Tony Vlahovic vividly remembers sitting in a bed in an Allentown Hospital ward, peppering the doctor with questions after emergency surgery.
“Can I play sports?”
“Can I have kids?”
The terrified teenager had no idea what had happened to him.
Decades later, Vlahovic understands fully.
“What happened was…actually, football saved my life,” he says.
We are sitting at a table at the Newtown Starbucks, during the after-school rush, rehashing every twist and turn of Vlahovic’s remarkable life. His diagnosis of testicular cancer at age 14 — which came a few months after he was hit below the belt in a freshman football game, then woke one night to discover he couldn’t move his legs — was just one harrowing stop on his road less traveled.
He made a full recovery, and now, as a father of two, a rehabilitation specialist, high school baseball coach and Special Olympics baseball crusader, he credits that one hard football hit with helping to expose the cancer growing inside him, before it was too late.
If not for that hit, all the lives Vlahovic has touched since his athletic career ended in the mid-1980s – another harrowing story we’ll get to in a minute – might have been quite different.
Obviously, that includes his wife, Nina, son, Anthony, and daughter, Sabrina. But there’s also the rehab patients Vlahovic worked with for 10 years at his facility, Momentum Fitness, which has since closed. There’s the special needs individuals he cares for today as an independent therapist, and the Special Olympics athletes he coaches as head of Team New Jersey, winner of the Gold Medal at the 2014 USA Games. There’s the New Hope-Solebury High School student-athletes he’s trying to help raise, with a philosophy of philanthropy.
“I was taught to give back,” Vlahovic says. “That’s just part of who I am. And that’s not tooting my own horn; that’s coming from the inside, and what I try to instill in others.”
If you knew Tony Vlahovic in the 80s, you knew him as a professional baseball player. And that’s how he knew himself.
The former three-sport star at Whitehall High School once had dreams of making it big in college football, as a quarterback, but his scholarship offers to the likes of Clemson and Florida State dried up after he injured his shoulder, and he turned his focus to baseball. Vlahovic, a left-handed pitcher who starred overseas for a team in Bologna, Italy, worked his way up to Class AA ball with the Red Sox.
Although he did have a degree in psychology from Wilkes University – his parents, who hadn’t gone to college themselves, insisted their son finish school – Vlahovic’s entire identity revolved around pitching for Boston.
“My idea was, I was going to be a big-league player, and I was going to take care of my family and everybody around me,” he says. “There was no Plan B.”
Any plans Vlahovic had were destroyed, in what seemed like a split second.
Prior to the 1986 season, while en route to a friend’s wedding, Vlahovic was stopped at a red light at the base of a hill. He remembers a car barreling down the opposite side and speeding directly at him.
“He hit me full on — drunk as can be,” Vlahovic recalls. “My leg goes into the dash, my head hits the dash, I hit another person in front of me. …The guy tried to drive away.
“I get out of the car, and my foot is pointing straight up.”
Vlahovic survived the accident, but his baseball career did not.
“I went back and they were basically like, ‘Look, you’re done. Have a good life.’ My cubby was cleaned out, someone had moved in already,” Vlahovic says. “I came back home, and I had no idea what I was going to do with myself.
“At that point, to be honest with you, I was severely depressed. I did not want to even look at a baseball glove. It was like, ‘I’m done with this. I’m done with everything.’ I was lost.”
It took several years for Vlahovic to “find himself,” but the seeds of his new life were planted during the year and a half he spent rehabbing his leg, re-learning how to walk. He looked around the facility where he was being treated, observed what he saw as an impersonal approach to individual patients’ therapy, and thought, “If I did something like this, I would do it differently.”
Once so focused on his own physical development, then wrapped up in mourning the death of his dreams, Vlahovic started to feel a new sense of purpose. His rehabilitation program, the one he would start and run, would be a place someone – anyone, regardless of the severity of his or her challenges – would feel loved.
He once wanted to use baseball to make his mark, but he knew he could impact people on a much deeper level.
Instead of the car accident ruining his life, Vlahovic says, “It turned my life around.”
Over the past two decades, Vlahovic has made a career of helping others, especially, he says, “people no one else wanted.” At his former rehab facility and in his current independent practice, he’s provided hands-on care for advanced-stage ALS and cancer patients and people with a variety of severe mental and physical disabilities.
One young adult in Vlahovic’s care was a star goalie in high school lacrosse before a freak accident on the field left him a quadriplegic. Doctors on the scene didn’t think he’d last the night. He’s 32 years old now, and inspires Vlahovic more and more with each visit.
“He is incredible, and when I mentor some of my athletes, I take them there and we talk about being appreciative of what you have,” Vlahovic says. “I’m humbled every time I walk out of there and every time I see him. Talk about an inspiration. I tell him, ‘You’re the toughest person I’ve ever met.’ ”
During his nine years as head baseball coach, Vlahovic’s mentorship of New Hope-Solebury athletes has included regular exposure to the Special Olympics community, through clinics and special events. Vlahovic, who as a high school “jock” made a point to stand up for and befriend the Special Education students in his community, wants to pass on that sense of empathy and responsibility to the next generation.
As part of New Hope’s annual meeting with Solebury School, players from both teams unite with special needs athletes for an exhibition game, taking time beforehand to coach them through warmup drills.
(To watch my video report on the 2018 game, click here.)
“I tell my guys all the time, ‘My Special Olympics guys would give a limb to have your ability,” Vlahovic says. “Just to sit in the dugout with you, it’s like sitting in a major league dugout. They absolutely love it.”
Vlahovic hopes to strengthen the connection between local high school baseball and Special Olympics in the coming years, but his chief mission is to expand the scope of baseball as a Special Olympics sport. His proudest accomplishment in life, he says, was successfully executing the first organized baseball games in Special Olympics history, back in 2014 when he built Team New Jersey from total chaos into a championship team.
“To think of how far we came in a year and a half…we used to have open workouts, we had people in their 80s in wheelchairs and kids running around with baseball bats, and I was thinking it was crazy,” he says. “I went home and told my wife, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m out of my mind.’ And then we started to get things together.
“Watching these guys and living with them at the USA Games, seeing them with the gold medal…it was great, being able to be a part of that and also give that back now to my current athletes.”
You might say “giving back” is Tony Vlahovic’s profession. A guy who once planned to pitch at Fenway Park, then had to pick up the pieces of his own shattered dreams, now devotes himself to creating opportunities for people who might never have dared to dream.
Many thanks to Tony Vlahovic for donating his time for this interview, and his pictures for the attached slideshow. If you know someone who would make an interesting subject for a ‘Coffee Convo’, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.