Passion healing the pain
Post Independent Sports Editor
CARBONDALE — The scars say it all.
One extends from the bottom of Johnny Nieslanik’s right armpit to the top of the Roaring Fork High School senior’s shoulder blade. And that scar has company, as 10 smaller scars, each the result of surgeries done on Nieslanik’s shoulder, keep that larger scar company.
Each of them are the result of reoccurring shoulder injuries he’s had in the past three years. All total, Nieslanik has undergone three reconstructive surgeries to repair turn tendons and bone spurs in his throwing shoulder. Those injuries have sidelined him for countless weeks, and they’ve kept him off the field and off the pitching mound.
They didn’t, however, keep him away from the baseball field, nor did it quench his desire to play. That shows, as Nieslanik had a team-best .500 batting average and three home runs during the regular season.
There were, however, some moments when he had those doubts.
“It was probably after my second surgery when I started thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing?’” Nieslanik said. “There were some spots when I was really down in the dumps.
“But I love playing, and I love baseball,” he continued. “That’s all it really came down to.”
The first sign of trouble for Nieslanik came right after he put together a banner year as a freshman, which included a pair of no-hitters on the mound.
Nieslanik was helping a friend in Missouri Heights brand cattle at the beginning of the summer. One of the cows charged him, and Nieslanik landed hard on his right shoulder after he’d caught his feet on the top of the fence he jumped over trying to get away. Later on when he was playing on a summer-league baseball team in Basalt, a throw he made from his position at third base to first only made it to the pitcher’s mound.
The pain in his shoulder was bad, but it worsened after a few days. He was then taken to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, where he found out every tendon in his shoulder was torn, and six bone spurs added to the pain. He immediately had surgery to repair the damage done, but had to stay in a sling for the summer to let the repaired parts of his arm heal.
“Worst experience of my life at the time,” Nieslanik said. “I was a 16-year-old kid who couldn’t do anything but sit on the couch.”
The patience seemed to pay off, though, as Nieslanik was able to play basketball that season without any troubles as a sophomore. He played baseball throughout the summer but, during his junior season playing basketball, he dislocated his shoulder during a February game.
Another surgery three days after he re-injured his shoulder followed, and doctors at Valley View did small incisions in Nieslanik’s shoulder to sew the torn tendons together again. It was eight games into the baseball season before he was able to rejoin the baseball team, where his playing time was very limited even when he did come back.
“He wasn’t allowed to run,” Roaring Fork coach Marty Madsen said. “So if he got on in his first at-bat, I could pinch run him and re-enter him. Then if he got on again, I’d have to take him out and he’d have to sit.
“It’s tough having one of your best hitters not be able to play,” the coach continued. “The doctor said even if he was on third base, he needs a runner because he couldn’t risk hurting that shoulder again by sliding into something. That was real frustrating for him.”
Two weeks after his return, Nieslanik was cleared to start throwing again thanks in part to a throwing rehabilitation program, and he was able to play in the lineup as a position player — primarily first base — by the end of the season.
Third time not a charm
Nieslanik had made so much progress that playing college baseball seemed like a viable possibility. So the summer after his junior year, he began putting together a recruiting video to send to colleges at Roaring Fork’s baseball field.
During one of the segments, he landed on his shoulder after diving for a ground ball, then felt a slight pain after making a quick throw to first base after the dive. When he stood up, his shoulder rolled out of socket.
Nieslanik had torn the ligaments in his shoulder. Again.
He was pumped full of pain killers during his ambulance ride, which he said made little difference in reducing the pain in his arm. X-rays after his shoulder was put back into place prompted doctors, according to Nieslanik, to say there was nothing else that could be done.
“That was really, really hard to hear,” Nieslanik said.
Still, he wanted to keep playing, and had another successful reconstructive surgery in Vail the summer before his senior year. This one was more intense and resulted in his 10-inch long scar, and he rested the shoulder and didn’t play football or basketball. Even walking in large crowds made him jumpy during that time, fearing a bad bump against it might squelch the surgical repairs which were made.
A new beginning
Nieslanik’s rehabilitation program helped strengthen his arm significantly. A the beginning of the season, his throws across the diamond couldn’t go from first base to third base — a distance of a little more than 127 feet — on a line without a bounce. Now, since baseball workouts began in late February, he’s able to throw that distance at a very modest 55 mph. It’s still very difficult, however, for someone who could also throw a baseball from left field to home plate on a bounce to realize what he’s lost.
“I do accept what’s happened, and I know I can’t do anything about it,” Nieslanik said. “I’m just glad to be playing, though. I love the sport.”
What Nieslanik has lost in arm strength, he’s made up for at the plate. He’s hitting .500 (27-for-54) with three homers and a team-high 27 RBIs for the Rams, who have won six of their past seven games headed into the Class 3A state playoffs this weekend. Meanwhile, having Nieslanik on their field after all of the work done on his shoulder has given some speech fodder to Madsen.
“I can’t wait to have a kid come in here and complain about being tired or having a sore arm,” the Rams coach said. “As soon as I hear that, I’ll just tell him, ‘Go talk to Johnny. He’ll tell you all about a sore arm.’”
Sore arm or not, Nieslanik is just thankful to still be playing — even though there were times he didn’t think he would be.
“I’m out here now, I’m still playing and we’re going great going into the playoffs,” he said. “There’s definitely been days when I said to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s just the passion I have for the game. I love it, and I’m glad I’m here.”
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