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Following brain surgery, former Northwestern football player starring in USPBL

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published May 18, 2018

 Westside Woolly Mammoths outfielder Tommy Fuessel poses during a rain delay of a May 11 contest at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica. After a series of concussions and subsequent brain surgery ended a college football career, Fuessel earned a spot in the USPBL.

Westside Woolly Mammoths outfielder Tommy Fuessel poses during a rain delay of a May 11 contest at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica. After a series of concussions and subsequent brain surgery ended a college football career, Fuessel earned a spot in the USPBL.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Fuessel signs autographs for young fans May 11 at Jimmy John’s Field. During last year’s USPBL playoffs, Fuessel hit .385.

Fuessel signs autographs for young fans May 11 at Jimmy John’s Field. During last year’s USPBL playoffs, Fuessel hit .385.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

UTICA — Underneath the cartoonish, friendly prehistoric mascot on his cap, Tommy Fuessel hides a nasty scar.

Measuring ear to ear across the crown of his scalp, the divot represents a long journey for the 23-year-old. From the Big Ten gridiron to a near-death experience, his path is much like the jagged scar, a winding road that Fuessel hopes leads to a brighter future.

Now an outfielder for the Westside Woolly Mammoths of the United Shore Professional Baseball League, Fuessel has found an opportunity to reset his athletic career.

A quick online search of his name pulls up plenty of highlights of Fuessel setting records as a quarterback at Lincoln-Way East High in Frankfort, Illinois. His prep success led to a scholarship to Northwestern University in 2013.

He transitioned to wide receiver for the Wildcats, redshirting his freshman year. However, a concussion in practice resulted in headaches that warranted an MRI. The scan revealed that Fuessel had an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in his brain.

“Looking back, it’s good I had that specific concussion because it caught the AVM,” Fuessel explained during the USPBL media day May 7. “Basically, I had a ton of tangled arteries in my head and it could cause a stroke. It was in the part of my head that affected vision, and it was basically a ticking time bomb. If it had gone off, the best case would be that I’d be completely blind. They told me I could die from it.”

After having brain surgery, Fuessel was unable to do any football activities or workouts for a year. When he finally returned to practice, Fuessel caught a bad break.

“It was tough to sit for a whole year, and when I was finally able to work out, it was only light pushups,” Fuessel said. “When I finally came back for my sophomore year, I had a freak injury. In an agility drill, I tripped and fell backwards. Usually your neck will help your head from hitting the ground, but my muscles weren’t fully back. I couldn’t stop my head from hitting the ground.”

Fuessel suffered another concussion, one of three he had at Northwestern and five overall in his career.

“I kept getting weird headaches after it, and I finally thought this is it for me,” Fuessel said. “I just couldn’t keep doing that. It was devastating. I played football my whole life. It was my initial love, and I had dreams of going to the NFL. Everyone told me I had all the tools and I was always the fastest guy, but I couldn’t keep getting hit in the head.”

Fuessel turned to the diamond, using his missed chance in one sport as motivation for another.

“I just felt that I had to be doing something,” Fuessel said. “I was still in good shape and wanted to compete. I played baseball in high school, but I stuck with football because it gave me the best opportunity for school. But I picked up a bat and told myself I’ll give it all I got.”

In 2016, Fuessel played in the California Winter League in January before playing on several summer teams. He attended tryouts for various independent leagues but struck out. In the fall of 2016, he attended St. Francis University in suburban Chicago to play baseball.

“I did absolutely terrible out in California, but I told myself I’d stick with it,” Fuessel said. “I started to get a little better, but I still wasn’t ready for any sort of pro ball. I was excited to get a chance at St. Francis, but then I had another freak accident.”

Fuessel was struck in the head by a ball in a batting cage, resulting in yet another concussion.

“It was awful. It had me pretty stunned for two weeks,” Fuessel said. “I was just out of it and I fell way behind in school. It was beyond disappointing.”

In early 2017, Fuessel tried out for the USPBL, making the Westside roster as a developmental player. However, one more stroke of bad luck struck.

“I was so happy to make it here,” Fuessel said. “I had worked very hard. But before the first game, I stepped on a ball in batting practice and had a high ankle sprain. I was out for over a month. It was terrible, but I was eventually able to start playing halfway through the season.”

In 24 regular-season games for the Mammoths in 2017, Fuessel hit .282. He earned 15 walks and stole five bases. In the playoffs, he hit .385, helping the club make it to the title game.

“We didn’t really have a lot of info on him when he came to tryouts,” Westside manager Shane McCatty said. “My first memory of him was being impressed by this tall, lanky kid flying in the 60-yard dash. We made him our developmental guy, and he eventually earned a spot. He overcame that ankle injury and obviously so much more to finally play.”

McCatty employs the 6-foot-3 Fuessel in center field. He praised the former signal-caller for his contributions on and off the field.

“He’s just an incredible story. For a guy who didn’t know if he was going to walk again, seeing him fly down the basepaths is amazing,” McCatty said. “On top of that, he’s a great guy. He works every single day and is a perfect example of what we want from everybody to keep grinding to get better.”

McCatty compared Fuessel to another former football standout who shined in baseball.

“He sets the tone in terms of intensity and has a fiery edge,” McCatty said. “He always has his limbs flying everywhere. He’s like Kirk Gibson. It’s not always the prettiest thing, but he gets the job done. He’s a real easy guy to root for.”

Justin Orenduff, USPBL director of baseball operations, called Fuessel a prime example of what the league is all about.

“As a developmental guy, (Fuessel) was able to keep practicing and get reps in our system,” Orenduff said. “When he earned a spot on the roster, he was able to jump right in and do really well. He has legitimate baseball instincts, which is incredible given how long a layoff he had. He grades out as a prospect, and we’re working on him with the little things.”

As he patrols the center of Jimmy John’s Field, Fuessel said he is thrilled to be in the local league.

“I’m literally living the dream,” Fuessel said. “Obviously the goal is to make it to the MLB, but if not I can say I made it here. I get to play in front of sold-out crowds in a great league and compete. I’m so thankful they took a chance on me.”

Fuessel admitted that he still gets headaches once in a while. While some may question facing fastballs given his background, Fuessel said he cannot live in his fears.

“Even some of my best friends are hard on me. They’ll say, ‘When are you going to stop dreaming and get a real job?’”Fuessel said. 

“This is on my heart right now. As long as I can and my body says so, I’m going to keep pursuing it. Sure, you get a scare when a pitcher misses high and a fastball buzzes by your face. But it’s still worth it. I can’t think like that. If I do, I’ll be sitting down the rest of my life. I absolutely love competing, and since I can, I will.”