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Final Four-bound Buckeyes take cue from coach

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

BOSTON – The Werner brand ladder was purple and yellow and stood about 8½ feet tall.

A worker at TD North Garden had hauled it out, placed it under the hoop on the west side of the arena and a parade of Ohio State Buckeyes scampered up it to clip part of an NCAA tournament East Regional net.

There were just a couple of strands remaining, and now Thad Matta, the Buckeyes’ coach, stood in front of the ladder, preparing to climb for the ceremonial final snips after Ohio State’s 77-70 victory over Syracuse propelled the program to the Final Four.

You could see him take a deep breath as he eyed the task.

There was a day he would’ve sprinted up. After all, Matta was an athlete, a former basketball player at Butler. Even into his late 30s, he was known as a cardio freak, routinely pounding out swift 8-mile runs.

That was before June 6, 2007, when decades of back problems flared up on the golf course, leaving him immobile and needing emergency surgery. When he woke up post-op, he’d lost all feeling in his right foot. Worse, it just flopped down and provided no strength or stability.

Doctors call it “drop foot.”

Overnight, the then-39-year-old was handicapped.

[Recap: Jared Sullinger sparks Ohio State past Syracuse 77-70]

Matta now wears an ankle-foot orthotic brace to provide a modicum of support. It still leaves him off-balance. He can crash to the ground doing even simple household chores. Putting on his pants is a challenge.

His wife, Barbara, has barred him from taking out the garbage and had to ban him from washing dishes after he twice injured his back just standing in front of the sink for too long. He struggles to hold his two daughters, was forced to attend handicap-driving school and often is left in searing pain after practices.

“You have an unbelievable appreciation for what he goes through, especially after games,” assistant coach Jeff Boals said. “The standing up, the sitting down, the pacing. It takes a toll on him.”

And now, after this brilliant, emotional, exhausting victory, he still had to climb a ladder.

The job of a major college basketball coach is a 24/7 affair. There is endless travel, meetings, recruiting and just racing around. There’s too much stress and too little rest. It wears out the perfectly able, both physically and mentally.

Matta for years never spoke publicly about his situation. His brace isn’t visible under the suits he wears for games. The only sign anything is different is that he wears black sneakers, not dress shoes. During the summer, when he’d occasionally wear shorts, he’d tell people he was recovering from an ankle sprain.

Outside of the Ohio State basketball family, almost no one knew there was anything wrong. And even within it, or with his family, he rarely mentioned it.

“He never brings it up,” Barbara Matta said Saturday. “It’s amazing. I think he’s hurting, but he doesn’t complain.”

The hardest part was the realization that the condition never would improve. There was an original hope that a two-year regeneration would occur and he’d return to full health. Matta slowly accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. Doctors have said it is doubtful at this point.

This was his new normal, a daily struggle to do the things that he once took for granted.

Now 43, Matta decided he’d stop hiding it. He spoke earlier this week to CBSSports.com about it and figures the issue might as well be out in the open. Maybe he offers a different face for the handicapped, a success in the world of sports.

“Thad says he’s ‘handicapable,’ ” Barbara said, “which I think is a good attitude to take. It’s difficult, but he tries to make it a positive.”

[Also: Syracuse's season of turmoil ends early]

Some things are different. He can’t physically take part in drills and must always be mindful of where the basketball is headed, especially in games.

He refuses to see it as a negative, though. It’s just, well, different.

“The funny thing is how [the players] protect me,” Matta said. “Guys have jumped in front of me before in practice and taken a hit so I wouldn’t get hit.

“But I think that’s the relationship that I want with this basketball team because, quite honestly, I’ll do it for them, too.”

It’s this attitude that’s turned a negative into an inspiration, a rallying cry and a lesson for a basketball team and beyond.

“He’s just so strong,” said athletic director Gene Smith, a former Notre Dame football player.

Matta is the perfect representation of his team. The Buckeyes (31-7) struggled at times this season. They never splintered, though.

“His handicap actually really helps our team,” assistant Dave Dickerson said. “Our team has learned to not make excuses because he never does. He’s always there giving it his all.”

Across the locker room, players repeated the sentiment. These are young men, powerful athletes, big, strong guys. They all stand in awe of Matta as he winces through pain on the bench, drags his way through practice or winds up flat out on a training table afterward.

The words kept coming. Resilience. Toughness. Sacrifice.

About the coach. About their coach.

“Well, I wish it was somebody else that they were talking about,” Matta said, with his typical humor. “It makes me feel good that they know. When they do complain, a lot of times I'm saying, ‘Hey, it could be worse, trust me.’ ”

And so there stood the ladder. It’s steep and features thin steps. People with drop feet do not climb ladders. “I have no balance,” Matta said.

Championship coaches do. All those years and all those hours and all that work – this is one of the perks. Ohio State went to the Final Four six seasons ago, and Matta admits he didn’t take the time to appreciate it, to soak it all in.

When they talk about One Shining Moment, this is it. The Thad Matta who never has let his handicap affect his ability to get his team here sure wasn’t going to let it steal one of the joys of the job.

[Slideshow: Buckeyes celebrate earning spot in FInal Four]

So up he went. It was slow and purposeful. He got up one step and then a second, gripping the sides tightly. As he rose, two assistants moved in behind him. Boals put his hands directly behind that useless right foot. Dickerson manned the left leg. A couple of players moved in for additional support. One slip and they’d have him.

“They were there to catch me in case I fell,” Matta said.

“He can’t move his foot,” Boals said. “He can’t feel anything down there. So you just have to hold him for stability.”

Up he went further. A third step. Then a fourth. Finally, he was high enough. Boals grabbed Matta’s right leg and held it tight as the coach took the scissors and snipped off the last cords of the net.

He then, very slowly, turned to a section of roaring Ohio State fans and waved it around.

There he was, Thad Matta, handicapped and smiling on top of the ladder, smiling on top of the world.

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