A little background: The family of a young Atlanta man, Brett D., wrote to the Cubs in hopes of reaching out to Marlon Byrd. Brett was suffering from compartment syndrome, which is something Marlon also had to deal with in college. Compartment syndrome is a serious condition that involves increased pressure in a muscle compartment. It can lead to muscle and nerve damage and problems with blood flow. Brett had undergone three surgeries, and was having a difficult time. Marlon wrote a letter to Brett, and then met him in Atlanta last August during the Cubs’ series. The two talked about their experiences and compared scars. Brett’s family was moved by Marlon’s generosity.
Here, Marlon talks about his experience with compartment syndrome. At Thanksgiving, it’s the perfect time of year to give thanks — to family, to doctors, and to pro ballplayers who take time to inspire fans.
I started having pain in my leg in November 1996. It was my sophomore year at Georgia Tech. After three days of pain, I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally went to see a specialist at St. Joe’s. I went in, and the same day, they had emergency surgery and they cut open my leg and found out I had an infection called compartment syndrome. What happens is, it’s an infection and your muscle starts to swell and it cuts off the circulation to the nerves that run underneath. Your muscle stops getting the blood flow. If you don’t catch it or release it to let the muscles breathe, it dies. I got very lucky. I had Dr. George Cierny. His specialty is everything, and you usually don’t see that with surgeons. He’s an amazing, brilliant man. He went in, removed the muscle, put beads in my leg to kill the infection.
He didn’t say, “You’re done, we need to go ahead and cut the leg off, we can’t do anything with it.” He put the beads in to kill the infection, and said, “Let’s wait a day or two and let me think it through.” After thinking it through, he said, “We’re going to wait, clean this up, make sure the infection goes away, close it back up. We’ll have you rehab all the adjacent muscles and see if we can get you to walk again.”
I had the first surgery, and the whole thing was, OK, first we’re going to get rid of the infection. The second surgery was, Let’s clean it up, close it up, and get him on his way and see if we can strengthen all the adjacent muscles around and go from there. It went from November ’96 when they cleaned it all up, and in January ’97, I had my final surgery when they reconnected all the tendons to adjacent muscles. I had to rehab my leg, and make it strong again — strong enough so by the time I came back from having the cast and having it held in one position for so long, it wasn’t so weak. That was Jan. 31, ’97. From all of that — having the surgery, having to learn to stand up, being able to balance, learn to walk again, underwater treadmill, pick it up — gosh, from that point, my last surgery, I tried playing in June or July of ’98, and couldn’t do it, couldn’t move. It was terrible.
At the same time, I was overweight. I went to the doctor, and said, “I don’t know if I can play.” He said, “Marlon, this is a career-ending injury. Second, we did this for you to walk. Third, if you ever want to be anything athletically on the field, you have to drop weight.” I went on a diet, dropped 90 pounds in five months. I think that’s how I got my work ethic coming back from this. I played one year of junior college ball after not playing for two years, and ended up being drafted in the 10th round by the Phillies. I hit like .460 and 16 home runs and had a great season. I think it’s because I enjoyed baseball, there was no pressure. I wasn’t trying for anything else. It was play baseball, finish your college career and then move on. I got lucky and got drafted.
I came close to having my leg amputated. I don’t know if this would’ve happened, but I believe if I went to a doctor who didn’t think outside of the box like Dr. Cierny did, I would’ve been dead, and they would’ve amputated.
I meet people when I hear stories and talk to them and just try to be there, that positive influence. The kid I met, Brett, was like, “Man, I wake up with pain every day,” and I said, “So do I.” Everything he said, I’d say, “So do I.” I pulled up my pants leg and he saw my leg. All of a sudden it hit him. He said, “You have the same scar as me.” It was the same injury. How many professional players do you see lose a muscle in their lower body and continue to play sports? It’s supposed to be career-ending.
Dealing with the injury made me realize that I could do anything I put my mind to. First off, they said, “You’re done playing,” and I didn’t believe that. Second, they said, “Drop the weight and I believe you can play.” I believed that and did it. Then I got a phone call from this scout and he said, “The Phillies are thinking of drafting you.” I realized I could play professional baseball. That’s pretty cool. That wasn’t my thought process — my thought process was play baseball, have fun and whatever happens, happens. I thought I’d be done after college.
I believed in me. I was never, “Why did this happen to me?” That never happened. It was one of those things — wow, this happened, now I have to deal with it, so what do I do?
Opening Day is a double whammy for me because it’s my first year with the Cubs and this is my hometown. This is going to be big. I have a lot of Sprayberry [High School] alumni, a lot of people who I went to middle school and elementary school with who bought up a whole section, so there will probably be 80, 90, maybe 100 people from Sprayberry so it’s going to be big. Fans get to check me out — again — being back in the National League. I haven’t played in Atlanta since 2006 so it’s nice to be back.
My parents have seen me play since then — they’ve come out to Texas. They haven’t seen me in Atlanta since ’06. Now, I’ve come back home and they can drive and go right around the corner to a game.
Everyone’s thought process with this team is that the playoffs start now. Tomorrow is going to be Day One of our run to October.
— Marlon Byrd