NORTHBRIDGE, Mass. -- Growing up, baseball was just a game to Matt Niejadlik. It was something he enjoyed, whether it be playing catch with his dad in the yard or partaking in town-organized youth leagues.
But two life-altering events changed that perspective. Baseball wasn't just a game to him any longer. It became therapy.
In 2007, Niejadlik’s mother Christine Anderson passed away following a long battle with Huntington’s Disease (an inherited disease that affects nerves cells in the brain and causing them to dilapidate). Two years ago, his father John Niejadlik, whom Niejadlik had lived with since he was 5, succumbed to cancer.
“My mother had been ill was moved to a nursing home in Lowell before she returned back here," Niejadlik said. “By that time there was nothing anybody could do for her. When my father was first diagnosed I remember doctors telling him that he had only six months to live and he almost lived for another two years.
"The first couple of treatments he received worked great but by the third one things didn’t seem to work and there wasn’t much more they could do for him. His lungs began to fill up with fluid and he went to Milford Regional Medical Center because he was having trouble breathing. They performed a lung-draining procedure but when they did that his lungs collapsed. He thought he would be out of the hospital like in three or four days but he never left."
Now, at age 18, Niejadlik is alone, living in his father’s house and dealing with circumstances most kids his age have not yet begun to fathom. Niejadlik has taken over the responsibilities of maintaining a home, paying bills, buying his own groceries and cooking his own meals. All of this being done under the shadow of him trying to finish up his senior year at Northbridge High School and playing baseball for the Rams.
“I’ve just been rolling with the punches,” said Niejadlik. “It’s either that or die right? There’s not much else you can do. I’m certainly not going to give up on myself. I won’t ever allow myself to do that. I know I have a lot ahead of me that I want to do and want to get done.”
In his struggles to try to make ends meet, Niejadlik works part-time as assistant plumber in nearby Douglas. His hours on the job average around 25 per week. His father owned a septic business where Niejadlik learned the plumbing trade. When he needs to work, he is given permission to miss baseball practice. Niejadlik says he loves playing baseball at Northbridge High but also understands the importance of keeping his priorities in order in an effort to survive.
“I’ve played baseball ever since I could hold a bat in my hands,” he said. “It’s just something I love to do and would never think about giving it up. I’m allowed to take some days off from practice when I need to work and try to make a couple of bucks. But the next day I show up ready to play.”
Rams head baseball coach John Demagian has been highly-supportive of Niejadlik and, without hesitation, permits him to miss practices whenever he needs to go to his job.
“I feel without baseball Matt would be lost,” Demagian said. “I remember going to visit his father the day before he passed away and remember seeing Matt in really in bad shape over it. It had to be traumatic for him, especially to have nobody else around except for an aunt (Jean Teehan) who lives in Connecticut. He knows we would do anything for him if he asks us but he never asks. Never once have I ever heard him complain or feel sorry for himself. He really is an amazing kid.”
Niejadlik says his father's house has gone into foreclosure. However, he is allowed to remain there until the bank, which has taken control of the house, tries to sell it. It would be easy for these compromising circumstances to force Niejadlik to throw up his hands and give up. But he is not built that way.
“I just love his attitude,” said Northbridge assistant coach Jim Archibald, who coached Niejadlik as a freshman at the junior varsity level. “He’s tough as nails and he never feels sorry for himself or makes excuses. He got dealt a crappy hand but he realizes it’s a big, tough world out there and nobody is going to feel bad for him. There is nobody handing him $50 and telling him to take his girlfriend to the movies and have a good time.
"He is basically doing everything on his own. His problems aren’t of a typical 18 year-old. His problems are trying to maintain good grades, pay the bills and keep the lights on in the house. Those are things a lot of 17 and 18 year-old kids don’t have to deal with. Matt has been able to keep his head above water and he just goes about his business. I can’t say enough good things about him."
Niejadlik says he is grateful of all the support he has received from staff members and students at Northbridge High, the Northbridge community and, in particular, his coaches and teammates. By in large, the baseball team has become Niejadlik's extended family, along with his girlfriend Ali Cyr.
"She has been awesome," Niejadlik said. "She has been more that I could ever ask for."
“When you see what Matt has gone through, taking a called third strike or making an error that loses a game, in the grand scheme of things isn’t that big of a deal," Rams assistant coach Dan Briand said. "Once you realize the things that have happened to Matt it just puts all of those other things in perspective. I think that is a good thing because I feel Matt’s maturity has rubbed off on the other guys on this team.
"We may not be the most-talented team but we always battle. I think much of that has to do with how the other kids have taken their cue from Matt. When you really think about it, most kids his age have their laundry done for them or have dinner on the table when they get home. Matt doesn’t have that luxury.”
Niejadlik is planning on enrolling at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester next fall to study business and, if possible, continue playing baseball. The business side of him has already begun to take shape. Before his death, John Niejadlik bought a 250 acre farm in Ripley, Maine. Niejadlik already has a plan in place to build cabins on the grounds there and rent them out to hunters, fishermen and snow sport enthusiasts. One day he hopes to move there.
Niejadlik’s ability to self-manage himself is nothing short of amazing. He wakes every morning and sets off for a full regiment of classes. Then it is either off to work or practice. In the evening, he returns home, cooks dinner, maybe pay a couple of bills before catching a few winks of sleep before repeating the process over again the next day.
“For me, I feel everything happens for a reason,” said Niejadlik, with a quick shrug of the shoulders. “I’m just trying to get stuff done that needs to be done. I try not to think about it and just go out and do what I have to do. That's pretty-much it.”