Taking the long road back

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

Nothing could stop big Ben Schalk before Jan. 11, 2006.

The 18-year-old was a six-foot-three, 290-pound offensive lineman who played four years with the London Falcons football team and five with the Aquinas high school squad. He threw the blocks for his speedy Flames buddy Ben Roberts and, blessed with several university opportunities, had designs on playing college ball for the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in Antigonish, N.S.

But the combination of deer and ditch and tree is never a good one. Schalk was just one kilometre from home on Brigham Road in Lambeth and behind the wheel of an Acura Integra (he had loaned his truck to his uncle) when he saw the deer too late.

"It was a big boy," Schalk recalled. "I went in the ditch and it was more the impact with the tree than the deer that did it. I hit pretty hard."

Schalk knew he was badly hurt and required assistance. Help was only a phone call away but, in such dire situations, that's easier said than done.

"I always carry my cellphone in my left pocket and I remember reaching for it a bunch of times, but I must have kept passing out before I got to it and dialled," he said. "It took a long time for anyone to find me. My mother (Karen O'Donovan-Schalk) told me later I might've been there an hour and a half or two hours.

"The car was a writeoff and they had to cut me out of it. If you saw the condition of the car, you would've thought I was dead."

There would be times when Schalk wished he was. The physical toll from the car crash was a broken left femur, a busted right schaphiod (wrist), dislocated toes, muscle damage, various cuts, scrapes and bruises and mind-numbing pain.

Schalk spent some time in intensive care, had a steel rod inserted in his leg and remained in hospital for two weeks. Six months later, he had additional surgery to remove broken screws on his leg and put one in his wrist.

"The doctors told me I would be able to play football again and that was good news so I went to X in the fall to start school," he said, "but I couldn't do anything and I was in pain. All I could do was watch (football workouts) and it was depressing and frustrating. I wasn't really part of the team and I . . . missed home."

Fuelled by inactivity and worry, Schalk's weight ballooned to 320 pounds and he became addicted to pain-killers. He returned home at the semester's end and hoped to find out why his leg still hadn't improved.

X-rays showed he needed to have the rod replaced in his leg. The surgery took place last Dec. 23.

"That made five surgeries and I decided to drop out and transfer to Western," Schalk said. "I wasn't feeling very good about myself. I didn't even go back to (Xavier). My dad went to pick up my things for me. I came back and saw Aquinas finally win the city championship. I felt great for the guys on the team, but it was a little tough because I had played five years and they finally won the year after I left."

Along the way, Schalk had the chance to talk to Western football defensive co-ordinator Paul Gleason, his former high school teacher. Gleason helped him get into the Fowler-Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic for physiotherapy treatments and Schalk credits working with Steve Di Ciacca there for his recovery.

"After getting the rod replaced, I was scared to exercise," he said. "But Steve helped me get over that. He had me doing knee bends and there were days when the pain was unbearable. The worst part was running. It was terrible, but I'm starting to get my foot speed back and I have been given the clearance to play again."

Now, Schalk plans on being in pads when Western's football camp begins in three weeks at TD Waterhouse Stadium. There are no promises, but his goal is to make the Mustangs and block for running back Randy McAuley.

"Everything happens for a reason and something has drawn me back to London," Schalk said. "We'll see where I am at the end of camp, but I've been working hard and I'm in better shape than I was in high school (he now weighs 280 pounds).

"It was a tough thing to grow through, but I feel like I've grown up (a lot). I've been back to the accident spot once and there's still paint on the tree where I hit."

The paint, eventually, will disappear. But Schalk hopes, one day, to get back to that old feeling -- when nothing could stop him.


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