Matt Imhof was going through his normal post-game training regimen in June when the unthinkable happened.
The exercise band he was using snapped in his hand and sent a piece of metal flinging violently towards his face. The impact broke his nose and two orbital bones, and caused severe damage to his right eye.
Imhof, who was drafted to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2014, recalled the incident and its aftermath in a heartfelt essay for ESPN.
“I saw a flash of silver and then felt the metal hook smash into my face. Everything went numb as I hit the ground screaming,” the 23-year-old wrote. “I could feel the warmth of the blood running down my face and taste it in my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to move and look around, but my vision was blurry.”
Imhof was taken to the leading eye hospital in the country where he was told that surgeons would try to reconstruct the eye. His doctors explained that reconstruction was a long shot, and if it wasn’t successful, the eye would need to be removed.
“I’ve never felt as alone as I did in that moment; my world had been completely shattered,” he wrote. “Not only had I lost half my vision, but now I was going to look different too.”
“I felt like the person who walked into that training room in Brevard County was not the same person sitting alone in this hospital room,” he continued. “Everything I thought I knew, everything I had planned for myself, was gone. Baseball, my future, my vision, all of it.”
As predicted, Imhof’s surgeons found that reconstruction wasn’t possible, and his right eye was removed.
“I felt like I had lost a lifetime of work. But it was more than that. I hadn’t lost it, it was taken from me,” he recalled. “I wasn’t Matt Imhof anymore; I was a shell of him. The real Matt Imhof died in that training room along with his future. The only thing that defined me now was an injury.”
As Imhof lay in his hospital bed after the surgeries, all he could think about was that his life was over. His doctor, Dr. Wendy L. Lee, disagreed. Every time Lee saw Imhof, she told him his life was far from over.
“You have suffered a life-altering injury, not a life-ending one. It may be hard for you to see right now, but you can still do anything you want,” he recalls Lee telling him. “You can play baseball again. You can drive a car. You can even be a brain surgeon. Anything that was possible for you before the accident is still possible for you now.”
After a week of hearing this same message over and over, Imhof says it finally sunk in.
“I had two options. I could let this injury define me. I could be angry — no one would blame me for that. I could be depressed, feel sorry for myself and live in the past,” he wrote. “I could let the rest of my life be defined by the worst day of my life. Or, I could pick myself up, dust myself off and move on.”
He chose to move on. But first he had to relearn how to walk down stairs, how to drive, how to play catch and how to ignore the looks of pity from strangers.
“I eventually figured out that the only way for other people to see me without seeing my injury was if I was able to do it first. In the battle of self-perception, I couldn’t let the injury win and so I began to embrace the struggle. I had no choice,” he wrote.
“I’m a firm believer that baseball, through all my struggles on and off the field, prepared me for this moment,” he continued. “But the greatest thing baseball ever did for me was teach me who I could be without it.”
Imhof concluded his essay with the announcement that he was retiring from baseball and going back to finish his college to earn a degree in business and finance.
“I have never doubted my ability to be successful in life and I don’t plan on starting now; whether it’s a baseball field or a boardroom, I know my future is bright,” he wrote. “To anyone else who cares or is facing a struggle of their own, just know you’re stronger than you think.”