By Greg DeVries
Junior right-handed pitcher Max Garner has been stellar this season, but Garner is lucky to even be able to play this season.
He leads the Bears with nine saves, and hitters are only batting .260 against him. In 39 innings, he has recorded 38 strikeouts. He recently earned saves in all three games against Texas A&M.
“I played against him in high school. We played in his team’s preseason tournament,” senior right-handed pitcher Joey Hainsfurther said. “He pitched against us and was lights out.”
The next year, Garner’s freshman year, he struggled with fatigue. His ERA was over nine, and he was slowly losing weight.
That summer, Garner and a few teammates traveled to Minnesota to play in the Northwoods League, a baseball league for NCAA athletes. Garner began to feel sick to the point that he couldn’t play.
“My stomach started feeling bad, but I thought I just had a stomach bug or something,” Garner said. “One day, I jumped on a scale and I had lost fifteen pounds. I was running fevers every day and throwing up a lot.”
Garner was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a disease where open sores appear on the large intestine. It is very similar to Crohn’s disease. There is no known cause, but is believed to be tied to genetics.
“I remember the first day he came in to tell me about it,” head coach Steve Smith said. “It was the first time [with Garner] that I felt like I was talking to a man. He looked me in the eye, and I knew he had something he needed to tell me”
After the diagnosis, Garner’s parents came up to Minnesota, but Max could barely move or talk because of the pain.
“I was in the hospital for eight days. We though we got it under control with our first wave of medications and what not, but I was on a lot of heavy steroids for internal organs. As we weaned off of that, it kind of started to come back up,” Garner said. “All of the drugs for this kind of disease are effective for some people 100 percent. [For] other people, you have to try one, and if it doesn’t work, move on to the next one.”
Garner redshirted his sophomore year. He tried to take classes, but his disease returned. This forced him to drop all of his classes and focus on recovery.
The Garner family turned to the Mayo Clinic for answers. Max began another kind of treatment that was less popular, and has been in remission ever since.
“[My teammates] were calling me when I was in the hospital, just really wanting me to be able to come back and play,” Garner said. “It was a big help to be able to talk to them and be able to come down to the dugout before games and talk to everybody. They wanted to make me feel like I was still part of the team. It’s nice to have guys like that that are supporting you all the time.”
Garner returned to pitch the next season. His first outing of the season came against Oral Roberts.
“I don’t think I had ever been as excited to pitch in a game when we were down by four or five runs,” Garner said.
He pitched 1.2 innings in his first game in almost two years.
“Just to get that under my belt was a big weight off of my shoulders. I could finally just relax and go play.”
Later that season, Garner was at bat against Sam Houston State. He swung at a foul ball that hit his pitching elbow. Garner writhed in pain and made a trip to the emergency room that night.
But throughout the past two years, he had gained toughness and maturity. This helped him return four days later to pitch against then No. 8 Texas.
“We brought him in here with the bases loaded against Texas. He flips up a first-pitch changeup and we get an out and the game is over,” Smith said. “It takes a whole lot of a lot of things to make that pitch.”
Garner’s recovery has gained him a lot of respect. He is now a team leader and a crucial part of the pitching staff. Garner attributes a lot of his successes this season to his mental toughness.
“It [doesn’t] matter if it’s the ninth inning or a bases loaded situation. No matter what it was, it was better than being in the hospital,” Garner said.
Smith is especially appreciative of Garner’s maturity and attitude.
“He’s a leader,” Smith said. “He’s a natural leader. He wants to win. He leads by example not just on game day but on all of the other days too … When you go through something as challenging and as life-altering as Max’s illness was, you’ll grow up. It’ll put a lot of things in perspective.”