'Just Won't Stop'

Nearly Two Years After Undergoing Brain Surgery, Defenseman Flanagan Starring For Mount St. Mary's

April 16, 2009|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,edward.lee@baltsun.com

At the age of 22, Brendan Flanagan felt as though he were 90.

A day after undergoing surgery in September 2007 to remove a brain tumor, Flanagan tried to walk from his bed to the bathroom at the hospital at New York University. A simple step took unbelievable effort.

"I was so unbalanced that I walked like a 90-year-old man," recalled Flanagan, who could not lift anything heavier than a 5-pound weight for a month and was barred from physical activity for two months. "I remember the first time I got out of bed, I thought, 'Oh, I'm an athlete. I'm fine, I'm healthy.' They [the doctors] said, 'You can't walk.' I tried to go to the bathroom and the first step I took, I went down. I thought I was walking straight, but I was walking at an angle."

Flanagan persevered and 18 months later, he rejoined his teammates on the Mount St. Mary's lacrosse team. This season, the fifth-year defenseman starts on a defense that is tied for 20th in the country in goals allowed per game, and he leads the team in ground balls (34) and caused turnovers (11).

Flanagan's performance has not surprised many of the Mountaineers, who take note that the 24-year-old lifts a few more weights, runs a few more meters and takes part in a few more drills than his younger, fresher teammates.

"He's the kind of kid who just won't stop," defenseman Matt Nealis said. "He says: 'Got to go work out. Got to go run. Got to do this.' "

Scary discovery

Flanagan's energy is a product of his ordeal almost two years ago. In August 2007, Flanagan was talking on the telephone when he suddenly heard nothing in his right ear. After undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging, Flanagan was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, a brain tumor.

"I thought I had wax in my ear," he recalled. "... Basically, it was one of the scariest things ever."

Added Laura Flanagan, his mother: "There was shock because we had been told by the doctor that he was going to have a brain scan and some other tests, but the odds of him having this kind of tumor were so slim. ... It was scary."

Given the option of surgery, radiation or simply waiting, Flanagan, a native of Garden City, N.Y., chose surgery. On Sept. 12 that year (a date Flanagan chose because he wears a No. 12 jersey), he and his family went to the hospital and prepared for the operation.

While his parents and older brother struggled with the situation, Flanagan tried to lighten the mood by telling jokes and mooning his family just before he was carted into the operating room. But even Flanagan was worried.

"I thought: 'You could actually die from this. This could be the end-all, be-all,' " he said. "I was really nervous. I didn't know if this was going to be the last time I saw them."

The operation took 12 hours, as surgeons had to carefully scrape the mass - which was found to be benign - away from the nerves controlling hearing, facial movement and equilibrium. A titanium plate has replaced the portion of skull that was removed for the operation, and Flanagan estimates that he still has 15 percent hearing loss in his right ear.

"Even as he came out of the surgery, there were so many other things that could have happened," his mother said, citing temporary facial paralysis and muscle impairment. "For a guy who comes back right away, it upset him that it took awhile before he could be back to himself again. But Brendan is a kid who does not give up easily."

Flanagan, who missed the 2007 season and transferred to Mount St. Mary's after Butler discontinued its lacrosse program, said he is grateful for another chance.

"I live life for every day, and every day is the focus," he said. "[Against Navy in March], I got hit by a ball in the head. I went back to playing, but in the back of my mind, I thought: 'OK, I think I'm OK.' I stress about it, but I'm living."

Staying the course

Flanagan returned for the 2008 season but was lost for the season with a torn hamstring after playing just two games. Flanagan, however, cleared one of his biggest hurdles in one of his first practices with the Mountaineers when he crashed to the turf after chasing a ground ball, falling on his head and producing a quiet hush among his teammates. After a few breathless moments, Flanagan got back to his feet and stood on the sideline before rejoining practice.

"He never gave us a chance to give him a pity party," defensive midfielder Shaun Moran said. "If anything, he pushed us harder."

Flanagan has a sympathetic ear in coach Tom Gravante, who has battled non-Hodgkin's lymphoma since 2000. Gravante said he never considered blocking Flanagan from resuming his lacrosse career.

"I'm a firm believer that you live in your body," the coach said. "You, of all people, should have judgment of what your pain threshold is. As long as he was released by the trainers, I was OK with that."

Flanagan said he contemplated giving up lacrosse after the 2008 season and pursuing a career in education and a coaching job. But Flanagan changed his mind after talking to Gravante.

"In my head, I thought, 'I'm done.' I want to coach. I want to coach, I want to teach, I wanted to get my life started," said Flanagan, who is studying for his master's degree in elementary and special education. "He [Gravante] was like: 'Right now, if I could be you, I would love to play again. You're going to miss it.' And you know what? He was right. There are times when I'm so excited that I'm not a coach because I love being out there and playing."

His doctor has told him there's a "good chance" the tumor could return. Although he sometimes thinks about enduring another operation, Flanagan said his mental approach to this season is unlike in any other.

"Give everything I have," he said. "Probably more than any other season, there is a drive to win. I'm ready to play. In practice, I give 110 percent. I'm encouraging kids that it's time to go because they don't realize that it can be taken away. I tell them, 'Live today and worry about tomorrow when it comes.' "

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