When Northwestern closed out its 30-28 victory over Nebraska two weeks ago, Matt Frazier was right in the middle of things.
The senior offensive guard helped open some gaping holes for running back Justin Jackson as the Wildcats piled up first downs on the game’s final drive. Frazier celebrated after he induced an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Nebraska’s Maliek Collins in the final 90 seconds, effectively sealing the outcome.
“We take a lot of pride in finishing and playing through the whistle,” Frazier said. “So that was good to see.”
It’s also amazing to see Frazier playing a key role for the 6-2 Wildcats. Just a few months ago, he was lying in a hospital bed in the intensive care unit, needing a machine to pump oxygen into his lungs. That was the last and most serious twist in a nightmare offseason that also included three surgeries and a torn pectoral muscle.
“That he’s playing now is beyond remarkable, considering where he was,” said his mother, Joanne Frazier. “It was so dire at one point that we were thinking this was never going to happen.”
Frazier’s ordeal began in January, following a junior season in which he started all 12 games at right guard for Northwestern. He had bone spurs in his ankles and underwent surgery on the left one in January and the right one in February.
Just a few days after the second ankle procedure, he woke up with severe distress in his back and numbness in his legs. He had a herniated disc. Emergency surgery followed.
Frazier returned to light workouts in late spring but tore his pectoral muscle while lifting weights in June. Then one day in mid-July, he experienced what he describes as “excruciating pain” in his left pelvis area. Teammate Mark Szott drove him to the emergency room, but doctors couldn’t’ figure out what was wrong with Frazier and sent him home after several hours. Frazier went back to the E.R. the next day with even worse symptoms, and he was admitted this time with what was eventually diagnosed as a staph infection.
About 24 hours later, he was put in intensive care, where he’d stay for three days. The infection had entered his bloodstream, and doctors were worried it would attack his spine, heart or other vital organs. He also developed pleurisy, requiring him to use an oxygen mask for about 30 hours.
“I had tubes going in and out of everywhere,” Frazier said. “I was kind of out of it, so I didn’t know how bad it was. But I could tell by the whole demeanor of everyone visiting me that something was pretty wrong.”
Frazier’s parents rushed up from his hometown of Bourbonnais, Ill., which is about 90 minutes south of Evanston. His father, Bret, slept in Matt’s hospital room for the entirety of his 10-day stay.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made frequent visits, as did teammates, assistants and athletic director Jim Phillips. Frazier’s roommate, backup quarterback Zack Oliver, came by the hospital every day.
“His teammates were amazing,” Bret Frazier said. “It truly is a football family. Until you’re around it like that, you don’t understand it.”
Frazier’s medical team could not determine how he developed the staph infection or whether it was related to his previous injuries or surgeries. After he was released, he still had to use a PICC line, a catheter inserted near his heart, to self-administer antibiotics for six weeks.
He joined the team during its preseason training camp in Kenosha, Wis., but he hadn’t played football in nearly 10 months and had lost a lot of strength. Few expected him to do much with the team before late in the season, if at all.
But Frazier made it back in time for Week 5 and started against Minnesota in a 27-0 victory. He nearly broke down while addressing the offense about 10 minutes before they ran out of the tunnel. He spoke about how he was playing for his teammates. About how he had feared this summer that he’d never get the chance to do so again. And how he hoped they’d be with him.
That last part never really was in doubt.
“We knew it was going to be a long road back to normalcy,” Fitzgerald said. “For him to not only get back to that but then to exceed it and get back on the field, that was really special for Matt, personally. But it was also significant for us as a squad.”
Frazier says he’s probably not as strong physically as he was a year ago. But he’s making up for it with veteran savvy and desire. After everything he’s been through, he plans to savor every moment of a senior season that almost didn’t happen.