The St. Joseph’s University biography for Avery Marz lists all the high school accomplishments you’d expect of a high-end basketball recruit, but it skips through her St. Joe’s college years with brief sentences.
Let Marz fill in the blanks.
Start with the date now tattooed on her back, August 23, 2014. The day Marz moved into the dormitory on Hawk Hill for the fall semester of freshman year. One moment you’re arguing with your mom about putting your clothes away — let’s move the fridge first.
“My left knee kind of gave out,’’ Marz said.
That’s weird, Marz thought to herself. A 17-year-old is not going to instantly think, I’m having a stroke. My life will never be quite the same. I won’t play my sport again for a long, long time.
Marz was telling this tale of her life Monday inside a room at the Crowne Plaza in Cherry Hill, where she was named the most courageous athlete of 2017 by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association. She’s on the court finally for the Hawks after sitting out those three seasons.
To hear her story, it makes sense how St. Joseph’s women’s coach Cindy Griffin started tearing up when Marz made her first basket during a trip the team took to Italy this summer. Marz is not 100 percent even now, but she’s started two games for the Hawks and can tell you the thrill of her first collegiate basket against Niagara, a three-pointer. Her story is just about what it took to get to that shot.
In that dorm room, her mother told her to sit on the bed.
“Within five seconds, it was like a gust of wind came at me from the right side and I collapsed completely on to the floor,’’ Marz said. “My left leg was trapped under my other leg. I went to pull it out and realized I couldn’t.
She looked to her mom, asked what was going on. Her mother immediately recognized the symptoms of a stroke.
“The whole left side of my face had collapsed,’’ Marz said. “It was very drastic.”
As she was rushed to Lankenau Hospital, “at that time, weirdly, my symptoms were coming and going,’’ Marz said. “So I wouldn’t be paralyzed for about 15 minutes and then it would come back. So the fear really hadn’t hit. … I had waved to somebody in the hallway. ‘I’ll be fine.’ Then it went again. This kind of continued for about an hour and a half. Until I got to Lankenau, and they did an MRI and a CAT Scan. In the MRI they found the blood clot in the right side of my brain.”
You don’t realize how hard it is, she said, to lay completely flat for two days. She underwent a tPA procedure
(tissue plasminogen activator) to dissolve the clot. She spent a week at CHOP, then went home to Sinking Spring, outside Reading. Next, she went to Wyomissing Health and Rehabilitation Center in Reading.
“I was about eight hours a day of physical therapy,’’ she said. “I could speak completely fine. I could read. I could eat fine. … I think I read about a two-page paper on George Washington, just to make sure I was vocalizing correctly.”
Marz hopes to have a future in the television business. She remembers nailing that test.
“I had all sensations,’’ Marz said. “I could feel hot and cold. I could feel people touching me. But I couldn’t move it.”
Her leg came back faster than her arm.
“I remember video of me lifting my arm up just slowly,’’ Marz said. “The next day, it wouldn’t lift.”
The first year, she was more focused on getting back to doing normal things, walking on her own, going to the bathroom, taking care of herself. A year later, she went back to school and was part of the Hawks team again, going to practice, but not participating in drills. From then on, “I slowly started to chip away at little goals, getting back to basketball.”
Asked about that process, Marz said, “It took a lot of patience. I can say there were a lot of days when I did give up on certain things. My parents and my physical therapists allowed that for me. They knew that some days … I was going to get frustrated, going to get upset.”
She understood that failing was all right, as was taking a day off, but that she had to get up the next day, to try it again.
Until that moment in the dorm room, Marz said, she had a pretty easy life, great upbringing, had a lot of friends. Nothing had come at her that was too difficult to handle.
“When that finally did come at me, there was a lot of anger,’’ she said. She tried to remind herself that others had it worse, that everybody goes through things. “This is just my thing,’’ she told herself.
She followed the story of a fellow college basketball player in Cincinnati, Lauren Hill, who was playing with terminal cancer.
Watching Hill play her last game on ESPN, “Just sobbing, because I felt so selfish, ” Marz said. “This happened to me, yeah it stinks, but Lauren Hill knows she is going to pass away. I don’t know what the future holds. That really just kind of woke me up.”
Last season, Marz was physically cleared to play. She understood, however, that being cleared to play is different than being ready to play Division I basketball.
“Physically, I’m ten times better than I was last year,’’ Marz said of this season. “I could have gotten into a game. I could have made that step. But I don’t think I would have affected the game as much as I could this year. Really, last year was a mental thing for me. I realized I wasn’t ready to handle coming back. Which seems kind of funny. For so long, for three years, I’d been working for that day. I’d worked physically to be ready for these things. I realized that mentally I hadn’t taken care of myself.”
Her world was small, she said, usually just talking to family and close friends.
“I didn’t want the pity or sympathy,’’ Marz said. “I wanted to show people I was strong, that I was going to get through this. It was kind of a wall I put up.”
There were days that she felt like she was breaking, that this was the worst day of her life. She realized she had to take care of that, so things didn’t build up so much. That became the best year of her life, she said, figuring out how to be mentally stronger.
She was part of everything except being in games, even participating in warm-ups. She went from stroke therapy to a therapist doing sports rehab. A huge breakthrough.
“I didn’t want tell [professors], ‘Hey, I’m the stroke kid,’ but I did have to have certain conversations with some of them, just in terms of getting to close on time. I didn’t want them to think I’m kind of slacking, having a little limp, a swag or whatever.”
It was tough for her to find out that a couple of high school friends were hit so hard by this that they saw therapists. That was hard for her to hear, she said. They didn’t tell her at the time. In December, she got the tattoo, 8-23-14.
“My mom never allowed me to get a tattoo, she was very against them,’’ Marz said, but she couldn’t argue against this one. Yes, the tattoo would be for life, but she thought about how temporary life is. It was going on the left side, which was what had been affected. On her back also was purposeful.
“It was something I wanted to put behind me,’’ Marz said.
How many doctors told her she couldn’t come back to the basketball court?
“One,’’ Marz said. “One doctor looked me straight in the face and say it wasn’t going to happen for me. At this point, I don’t know if it was tough love or it was what he truly thought. The only reason I say that is every other doctor made sure not to say that, even if they thought it, they never said it me.”
Her bio for this season would say 11 games, 2 starts, 2.2 points a game to date. Obviously, it could say a lot more. What is the meaning of the word courageous to her personally? How does she take that in?
“I would say, honestly, in terms of being courageous, I think everyone kind of goes through something in their life,’’ Marz said. “Maybe some go through multiple struggles. I honestly was lucky enough not to have that much of a bumpy road until college. Finally, I had this huge thing that came into my life. At that point, I had to be courageous. I had to find some way to find some kind of strength in me.”