Hospital visits convince Baggett playing for Lions isn't emergency

October 03, 1991|By Ray Parrillo | Ray Parrillo,Knight-Ridder

His Penn State teammates continue to go about the business of challenging for the national championship, but for Matt Baggett, the days of playing football before huge crowds and on network television in some of the country's most storied stadiums are only memories now.

And those memories are jogged just about every time this 22-year-old senior from Doylestown, Pa., lifts his scarred, aching body out of bed each morning.

Baggett will never forget the horrifying experience of the night of Dec. 29, 1989, when he came dangerously close to bleeding to death in a San Diego hospital after undergoing emergency surgery for a ruptured spleen incurred while the Nittany Lions were beating Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl.

"The doctors told me if the bleeding had gone on another five, 10 minutes, well, I might not be around," Baggett recalled. "They told me I was very lucky. So it was pretty scary. I remember when I woke up from surgery, some teammates and friends visited me in the hospital, and I told them I was never going to play football again.

"You know, I can't even tell you why I came back, except that I had two years remaining and felt there were some things I wanted to accomplish. After that spleen injury, though, I started wondering what this game was all about."

The injuries -- a ruptured spleen, a broken foot and nerve damage in his neck that caused his left arm to go numb -- were numerous. And there were three shoulder operations.

Mostly, that's what football was about for Matt Baggett before he decided two weeks ago that he could take no more and decided to get out of the game while he was still ambulatory.

In between trips to various hospitals, Baggett played outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback, strong safety and free safety and on special teams for the Nittany Lions.

Baggett began this season as State's starting free safety, anticipating a triumphant return this Saturday to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, where he was to play in front of family members and friends. But early in the Sept. 14 game against Southern Cal, Baggett walked away from a collision unable to raise his left arm.

Physicians told Baggett he could probably return after a month, but not without risk of permanent nerve damage. Weary of the pain and worried that he might not be able to live a normal life if he took the risk, Baggett decided that 16 years of playing this crazy game was enough.

"I met with Joe Paterno and we talked about what the doctor said, that there was a risk of permanent damage if I came back," Baggett said. "He told me he would have encouraged me to keep playing if this had been my first injury, but that with everything I'd given for the team through all the injuries, it wasn't worth it. I'd be having trouble with my neck all season. ...

"I no longer wanted the team depending on someone who was always getting hurt, when they could have someone who's healthy. That wouldn't be fair. Besides, I'd like to be able to play softball or something when I'm 40 years old.

"It was a big decision. I've been playing football since I was about 6 years old.

"Has it been worth it? Well, yes and no. If we win the national championship, I'll say it was worth it. But if I ever have a son, I'll never push him to play football. My parents never pushed me. They weren't thrilled with the idea that I came back to play after the spleen injury."

To help ease his way through football withdrawal symptoms, Baggett still attends practices and team meetings. He helps coach State's free safeties he's been replaced by Lee Rubin.

Baggett acknowledged that he feels jinxed, but he doesn't sit around feeling sorry for himself. All he has to do to cure his blues is think back to that Holiday Bowl, when he took a knee to the stomach while covering a kickoff in the second quarter and, unknowingly, stood along the sideline bleeding internally until the third quarter, when pain and nausea warned him that something was seriously wrong.

"I'm not depressed, but it is an adjustment when you're no longer doing what you did most of your life," said Baggett, a speech communications major on schedule to graduate in December. "I'm getting a good education, I've met a lot of great people, and I played a lot of football. ...

"I had my fun, and I still feel a part of the team by helping the coaches and all. That's about all I can do now."

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