The things he can't do
Matta's health concerns, and why he's still coaching
When Thad Matta rises from his special chair during a game to instruct his team, sometimes there's a gimpse of pain in his eyes. When he walks off the court, he limps. On his feet are the shoes and socks he will not be able to take off by himself. These are the realities of Matta's life.
The NCAA Tournament is here, and Matta’s team is involved, of course. It always is. Ohio State will be playing VCU on Thursday in Portland, Oregon. So we should first list the things he has done.
He just won his 298th game for the Buckeyes, giving him the most for any coach in Ohio State history. He is taking his team -- be it Butler, Xavier or the Buckeyes -- into the NCAA Tournament for the 13th time in the past 15 seasons. He owns the second-best record in the nation in March the past 10 years, behind only John Calipari.
But this is about the things he hasn’t been able to do, and they don’t come with a scoreboard. Let him explain.
"I couldn’t pick up my daughters and put them on my shoulders in the swimming pool. I couldn’t play catch with them. They’re runners, and I can’t move to watch them at a cross-country meet.
"What I’ve been through the last eight years has been very challenging. There are things I can’t do as a husband, there are things I can’t do as a father. But they’ve never left my side. They’ve got to take my shoes and socks off after games because I can’t bend over. They’re always right there to help me, through the good and bad."
Thad Matta’s back is a mess, and has been for a long time. Eight years ago, a surgery to help went wrong and he woke up with a permanent disability to his right foot. "Drop foot," the doctors call it, which would require a brace as a lifetime companion. Besides that, the back is still a huge issue, but you think he’s going to try surgery again? The operation was June 16, 2007. He remembers the date pretty well.
Sometimes he gets angry.
"Every time I hear the Velcro on my brace I get ticked off. But this thing helps me work, and I can’t walk without it."
Sometimes it would be easy to wonder how much longer he can do it. Certainly watching his physical labors from afar begs the question.
"The pain can get pretty bad. It’s more of just getting flat. I just want to try to get healthy.’’
But still: "I love coaching basketball and I love Ohio State University," he said. "Every day that I have the opportunity to lead these guys into battle, I cherish those moments.
"I’ve got a lot of things to be thankful for."
One of those is named Barbara. Their 20th wedding anniversary is in August. To find out what life is like for the coach at Ohio State, why not go to the woman who must help him take off his socks?
"He doesn’t complain about it, but I know it has to hurt him by just watching him walk," Barbara said. "I worry about him. The girls [daughters Ali and Emily, 16 and 14] worry about him. We’ve gone on a few more trips this year and they like to carry his bag. If only he’d empty it out some."
Barbara Matta is a cheerful lady who likes to look on the bright side.
She mentioned that her husband can’t play golf or run like he once did, when he would refresh his mind. So now he leaves a pool a sweat beneath the home elliptical machine.
He could not horseplay around the house with the kids. "But he also doesn’t do the trash or dishes, so it’s kind of balanced."
She admitted sometimes getting frustrated that they can't do everything "normal" families can. "We can’t go hiking. We can’t go horseback riding as a family. But he’s a great cook.
"That’s why I married him, because he could cook and iron."
She was kidding. Maybe. But apparently Thad Matta can grill a mean steak, when he isn’t still winning 20-plus games a season, no matter how much he limps and his back hurts.
When he secured victory No. 298 for the Ohio State record at the Big Ten tournament, commemorative shirts were handed out. He posed at midcourt with his family.
"It was very special because he’s always worked so hard, before his back surgery, after his back surgery," she said. "I used to teach special education, so it’s very neat when people have obstacles to overcome, and they learn to read, or get 298 wins.
"You think you have it bad some days, and then you realize it’s not as bad as somebody else."
Still, study Thad Matta during a game. Watch him lumber off that elevated chair, and you wonder how much longer he can do it. Or why. After so much success, he can’t need the money.
"I think there does have to come a time for that," said his wife. "I don’t think it’s yet, but sometime down the road."
She understands something about her husband. One trump card outweighs the pain and the brace and the hour of exercise every morning and the miles of limping and the sideline, and the struggle to even get dressed to go to work.
"I think it’s what he loves."