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Condition forces Oklahoma commit to stop playing football

Offensive lineman Matt Beyer was diagnosed with cervical stenosis; Sooners won't honor scholarship

6:03 PM, Oct. 02, 2012 EDT

Every Saturday for “years,” Matt Beyer’s routine had always been the same: head over to the gym with a handful of his teammates and undergo an intense workout of pumping weights, running and grinding through drills.

But, even though he’s been academically eligible to play college football next year “for a while,” last Saturday, Beyer, an elite offensive tackle at Reagan (San Antonio), was home alone training for his second round of the SAT.

“I did pretty well the first time, I got a combined score of 1870,” said Beyer, who holds down a 4.0 GPA. “I’ve got to get it a little higher to get automatic acceptance into the state universities and to try and get some more scholarship money.”

It’s not something Beyer was concerned with after he committed to Oklahoma back in July, but that was before he was diagnosed with cervical stenosis. The condition causes the spinal canal to narrow and ended Beyer's football career. The Sooners told Beyer that they would not be able to honor is scholarship.

“Basically, I could’ve ended up a quadriplegic,” said Beyer, who learned that he was born with the condition. “I’ve had to refocus. I’m a student first, but I planned and trained so much to be a football player and then it gets taken away... It’s tough.”

Beyer first noticed a constant tingling in both arms and in his back when the team started two-a-days in August, but he chalked it up to typical football wear and tear. Then on Sept. 7, while blocking two defenders in a game against O’Connor (Helotes, Texas), Beyer “lost complete control of the nerves in my body.”

“I fell on top of both of them so I tell my teammates that at least my last block was a double-pancake,” Beyer said. “It was scary; I just laid out on the field and tried to stand up. I looked at my arms and they were moving, but not how I told them to move. I found out that it was an episode of transient quadriplegia.”

An MRI later revealed cervical stenosis, as well as bulging discs that were pushing into Beyer’s spinal cord and a contusion on his spinal cord.

“Just like that,” Beyer said. “My football career was done. As you could imagine, I was really upset about it initially. Can you imagine someone telling you you’ve got to stop doing what you love to do? It’s hard to know how that feels.”

Terrance Johnson knows.

Johnson was a highly sought after recruit at Fork Union Military Academy (Fork Union, Va.) back in 2005, with schools like North Carolina, Michigan, Michigan State, Virginia and Virginia Tech all in hot pursuit. But after experiencing chronic back pain for weeks, Johnson, an offensive tackle, sought medical attention and was diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

“I always thought the back pain was part of the game,” said Johnson, who is now pursuing his master’s degree in social work. “But when they told me about my condition it put a lot of things into perspective. It wasn’t worth potentially being paralyzed. I looked at it as a blessing that it was detected before it was too late.”

Beyer has come to share that outlook.

“It could’ve potentially been worse,” he said. “They told me the area where everything was happening is the same area that controls your diaphragm. I know how fortunate I am to even be able to walk away from the game.”

Added Reagan coach David Wetzel: “Matt’s handled this whole situation a lot better than most adults would. He’s an inspiration. Truly.”

Even last week when Oklahoma offensive tackles coach Bruce Kittle informed Beyer that the Sooners wouldn’t honor his scholarship -- what some consider a raw deal -- Beyer managed to remain positive.

“I totally understand their decision,” Beyer said of Oklahoma. “I have no bitterness toward the school at all. I mean think about it, one day I can tell my kids that I once had a full scholarship to Oklahoma for football. That’s pretty cool.”

Wetzel still wants to “have a talk with the staff about that.”

As of Sunday night Wetzel said that he had yet to hear from the Sooners’ staff.

“They’re gonna have to call me,” Wetzel said. “I’ve got two players on their roster, and I’ll just assume that they’re caught up in their season right now. I’m sure they’re gonna have to come to our school and recruit at some point, so I’ll need to hear from them on this.”

The Sooners have honored scholarships for players in similar situations before.

Tight end Laith Harlow kept his scholarship this year after a back injury ended his career before ever actually playing for the Sooners. The difference was that Harlow had already signed his National Letter of Intent with Oklahoma. As a high school senior, Beyer couldn’t sign until National Signing Day in February.

Still, Beyer chooses not to dwell on the things he can’t control.

He’s got his hands full with, among other things, the transition from football player to football coach.

“I’m coaching the freshman team’s linemen and helping out with the varsity linemen too,” Beyer said. “I love it. I try and teach them all of my techniques and give them any knowledge I have. It’s just a part of me moving on. I know how it feels to lay there on the field limp and powerless, so I can’t feel sorry for myself because I’ve got another chance. I’m grateful for that.”

Jason Jordan is a High School Sports reporter for USA TODAY. He can be reached at jcjordan@usatoday.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY



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