April 14, 2011
Mary Massei was still sporting the remnants of a shiner under her right eye; the result of a March 26 outfield collision with UW softball teammate Jennifer Krueger. Both were trying to run down a “gapper” in left-center when Massei dove and made contact with Krueger’s hip.
At the time, Wisconsin was protecting a 5-4 lead over Penn State built largely on the offensive contributions of Massei who had a double, a triple and a season-high four runs batted in. But the Badgers not only wound up losing their Big Ten opener, 8-5, they also lost Massei for four-to-six weeks.
Along with a black eye, Massei sustained three facial fractures.
Massei, a true freshman, was the second-leading hitter on the squad.
Such an injury would be a major setback and disappointment for most players.
Unless you’ve already beaten cancer – like Mary Massei has.
“I’ve had to go through so many more obstacles in my life,” she said, “this is nothing.”
A little over eight months ago, Mary Massei’s life changed forever.
On August 6, 2010, she learned that the lump near her throat – which she had discovered weeks earlier – would have to be dealt with through the removal of her thyroid gland and four malignant lymph nodes. Upon hearing she had cancer, she asked what any 18-year-old would ask in her situation?
“It was the first thought that popped into my head,” Massei said. “That first day I was devastated. But I went on a really long walk with my sister, Alicia. We talked about life and everything else. We must have walked for a couple of hours. We walked all around our city (Chino Hills, Calif.).”
Her resolve got stronger with each step.
Soon the tears dried up.
Soon the fears were assuaged.
“I knew that I was going to get through it,” she said.
And she pledged to herself to never again ask, “Why is this happening to me?”
On August 13, she underwent a five-hour surgery at the City of Hope (Duarte, Calif.).
“Once I realized I was OK after surgery,” she said, “my first questions were, ‘When can I start playing again?’ and ‘Was it safe to play without having my thyroid?’ They reassured me a lot of people have had thyroid cancer and have gotten back into the motion of things and played competitively.”
That was good news for Team Massei – Brando, her father; Erin, her mother; and Alicia and Salina, her two older sisters – which had mobilized in full force for her first doctor’s appointment. “They supported me every little step of the way,” Mary said, “and that’s what got me through everything.”
Her friends and softball teammates were equally supportive. There was an outpouring of love in her community and beyond that was not only flattering but understandably overwhelming.
How could she let them down?
How could she let anyone down without letting herself down?
“I’m a very positive person,” she said. “My mom actually calls me ‘Mary Sunshine’ because I’m always happy. But there were times when I would get down on myself. I’d just try to turn it around as fast as I could because I always knew God wouldn’t put me through something I couldn’t handle.”
In preparation for radiation treatments, Massei had to go on a strict low-sodium diet. Her dad and best friend, Lauren, also went on the diet to make sure that she didn’t have to deal with it alone. Once the radiation began, she and her mom were isolated in a cottage off the hospital.
“We had to stay six feet apart for those three days, but it was really good to be able to talk to somebody,” said Massei, who admitted after carefully planning out each meal and measuring each ounce of food leading up to the treatments, she couldn’t wait to dine on pizza and an In-and-Out burger.
She couldn’t wait to get back on the softball diamond, either.
Better late than never – particularly in getting to Madison.
Prior to her cancer diagnosis, Massei had accepted a scholarship to play softball at Wisconsin for former head coach Chandelle Schulte. The Badgers had not even been on her radar. But everything changed after her recruiting trip. “When I got here, I knew I wanted to be here,” she said.
Massei liked the campus. She liked the city. She liked the academic reputation of the school. More than anything, she liked the challenge of helping revive a dormant softball program. “I knew I wanted to be a part of this team when we made a difference and turned the program around,” she said.
Wisconsin’s new head coach, Yvette Healy wanted her aboard, too. Three days before the surgery, Healy – who was recruiting in California – met Mary for lunch in Huntington Beach.
“Coach Healy reassured me that they were here for me every step of the way and everything would be OK with my scholarship,” said Massei. “They just wanted me to get healthy. Meeting her put me at ease. I just felt so comfortable talking with her from the very first time we met.”
Massei was back on the field playing softball in December. She enrolled for the second semester of classes at Wisconsin in January. “The only side effect I have right now is I just get tired a little easier,” she said. “Being an athlete you’re always listening to your body. I need to listen to mine all the time.”
Why didn’t Massei take the entire year off from softball and school?
“I just wanted to be with my team,” she said of the Badgers. “I spent the whole fall communicating with my teammates and they made sure to keep in contact with me, so I knew all the girls already and I still felt like I was part of the team even though I wasn’t here the first semester.”
Massei was forced to make some adjustments as a player. “It took awhile for me to get back into the rhythm of things since I went the entire fall without seeing live pitching,” she said.
There will be more adjustments once she starts practicing again with a plastic mask. At least that’s her hope. “I need to get a mask fitted for my face – whatever it takes, right?” she posed rhetorically. “Hopefully I’ll be back in a few more weeks so I can still play in eight games or so.”
The Badgers have missed her spark and her speed. What she can’t outrun is her past. Not that she wants to. “I’m proud of who I am,” she stressed, “and I’m never afraid to talk about it. I’m proud of being a cancer survivor at the age of 19.” And she wants to share her story with others.
To this end, Massei said, “I’m thinking now of majoring in nursing (her mom is a nurse) and helping kids who have cancer. I’ve definitely grown up over the last year.”
Massei will return home for the summer. Huntington Beach is now home for the Masseis. The ocean and surf is only minutes away. Mary Sunshine Surfer?
“Not yet, but maybe I’ll learn,” she said.
Nobody should bet against her.