LONG POND, Pa. – The symptom were the ones that every athlete has become familiar with.
Matt Tifft had migraine-level headaches and a sensitivity to bright light. He was irritable and not quite feeling like himself.
He knew what was going on. He had a concussion. It made sense; Tifft had been involved in a crash during a NASCAR Xfinity Series race in June 2016.
Since he was going to see a doctor about a disc issue in his back, Tifft figured he might as well have his head check also.
And that's when the then 19-year-old had his world crash in on him.
Tifft didn't have a concussion. The issues he was going through were being caused by a low-grade glioma — a tumor in his brain.
The prognosis for recovery from his surgery on July 21, 2016, was positive, but there is no such thing as simple brain surgery.
"Benign is just an opposite word from malignant," Tifft, now 21, said on Friday during the practice session for the Pocono Green 250 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro & Sons on Saturday at Pocono Raceway. "The really scary thing was learning what it could become.
"I was very fortunate to get it out when I did. Nobody wants to have an accident, but that one probably saved my life."
Early in his recovery, some doctors told Tifft he might never race again. That became a call to battle for the native of Ohio who started racing go-carts when he was 10.
He had to learn to do a lot of things over again, but the motor skills and reflexes that had him racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at 18 and in the Xfinity series a year later had not been affected.
"Every new experience I could feel it working and rewiring the thinking process," Tifft said. "Sometimes new stimulants for my brain would knock me off my feet.
"I never lost the driving skills, but I could feel my brain having to knock out the cobwebs."
The steroids Tifft was on for treatment caused extreme weight gain, irritability and had to be dealt with.
He fought through and two months after surgery, he got back into a late-model car and went to a track to test himself.
"I ran like 20 laps, which, in our world, is nothing," said Tifft, who talked to members of Congress in May to advocate for passage of the Childhood Cancer Star Act. "I just needed to see that I wouldn't get dizzy or anything like that. A week later, I ran 300 laps to simulate a race."
Tifft then had to prove himself to racing officials.
When guys are driving at speeds approaching 200 mph, there is no room for sympathy in evaluating fitness to race.
"I had a five-day seizure study with 26 probes stuck to my head in a room that I could not leave," said Tifft, who was cleared to return to racing on Sept. 12, 2016. "I had cognizant testing to see if I could match up to military and commercial pilots. If they could clear me to fly a military plane, it was enough to let me race again."
He got a full-time ride with Joe Gibbs Racing and finished seventh in the Xfinity standings.
This season, he moved into the No. 2 car for Richard Childress Racing.
"The first lap in that late-model test was so special," said Tifft, who withdrew from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to commit full time to racing. "You do this for so long that you can take it for granted. I saw what it felt like to have it taken away. Athletes have a small window to make things happen.