Overcoming Obstacles on the Road to the Success
Player of the Year wasn’t sure if he’d ever play again
Two years ago Mitchell Watt had to teach himself how to walk again. Now, he is Mid-American Conference Player-of-the-Year. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum
It's senior night in Alumni Arena, the crowd rushes onto the court after the men's basketball team has won its final regular season game. The hundreds of students that are now standing on the playing surface pick up their team's star player and hoist him above the mob as chants of M-V-P reverberate off the cement walls that line the gym.
The man who was raised up by the masses is senior forward Mitchell Watt.
For Watt, this treatment from the fans was something that two years ago seemed improbable.
That's because two years ago, Watt couldn't even stand upon those same feet that he was now being lifted off of in celebration.
Watt's feet were unable to hold his own body weight at the start of his sophomore year due to contracting a rare illness in which his immune system was attacking his own muscles. He's now healthy and successful, but during his sophomore year his career and future were greatly in question.
In the two years since his hospitalization, Watt has rebounded from someone who couldn't walk to earn the highest honors a basketball player in the Mid-American Conference can achieve. On Monday, Watt was named MAC Player of the Year, capping off his improbable comeback to the sport that he loves.
It all started so innocuously. While doing yard work in his hometown of Goodyear, Ariz., Watt began to feel slightly dizzy with a bout of blurred vision. Convinced that the 115-degree heat that day was the culprit for his symptoms, he brushed it off as a heat illness and moved on.
It wasn't until he returned to Buffalo that he fully understood that he was dealing with something more than dehydration.
When moving back into his dorm, the lean-built 6-foot-10 Watt was walking up the stairs when suddenly his legs gave out, planting him into the concrete, and then the hospital.
"The day I came back I tried to check into the dorms and was going up the stairs and my legs just cut out on me," Watt said. "I got really scared and called our athletic trainer and we went to the hospital."
Watt anxiously lay in bed for two weeks, quarantined from others, while doctors frantically tried to diagnose the illness that had taken away his ability to walk.
"I was in the hospital and it got worse," Watt said. "By about the third or fourth day I couldn't even move my legs."
Using only the wheelchair beside his bed to make trips to the bathroom, Watt remained stationed in his hospital room, waiting upon test results, and holding out hope that his ailment was curable.
After about a week of uncertainty, neurologist Dr. Michael Battaglia diagnosed Watt with Guillain-Barré syndrome.
The immediate impact of the diagnosis was relief for Watt because now Battaglia had at least discovered the cause of Watt's symptoms, but in terms of basketball the question wasn't when he'd be back on the court – it was if.
Guillain-Barré is a serious illness in which the immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system of the person who has it.
The muscles that Watt uses to elevate for the acrobatic plays he makes in midair on the court were being fought and weakened by his own body.
To this day Dr. Battaglia doesn't know what caused Watt to get Guillain-Barré, but there are a number of different things that cause it, some are even as routine as a flu shot.
The Center for Disease Control says that one of 100,000 people contract Guillain-Barré.
Dr. Battaglia estimates that his practice only sees about four cases a year, and Watt's case was atypical in that his wasn't just weakening of muscles, but blurred vision and dizziness, which led to the delay in doctor's ability to diagnose his illness.
Basketball was the last thing on Watt's mind when it came to the recovery process; he was focused walking again.
"I had to teach myself how to walk, jog, and run again," Watt said. "It wasn't until the end of my junior year that I felt close to normal."
Although Watt had a hard time regaining muscular strength, he didn't let on how much he was really struggling, even to those closest to him.
Ron and Kari Watt, his parents, couldn't make the trip to Buffalo when Watt was hospitalized. They were in the midst of selling their house during the collapse of Arizona's housing market, and didn't have the financial means to hop on a plane destined for Buffalo.
They talked daily, but Watt didn't let on many of the serious details of his condition for fear of worrying them.
"He was always very positive when we called him," Kari Watt said. "We really didn't realize or I guess understand that he couldn't stand up or walk. He just didn't talk about it. It's definitely credit to him just being mentally strong."
He didn't tell his teammates just how serious of an issue he was facing either. In fact, head coach Reggie Witherspoon doesn't think even now the team fully understands what Watt endured and how much it took for him to come back.
The players came to visit him in the hospital, and Watt was up front with them about his illness, but Watt says that unless you've had Guillain-Barré you won't fully understand the toll that it takes on your body.
His neurons didn't fire like they were supposed to, his muscles wouldn't respond well to physical activity, and he was constantly exhausted from even the slightest activity.
Although people didn't know the struggles that Watt had ahead of him, that's exactly how he wanted it. He didn't want to disclose to others what he was dealing with.
"He made it easy for us to not treat him differently," Witherspoon said. "He didn't even want anyone to know about it. We didn't soft-pedal it. He had a situation, and it was a difficult situation. He was able to overcome it because he was determined."
The illness wasn't something Watt could come right back from. He admits that it carried all the way through his sophomore year into his junior season.
His parents advised him to redshirt his sophomore season, but Watt decided to play instead of taking the year off. Witherspoon recalls that there were times when Watt couldn't play more than two or three minutes before becoming completely exhausted.
"It was a really long road to get back into game shape," Watt said. "When I was in the hospital I couldn't even get out of a chair, so I had to teach myself how to walk, jog, and run again. It wasn't probably until the end of my junior year that I felt close to back to normal."
The fact that he's even made it back to playing collegiate basketball is a feat all of its own.
"It's not common for someone with Guillain-Barré to recover well enough to be able to play college basketball, so [Watt's recovery] is rare," Battaglia said.
When looking at Watt's accomplishments in his first year at full health since his freshman year, it's incredible to think that two of Watt's four years were significantly affected by a syndrome that makes running up the court without becoming exhausted an achievement.
Dunking a basketball was his milestone. He tried everyday once he got out of the hospital and he says there were times that he couldn't even get the ball above the bottom of the net.
"It was just [something] that I was checking off my list," Watt said. "It was something that I needed to get done, and to overcome before I considered myself a basketball player again."
Now a senior, Watt doesn't just throw down dunks with ease, but he's doing it over almost everyone he's facing. Watt has developed into a dominating force within the MAC.
Surely his career might have been different had he not gotten sick, but Watt doesn't even think about that anymore.
"I did [think about what might have happened had it not been for [Guillain-Barré] before, but now that this season is in full swing I don't," Watt said. "I was upset that I wasn't able to give what I was capable of to the team. But now that I'm being productive this season, I don't have to worry about it anymore. It's been a big weight off my mind."
Watt is just enjoying the exploits of his remarkable season, and admits that his comeback may have been improbable – but not something that was out of his mind.
"I got through everything, including being sick, with my optimism," Watt said. "I didn't count [my recovery] out. [Player of the Year] was a goal of mine coming in here, and I've had a few setbacks. But I'm glad I was able to get it."
The journey is still not over for Watt. He has one more goal in mind: to win the first MAC title in school history.
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