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Matt Frazier's journey back from medical misery

With numerous surgeries and hospital stays now behind him, Matt Frazier is back, ready to complete the dream that began over 10 years ago.

David Banks/Getty Images

Matt Frazier sat in the passenger seat of his dad's car on the way home from the final football game of his sixth grade season.

Frazier, an offensive lineman, played for the eighth grade team that year because of his already imposing size.

"Dad, I wanna play college football," Matt said to his father, Bret Frazier.

"We were coming back from a game up north, and he was sad because it was over," Bret said, looking back on the moment. "That was sort of eerie that he had that in his mind in sixth grade. Him saying that sticks out in my mind."

Ten years later, Matt emerged as the entrenched starter at right guard for Northwestern, fulfilling his dream of playing big-time college football.

"Sometimes, we have to pinch ourselves," said Matt's mom, Joanne Frazier. "It's kind of hard to describe."

But after riding the high of starting 16-straight games for Northwestern, including all 12 during his redshirt junior season, the Bourbonnais, Illinois native's health unraveled.

In January and February of this year, Matt required surgery on both of his ankles for bone spurs—a result of wear-and-tear. Then, just three days after the second operation, Matt had to undergo an emergency spine procedure for a herniated disk.

According to his parents, he had injured his back at practice prior to the last game of the 2014 season against Illinois and the pain sprang up again after his second ankle surgery.

Three surgeries in the books, Matt, now a redshirt senior, was recovering, cleared by doctors for light weightlifting in the spring. During one of those workouts, in the third week of June, Matt tore his left pectoral muscle.

And a couple of weeks following that injury, on July 15, Joanne received a call on her cell phone. She almost didn't pick up because the number was unrecognizable.

"I started thinking, ‘I hope I get the opportunity to play for this man again, and play for this university.'"

It ended up being from Dr. Michael Milligan, the Northwestern football team's doctor.

"He said that Matt was in the emergency room," Joanne said. "At first, they didn't really know what was wrong ... His white blood cell count was really high, his temperature was really high, he had some pain in the abdominal area."

Joanne notified Bret, who immediately began the hour-and-a-half drive from Bourbonnais up to Evanston, where his son was at the NorthShore Evanston Hospital.

Doctors soon determined that Matt had contracted a staph infection in his pelvis that had moved into his bloodstream.

The 6-foot-4, 295-pound offensive lineman who head coach Pat Fitzgerald calls the team's "pound-for-pound strongest player" remained hospitalized for 10 more days, spending four of them in the intensive care unit.

Matt's 10-day stay in the hospital tested him and his family's resolve. His general health—not football—remained the only thought until a visit from Fitzgerald and Athletic Director Jim Phillips changed that.

"My third day in the hospital—it was right in the heat of everything—I was in ICU and things weren't looking that great," Matt said during a press conference Monday. "One of my lowest days, coach Fitz and Dr. Phillips came to visit me. When [Fitzgerald] left, I started thinking, ‘I hope I get the opportunity to play for this man again, and play for this university."

"I wasn't really sure," Matt continued, "but here I am."

Bret sat by Matt's side during the entire stay at the hospital while doctors treated Matt's infection.

"It's very emotional for a parent," Bret said. "I was there in the hospital for his other operations, but that was different. This was a life-threatening thing, the staph infection. It was serious stuff ... Initially, the first three days, he was not getting better—he was getting worse. His lungs had filled up with fluid because the oxygen level in his bloodstream was not strong enough. Then, they were worried about the infection going into his heart, which luckily it didn't ... The medical team was amazing."

Frazier also was the recipient of support from his teammates during his hospital stay, especially from Zack Oliver, a redshirt senior quarterback who has been Matt's roommate for the past two years. After they both lived in the same dorm freshman year, they have been close friends since.

"I would take the time to go over there and just do my homework over there and some of my downtime, I would spend over there," Oliver said. "A lot of times, he wasn't even awake. But whenever he would wake up and see a friend there or see his family there, that helped him push through it that much more."

With support and help from his family and friends, Matt pushed through. He overcame the worst of the staph infection and was released from the hospital 10 days after being admitted.

And after working his way back through August and September, Frazier finally became healthy enough to play in Northwestern's Week 5 matchup with Minnesota.

He told his older sister, Jenna, that he would be playing but initially kept the news from his parents.

"He didn't technically tell us," Joanne said. "And I asked him after the game and he said, ‘Well I didn't want to worry you guys.'"

Before the game, Frazier addressed his teammates, taking them through the difficult year he aimed to put behind him.

"He gave us his story and his outlook on everything," senior superback Dan Vitale said. "It was absolutely motivating... It was just inspiring just to see Matt back in pads and just play football. He wasn't sure if he was going to be able to do that again, so to see him out there and how excited he was—it was motivating in itself."

With the memory of the harrowing journey he's been through this past year still fresh, Matt was finally able to don his No. 57 Northwestern jersey and run out of the tunnel in full pads again.

Everyone's emotions ran high.

His family's...

"I cried," Bret said. "You know just how much it means to him. He loves playing."

His coach's...

"Everything he's been through in the last calendar year, to see him get the opportunity to play the game again, first of all, is something special," Fitzgerald said after Northwestern's 27-0 win over Minnesota. "I couldn't be more happy for him. I couldn't be more happy for his family. He's a leader. He's a big-time leader...I have no idea how he played, but I've never seen a bigger smile on a player's face than I saw on Frazier's face."

His own...

"It was an emotional week last week—getting out onto the field again and being able to play with all my teammates, all my brothers out there," Matt said. "It was a great feeling."

But Matt isn't one to soak up the attention—his focus right now, with his health issues in the rearview mirror, is just on improving and preparing for the Wildcats' next game against Michigan on Saturday.

"He'll probably get up here later and tell you he didn't play very well," Fitzgerald said Monday. "That's the mark of a senior: ‘Yeah, I'm back. Quit talking about it and let's play.'"

With the memory of the harrowing journey he's been through this past year still fresh, Matt was finally able to don his No. 57 Northwestern jersey and run out of the tunnel in full pads again.

Indeed, just a few minutes after Fitzgerald spoke at Monday's press conference at the John C. Nicolet Football Center outside of Ryan Field, Matt echoed the sentiment, putting his seniority on display.

"Can't be emotional this week," Matt said. "All the rust is shaken off. I didn't play that well last week, so I'm just looking to improve this week."

With Northwestern at 5-0 and No. 13 in the country, there's no time for Matt to dwell on the past. After all he's gone through, he's still living his dream.

"They got the job done when I wasn't in there," Matt said with a smile. "Now that I'm back in, I get to help."