After two full knee surgeries, Clay Walderzak is back on the field
Clay Walderzak has dealt with two full left knee reconstructions and a position change over the course of three football seasons.
Through tribulation and perseverance, Walderzak wrote his own comeback story. He played his first game of the 2018 season against Maine on Sept. 22 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, blocking for quarterback Tommy Lazzaro and running back Jonathan Ward.
“It felt good to be out there, and I’m excited,” Walderzak said.
The offensive lineman split time at right and left tackle in CMU’s 17-5 victory on Saturday. He played his first snap during the first drive of the second quarter. He felt as good as he’s ever felt on the football field.
“I was nervous for the first couple plays but then it went back to normal,” Walderzak said.
His left knee injury dates back to his senior 2013-14 basketball season at Standish-Sterling High School. He dislocated his knee cap and decided against surgery. The knee eventually healed on its own in time for freshman football at Central Michigan in 2014.
The then-tight end did not play in 2014, taking a redshirt to guarantee an extra year of eligibility.
In Week 6 of his redshirt freshman season, he dislocated his left knee cap again. The doctors expected it to heal, so Walderzak decided to avoid surgery yet again.
A short while later, a harsh realization set in – his knee was not going to heal.
Dr. Andrew Schorfhaar specializes in knee and shoulder arthroscopy and reconstructive surgery, and he often performs joint replacements and osteotomy. Being one of the best in the nation at knee reconstruction, Schorfhaar had Walderzak make a trip to East Lansing in hopes of a quick fix.
“I give a lot of credit to Dr. Schorfhaar,” Walderzak said. “He did a lot for me. Everything was healed up after seeing him.”
Walderzak, with passion and love for football fueling his drive for success, along with help from Schorfhaar, returned to the gridiron as a tight end for the 2016 season, and of course the long snapper for field goals. At 6-foot-4, 271-pounds, he appeared in 10 games.
Offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky came to Mount Pleasant in 2017, just after Walderzak’s first healthy football season with the Chippewas. Taking over for after the retirement of 78-year-old Morris Watts, Ostrowsky decided to shake things up.
He moved Walderzak from tight end to a foreign position – offensive line. Instead of giving up, like he also could’ve after the first surgery, Walderzak fought with everything he had to solidify himself on the line.
“Coach (Derek) Frazier wanted me anyway,” Walderzak said with a laugh. “I made the change about a week and a half before the 2017 Spring Game.”
Feeling a starting offensive line spot on the horizon due to his hard-work over the summer, Walderzak made one final push in fall camp. He got his first serious in-game action against Kansas in Week 2 and started against Miami (Ohio) in Week 3.
He finished 2017 with appearances in 12 games, making five starts at left tackle and one at right tackle.
This past spring, after preparation for the 2018 season, Walderzak was set back – another left knee injury. He never expected another injury due to his outstanding health at the time, but it happened.
“I was feeling better than I had ever felt, even before surgery,” Walderzak said. “It was a fluke deal this spring. It really sucks because things were looking up. The scariest thing was not being able to play football.”
For a short period of time, Walderzak thought his career was over.
Walderzak underwent another full knee reconstruction. He had the opportunity to quit Central Michigan coach John Bonamego’s team, but the senior just could not envision a life without football.
So, he pressed on.
“For him to work as hard as he has to get where he was, then to be injured again, and then to attack things this summer – he finished three to four weeks ahead of where the normal person would finish,” Bonamego said of Walderzak’s recovery speed.
Mark Stansberry from Mountain Town Rehab in Mount Pleasant has worked through both surgeries with Walderzak as his physical therapist. Walderzak gives Dr. Schorfhaar a colossal amount of credit because his surgical skills helped put the offensive lineman back on the field again.
Along with the Stansberry and Dr. Schorfhaar, Brian Wiese and Eduardo Godoy from Central Michigan’s training staff were influential in Walderzak’s recovery, as were his parents and family.
“When you have a knee injury, those things are tough,” Bonamego added. “That rehab and regimen is excruciating. You have to be willing to endure a lot of physical pain. That’s a testament to his toughness, work ethic and determination.
“He’s a Chip all the way. All the way.”
Walderzak made his return to the football field official on Sept. 22, 2018. The feeling was one of merriment.
He got his first in-game action with 12:29 left in the second quarter against the Black Bears. Bonamego said he was on a drive count but expects a greater contribution and eventually a full-time starting role for Walderzak.
“It’s great to have Clay back,” Bonamego said. “We’ve missed his presence and leadership. He wasn’t able to play the whole game, and that was the plan. He should be able to play more next week.”
Luckily for Walderzak, he was granted a medical redshirt and will be eligible to play in the 2019 season for the Chippewas. Right now, he is only focused on winning a Mid-American Conference title this time around.
Going through two left knee reconstructions and a position change, time spent playing football is precious to Walderzak.
“I’ve been through a lot,” he said. “The biggest thing is that you can’t take anything for granted.
“If you love it, you’ll chase it.”