect. He knew that even if he couldn't play, he wanted to find some way to help out.

"It's not just because I'm a senior," Sweitzer said. "They supported me through everything, so I wanted to support them."

Since then, Sweitzer has made a point to attend every practice and game during Northeastern's 6-2 start to the season. He stills acts as his team's emotional throttle, his 5-foot-8 body coiled with energy. Wilson called him both a natural floor leader and a "clear-cut adrenaline junkie."

"During timeouts, it's not just Matt Wilson talking to us," Braswell said. "Tanner's getting us pumped up, getting us motivated."

Added Wilson: "I have to tell him to calm down sometimes."

Still, it's not the same. His coaches and teammates can sense it.

It doesn't help Sweitzer that he feels fine physically, as if he could walk onto the floor and start hammering kills like nothing ever happened.

"It's way more frustrating than having a sprained ankle or broken hand or whatever," Sweitzer said. "You feel fine, but you're really not.

"It's hard for me to watch sometimes," he added. "It hurts more because I should be going out there playing with them. It's hard because they don't have that leader."

 

 

There's another reality, too, the understanding that the consequences of his condition could have been far worse. What if his myocarditis hadn't been diagnosed, and he'd simply kept playing? Or even scarier, what if something had happened at practice that Thursday night last month -- the day Sweitzer felt those first throbs of pain?

Sweitzer said the experience has helped him to grow, to find good in adverse situations. He has used his time on the sideline to soak up information from Wilson and his staff. Sweitzer wants to coach volleyball after he graduates from college.

"It not only changed me as a person," Sweitzer said of his ordeal, "it changed me all for the better. I feel like I'm more mature."

Lately, there have been glimmers of good news with regards to his health. While doctors originally prescribed a six-month recovery period before resuming activity, their latest estimates have been more optimistic.

Sweitzer's next follow-up is May 2 -- less than two months since his diagnosis. He jokes with Wilson that he'll be ready to play the next day.

"I don't want to get my hopes up too much, though," Sweitzer added with a chuckle.

Regardless, Sweitzer will find some role to play, some way to contribute.

His team still needs its heart and soul.

@johnsclayton; 771-2045