Doyel: From brain surgery to football field in 4 months

Offensive lineman Matthew Runyon, center, moves to the next practice play at C.R. Roark Stadium at Brownsburg High School, Wednesday, August 20, 2015.

Offensive lineman Matthew Runyon, center, moves to the next practice play at C.R. Roark Stadium at Brownsburg High School, Wednesday, August 20, 2015.

The brain surgeon is setting up the iPad, calling up the MRI and saying he’s never seen anything like it. The mom and the dad are almost in tears, trying to keep it together for their kid, the one with the brain tumor.

The kid’s sitting right there. He’s one of the strongest people in the hospital, in more ways than one. Can bench press a house. Can squat a small building. He plays football at Brownsburg High, or he did. Will he ever play again? That’s a question the neurosurgeon is about to answer.

The neurosurgeon fiddles some more with the iPad. Says again that this just doesn’t happen. The tumor had been right there next to the brain. The cyst was above the tumor. There’s no such thing as an insignificant brain tumor, but this one was pretty big, the size of a quarter. The cyst was even bigger. Look at the palm of your hand. That’s how big the cyst was, the cyst in this kid’s brain.

Brownsburg junior Matt Runyon is sitting there with that look on his face. His dad knows it well. His mom too. After a few days in the hospital, the doctors and nurses and even this neurosurgeon with the iPad know it, too.

The look on Matt Runyon’s face:

I got this.

And that kid — “That little snot,” his father teasingly, lovingly calls him — was right.

Brownsburg opens the football season Friday at home against Pike. Matt Runyon will start at guard.

Brain surgery was four months ago.

Brownsburg's Matt Runyon during practice.

Brownsburg’s Matt Runyon during practice.

* * *

The kid lost his contact. He figured that was the reason his left eye was wandering inward, toward the bridge of his nose, causing double vision. No contact, and the eye was getting lazy. That’s what Matt Runyon figured.

He and his dad go to Costco on April 12 for new contacts, but Dr. Jonathan Burns looks at Matt Runyon’s inflamed retina, and Dr. Burns knows.

“He said there’s only one reason the retina could be inflamed,” says Mike Runyon, Matt’s dad. “Something is putting pressure on the brain.”

Within an hour Matt Runyon is in the emergency room at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital. An MRI shows something that shouldn’t be so close to his brain, something they won’t know what it is until they cut open his skull and remove it. But it’s big. They’re calling it a “mass.”

And Matt Runyon, this kid, he hops to his feet and hustles over to the MRI. He’s been taking a biomedical class at Brownsburg, and now he’s showing his parents the different parts of the brain. The cerebellum, the medulla oblongata.

The mass, big as the palm of your hand.

Matt turns to his parents and says, “It’s just going to be a benign cyst.”

The neurosurgeon, Dr. Ronald Young, looks at Mike and Kim Runyon and says, “They’re teaching those kids well at the high school.”

Nobody knew it then, but the kid was right. The mass is removed and studied for several days, and the tumor is benign and the cyst is harmless. When the Runyon family walks out of the hospital, this is what Kim tells her husband and son.

“This is what a miracle is, guys.”

* * *

He was in the weight room one week later. The doctor cleared him to lift on machines, controlled movements like that, and Matt Runyon wore those machines out. His head was shaved up front, the bald spot above his forehead, the scar spreading sideways like a snake.

He hadn’t been cleared to play football, so when coach Brett Comer got the Bulldogs together for 10 days of summer workouts, Runyon helped video practice and brought water to his teammates. They had come to the hospital, bringing him a “Brownsburg Football” T-shirt and with motivational messages scribbled on it. Matt Runyon sleeps with the shirt every night.

His new pillow case.

“Family,” is what he calls his Brownsburg teammates.

Before surgery, Matt Runyon was bench-pressing 245 pounds. He was strong, in Brownsburg’s select “900-pound club,” the sum of a player’s max bench, squat and power clean.

Eventually he was cleared to lift free weights, and the whole time he’d been gorging on protein, and in months this 6-foot kid has grown from 255 pounds to 280. His bench press increased to 315 pounds. He set the school record for front squat (460), then re-set it (500).

“Now he’s in the 1,000-pound club,” Comer says. “Only a handful of guys get there every year. Just a handful. We’re talking about some major weight. That’s a testament to God-given ability, but also to Matt’s hard work after the surgery.”

Comer remembers the day after surgery, walking into the hospital, having no idea what he was about to see. But before he can see anything, he hears it. It’s Matt Runyon, talking loudly in his room. Comer walks inside and Runyon is sitting up, interrupting whatever story he’s telling nurses to greet his visitor:

“Hey, Coach. What’s going on?”

About then Dr. Young comes into the room and Matt asks when he can play football again. The football coach raises his hands.

“I told the surgeon,” Comer says, “’I’m going to make it easy on you: I’m not putting that kid on the field no matter what you or the kid tells me.’ And then I looked at the mom and said, ‘It’s up to you.’ ”

Matt Runyon with his Brownsburg teammates.

Matt Runyon with his Brownsburg teammates.

That was April 13. July 10 is his 90-day checkup, and Dr. Young is fiddling with the iPad and Matt Runyon has that look on his face. Dr. Young shows two MRIs, before and after surgery, and says the mass isn’t just gone; there’s no sign it was ever there.

“I’ve never seen anybody recover this quickly,” he told the Runyon family.

Even as Matt Runyon is giving the room that “I-told-you-so” look — the little snot — his dad is grilling the doctor. Any increased chance of a brain bleed? A concussion? Anything at all?

The doctor said no. The doctor said, “I have no reason not to clear him. It’s like this never happened.”

Kim Runyon found coach Comer at the school, hugged him and said he could let Matt play. Barely a month later, and just four months after his son’s brain surgery, Mike Runyon will watch Matt play for Brownsburg against Pike.

“When you feel there’s no hope and a miracle occurs, it’s one of the best moments of your life,” Mike Runyon says. “My sunglasses will be on (at the game). It will probably be dark out, but I’m wearing my sunglasses. Leave me alone.”

Find Star columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at

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