Monday, June 22, 2009

LSU Player Wins It For His Dad

LSU 7 Texas 6

Mikie Matook singled in what was the winning run in the LSU Tigers game one win over Texas in the College World Series. The Sunday Advocate ran this story about Mikie and how he lost his dad on Father's Day. It's only fitting that he was the one to come up big to help defeat the Longhorns.

Mahtook gains inspiration from the father he lost 15 years ago today

OMAHA, Neb. — Memories are sketchy for Mikie Mahtook, but they’re safely tucked away somewhere in his mind and will always have a special place in his heart.

Taking a trip to a favorite pizza parlor. Setting up toy soldiers on the kitchen table. Remembering his dad as a gentle giant.

For those things Mahtook can’t clearly recall, there are pictures and “lots and lots of stories” from family members and strangers alike to bridge the gaps. That’s helped provide LSU’s dynamic freshman center fielder a photo album full of snapshot memories of his late father, Mikie Mahtook Sr.

Fifteen years ago today, Mikie Sr. sent his young wife, Mary Ann, to his mother’s house with 4-year-old Mikie Jr. and 2-year-old twin sisters Catherine and Christina for a family gathering.

There was always something going on at “The Big House,” the place where Mikie Sr. and six siblings grew up in Lafayette. That Tuesday was no different. Swimming, a barbecue and, as always, lots of family.

Then a phone call came that changed things forever.

While playing tennis at a local club with his brother Ronnie, Mikie Sr. collapsed. Although doctors on the scene tried to revive the 32-year-old former LSU football player, he died of cardiac arrest before his body had hit the ground. The ultimate diagnosis was cardiomyopathy, a viral condition that caused Mikie Sr.’s heart to enlarge and not function properly.

“We were all swimming with the family, and the last thing I remember was seeing people scrambling around and coming to get me,” said MaryAnn, an Oakdale native who met Mikie Sr. when she was a freshman at LSU. “I got to the hospital and they told me he was gone.”

Added Mikie Jr., “I remember the day that he died probably more vividly than I should.”

Since then, a lot of Father’s Days have come and gone, and Mikie Jr. has blossomed into a man and a vital member of the Tigers’ No. 1-ranked baseball team.

When LSU takes on Texas in the championship round of the 2009 College World Series this week, Mikie Jr. will be at the core of the Tigers’ bid for their first national championship since 2000.

That’s a notion Mikie Sr. would be giddy about.

While his father isn’t here to see it up close, Mikie Jr. says he has no doubt Mikie Sr. helped him reach this point. As a tribute, Mikie Jr. has his dad’s initials and LSU jersey number (54) etched on his cleats. There is a wall in his Baton Rouge apartment covered with photos of Mikie Sr., along with his LSU football helmet.

“It feels like he hasn’t been gone as long as he has,” Mikie Jr. said. “But he’s there with me all the time. Before every game I pray and ask him for help. Whenever there’s a big moment in the game or when I’m coming up to the plate, I say ‘Hey daddy, help me on this one.’ I feel like he’s definitely on the field with me. He’s in my back pocket.”

And never too far from his mind.

In LSU’s second game at the CWS, Mahtook blasted a three-run home run in the first inning to immediately put Arkansas on its heels.

“The minute I hit home plate and got to the dugout, he was in my head and I told him thank you,” Mikie Jr. said.

Since cracking the starting lineup for good in late March, Mikie Jr. has emerged as a five-tool big-league prospect. As much as he credits his dad for passing on athletic genes, the son acknowledges his dad’s calm, unpretentious personality also took root.

“Sometimes when the ball is in the air and I’m running after it, I think he helps clear my head,” Mikie Jr. said. “Thinking about him makes it so I don’t think about things too much and just use instinct and reaction.

“He’s the reason why I don’t feel any pressure. He helps me relax and stay calm and be able to play in the College World Series and not be nervous. I don’t put too much pressure on myself regardless of the situation.”

Indeed, pressure is a relatively measured term for a kid who lost his father before he started kindergarten. Not that Mahtook hasn’t encountered his shares of hurdles.

As a three-sport star at St. Thomas More in Lafayette, Mahtook drew plenty of attention from football and baseball recruiters by the time he was a junior.

He had his mind set on playing both sports in college and always dreamed of doing so at LSU.

But early in his junior football season, Mahtook’s plans took a painful detour. A dual-threat quarterback, he broke loose for a scramble near the end of the first half against Beau Chene and was knocked head over heels near the sideline.

Mahtook landed awkwardly on his left arm and shattered the radius and ulna. Surgery was required, and the arm needed 14 pins and two plates to repair.

“I don’t think anybody can break their arm more than I did,” Mahtook said. “They had to put my arm back together like a puzzle.”

As grizzly as the physical injury was, the collateral damage was just as hard to endure.

Eventually the arm healed and Mahtook got back to athletics. But mentally he struggled, and it didn’t help when recruiters took a step back to gauge his recovery.

His junior year on the diamond was OK but not spectacular. There was confusion among college suitors whether he wanted to play football, baseball or both, causing some schools to back off.

The injury left Mahtook at a crossroads, and he knew which path he wanted to follow.

“Getting hurt like I did put my life and career in perspective and made me realize maybe I just wanted to play baseball,” he said. “I wasn’t going to shy away from anything and was going to keep playing hard in football. But baseball was my first love.”

Still, it took awhile to completely separate from the idea of playing both sports in college.

LSU football coach Les Miles was willing to give Mahtook a shot as a preferred walk-on. Several other in-state schools, including Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette, offered him the chance to play both.

But the strong lure of playing for the Tigers kept tugging at Mahtook’s heart.

After a face-to-face meeting with LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri late in the 2007 football season, Mikie Jr. and Mary Ann both knew where the future was headed.

“We went into that summer after his junior year not knowing where things were going, and that was a pretty humbling time because of the expectations he had,” Mary Ann said. “Then, when we met with Coach Mainieri, he was brutally honest. He didn’t have a scholarship to offer right then, but he told Mikie, ‘You will be on the 30-man roster. You will have an opportunity to earn it and prove yourself.’ That meant a lot to both of us.”

So did an impassioned message to Mainieri from her son.

“Mikie looked at him and said ‘Coach Mainieri, since I was 8 years old, I’ve gone from football to basketball to baseball and never been able to commit 100 percent to baseball. I know when I commit 100 percent I’m going to the next level. I’m ready and I know I can.’ He said it with a lot of passion, so I knew where his heart was.”

Shortly before the 2008 Major League Baseball draft, when Mahtook was chosen by Florida in the 39th round, Mainieri offered a scholarship. He said the Tigers needed one young outfielder and it came down to Mahtook and Taylor Dugas, who wound up at Alabama.

Mahtook and Dugas are close friends. Dugas’ father, David, was one of the coaches of the Cajun Sluggers select summer team that became like a second family to the Mahtooks.

“Mikie is a bona fide major-league prospect,” Mainieri said. “He’s a tremendous athlete who does so many things well. He can run, throw, hit for power, hit for average, steal bases. In a couple of years, when he’s eligible for the draft, I think that will be reflective of the talent this kid has.”

Mainieri saw more than physical tools, though.

“For a young guy to grow up without a father is hard for me to comprehend,” Mainieri said. “It’s just remarkable to me that Mikie could grow up to be the type of person he has. He’s got a mother who has certainly been a strong influence, and he’s had great family support on both sides along the way.

“Everybody is challenged in life in one way or another and something like that makes everything else pale in comparison. Because of that, Mikie is not a kid who gets down on himself. He’s able to put things behind him and look to the future.”

Not without clinging passionately to a past that changed so dramatically before he formed lasting memories. Mom made sure her son knew, though.

“I’ve always kept his dad’s memory alive and never tried to hide it from Mikie,” Mary Ann Mahtook said. “I don’t think you should ever bury the memories. It’s very healthy to keep them alive.”

Added Mikie Jr., “My dad crosses my mind every day. When special days like Father’s Day come along, he’s already there. He’ll be in my heart forever.”


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