Joey Dressler’s doctor’s appointment in Scottsdale, Ariz. earlier this week went well. There were no signs of the tumor coming back.
It was a relief for the 6-foot-1, 160-pound senior-right hander at Gila Ridge (Yuma, Ariz.), who has surrendered only one earned run in 14 innings this baseball season. Eating up innings as a middle reliever, Dressler has left his coach shaking his head in amazement.
Dressler had surgery to remove a non-cancerous tumor below his right knee when he was 9. The tumor returned when he was 11. Again, he had surgery to remove it. It came back when he was 13, which again led to surgery. And, when he was 15, it was there again. This time, two tumors, leaving him unable to put weight on the leg for six months.
“If I had to go the bathroom, I had to hobble on one leg,” Dressler said.
Complete atrophy in his right left forced him to relearn to walk.
Dressler missed all of his sophomore season, and after he was unable to get out of one inning early his junior season against Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor, Dressler’s future in baseball looked bleak.
But he kept working. Kept coming out to the field when nobody else was there. Kept asking his coach to play catch with him.
Now he’s getting practically everybody out.
“Joey is a testament to the hard work,” Gila Ridge coach James Kuzniak said. “He’s a kid who didn’t have a lot of talent early on. He was always willing to put in the work. Countless times in the summer, he would ask to throw. We’d play catch in the parking lot. The kid wants it. And he wants to get better.
“There have been a lot of distractions in his life. But this kid really backed it up. He could have given up and said, ‘Maybe baseball isn’t meant to be.’ But that’s not in his character.”
Dressler said he plans to go into the Navy next year, but for now, he isn’t giving up on a baseball dream he had the first time he wore a baseball glove.
“The last (surgery) was the hardest one, because they had to take out two tumors, instead of one,” Dressler said. “It happened in the middle of my high school career, so I didn’t know if I would be able to play varsity baseball my junior and senior years. To be able to do that last year, it really means a lot.”
In his final four appearances his junior year, Dressler didn’t allow an earned run. He said he had to get over the mental block from the leg and chance of injuring it after so many surgeries and artificial bone grafts.
With tumors coming back every two years since he was 9, Dressler often asked himself, “Why me?”
“Why did it have to keep coming back?” he said. “I had my own personal goals I was trying to meet, not only on the baseball field but in the gym, as well. I had to reset them after every surgery.”
Dressler said the tumor came back in the same spot each time, right below the growth plate on his right tibia. He had to learn to walk each time.
Joe Dressler, Joey’s dad, said that at first, when his son was 9, it went without being diagnosed until “It was virtually ready to burst from the bone.”
“It started to swell and protrude from the leg,” Joe said. “He had to immediately have surgery to remove it. Each time, they had to go in and take the tumor out of the bone, remove a portion of the bone and fill it back with a bone graft.”
The tumor was aggressive but benign, Joe said.
Joey, 18, worked hard each time with rehabilitation and recovery.
“When you miss that many years of competitive sports, it’s hard to come back and and be competitive at an older age,” Joe said. “He had to work very hard to get back to that level.”
Joey said he only has to return to the doctor if he needs to. But there is always that chance of it coming back.
“The doctor said that as long as I’m growing there’s still a chance to come back,” he said. “The next two or three years, it could come back.”
That won’t deter Dressler. Nothing has so far.
“I’ve learned that no matter what life throws at you, you’ve got to keep going,” Dressler said. “The easiest thing is just to roll over and say, ‘I quit.’ But you won’t get anything out of it. You’ve got to keep pushing with everything you’ve got.”