Champ couldn’t grip ball some days, he could grip your heart
* RHP Jason Champ (London, Ont.) underwent the usual post-game pain, the Excedrin head ache pain and several trips to the doctors, to keep pitching for the Brock Badgers ….
By James Parker
Over a three year career at Brock, starting pitcher Jason Champ silently battled through severe arm injuries, risking his pitching career every time he stepped on the mound.
In 2009, the Badgers were in need of pitching after losing their top three pitchers (Jason Ermers, Jordan Prosper and Wes Koch) from the previous season. With the transfer of right-handed pitcher Jason Champ (London, Ont.) from Genesee Community College the Badgers were hopefully that they had moved one step closer to filling the voids in their rotation.
In his first time stepping onto the mound at Community Park during the team’s August training camp, a moment that seemed small at the time would foreshadow the toughness that Champ would display throughout his Badger career.
With fellow Genesee transfer David Gardiner catching Jason during the team’s first scrimmage a runner attempted to steal second. With Gardiner eager to impress coaches with his abilities behind the plate he popped up and uncorked a strike … right into Champ’s back. The thud was heard all around the park, as fellow players groaned with the thought of the pain Champ was experiencing. Yet, after wincing for a second Champ laughed off the error shaking his head at his long time teammate, and preceded to strikeout the next batter to end the inning.
This small innocent error went virtually unnoticed by many around the park that day, yet it would display Champ’s toughness and ability to pitch with pain, something that he would be forced to do for the final two years of his career.
His first season with the team he pitched without pain, but unfortunately struggled to adjust to OUA play, finishing with an 0-3 record on the year. That off-season the Badgers lost three more starters (Matt Martinow, Mickey Campeanu and Nathan Penrose), leaving Champ as the only returning starter for the next season.
During an off-season training session Badgers coach Jeff Lounsbury approached Champ to discuss his role with the team for the upcoming year.
“I pulled him aside and told him that we really needed him to step up and be a leader for our pitchers,” said Lounsbury. “He was one of a few returning veterans and I put the onus on him to be the guy to lead not only the rotation but the entire staff. We had a lot of new guys coming in and I knew it would be a challenge.”
With the challenge issued by the coach it was up to Jason to step up and become the player that the program needed. In his second year with the program he came to camp with a new attitude.
After two days of camp the Badgers were set to take on the local Bullettproof Academy U18 team in a two-game exhibition series. In the second game Champ got the start. Stepping onto the mound for the first time in a game format that fall Jason looked to show the coaches that they were right to lean on him for leadership.
In three innings that day Champ held the youth program hitless in a display of pitching dominance as Champ set the tone for his second season. Over his next three starts he continued to role going undefeated and helping the Badgers take over first place in the OUA.
It wasn’t until a Week 4 matchup against the rival Western Ontario Mustangs where Jason Champ his first loss of the season. In a pitcher’s duel against Paul Lytwynec, the two went toe-to-toe matching each other every step of the way. Yet, on that day it was Lytwynec and the Mustangs that would best Jason and the Badgers as they narrowly escaped with a 3-2 victory.
It wasn’t until three weeks later when Jason would get his shot at revenge, when the Badgers travelled to Labatt Park in Champ’s hometown of London, Ont., to take on the Mustangs for the OUA Championship.
Heading into the game Champ was admittedly excited about the opportunity to not only win an OUA Championship but to do so in a park that he grew up playing in. That day on Oct. 9, 2010 Champ stepped onto the mound and did what many pitchers have dreamed of doing, yet only few have achieved. He pitched the best game of his career in the biggest game of his career.
He was untouchable on the mound, allowing one run (unearned) on six hits in 7 1/3 innings, as he led the Badgers to their first OUA Championship since 2004. For his efforts he was named the game’s MVP and Brock Athlete of the Week.
After winning the OUA Title on the back of one of the best single game performances in Badger history Champ was on top of the world.
That is until the adrenaline had calmed and the realization that something was seriously wrong with his arm set in.
For pitchers it’s sometimes normal to have pain following a game. But when that pain hadn’t subsided after a week Jason knew that was in danger of not being able to perform at the team’s next event, the CIBA National Championships.
With the team travelling to Windsor, Ont. for the tournament Jason quietly contemplated his options, and saw only one solution, “continue to pitch until I can’t throw anymore.”
It was a simple decision for Champ, as he had worked so hard for this opportunity; he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way of helping his team win. Instead of going to the doctor to get a proper diagnostic on his arm injury, Champ went to the athletic therapist at Brock and asked him to do anything he could to relieve the pain and allow him to pitch in the upcoming tournament.
If he could stand the pain then he could pitch, and after the Badgers went 2-1 over their first three games of the National Championship tournament, Champ took the mound with the opportunity to send the team to the semi-finals. His opponent on the day was Cape Breton University, and their offense stood no chance against the determined Champ.
Over five innings Champ held the Capers scoreless and led the Badgers to within two victories of their first National Title since 1999. At the end of the game Champ’s arm was a mess, he had numbness in his hand and wasn’t barely able to grip a ball.
Weeks after the game Champ couldn’t even open his hand fully, and was sent to a surgeon in Scarborough to see exactly what was wrong with his arm. After undergoing a battery of tests it was determined that Champ’s ulnar collateral ligament (the Tommy John ligament) was still intact and Tommy John surgery would not be required. This was a huge relief for everyone involved as the recovery time could have been 18 months.
But Champ wasn’t completely in the clear, as it was discovered that he had severe cartilage damage instead. The pain in his arm was being caused by bone on bone contact when he threw; there was no longer any cartilage to soften the blow.
Typically when a pitcher suffers through this there is no chance of them pitching without major surgery, but instead of opting for surgery that would force him to miss the entire 2011 season, he elected to undergo a relatively new treatment. He would have a gel injected directly into his elbow with the hope that the gel would act as a cushion for the bone on bone discomfort he was experiencing.
Unfortunately for Champ while the procedure did allow him to pitch, he was still experience large amounts of swelling in his hand and pain in his arm. With two weeks until Brock training camp Champ returned to the surgeon in a last ditch effort to allow him to pitch for the Badgers.
After undergoing several more tests the surgeon finally concurred that the rubbing that had occurred in his elbow had caused nerve damage ranging from his neck to his wrist. This was causing the swelling in his hand and numbness in his arm.
The surgeon immediately assigned a therapist to work on Champ’s arm in an effort to release the impediments that were pinching the nerves in his arm. The treatments last an hour and a half and left his arm black and blue, but despite the intensity of the procedures he was able to fully straighten his arm for the first time in months.
As training camp grew closer it became more apparent that Champ would be able to pitch for the Badgers in his third and final year with the team.
Champ not only returned to the Badgers last season, but was once again a major leader for the pitching staff. He was named the player of the week in the second week of the OUA season, and finished the year with a 3-1 record, posting a 3.89 ERA. Even with all of his success Jason still battled with pain throughout the season as he had to continually receive heavy treatment on his arm after every appearance.
With so many question marks heading into his final season, Lounsbury summed up Jason’s perseverance saying, “At the All-Star game in May we didn’t think Jason was even going to be able to pitch for us in 2011. He not only pitched for us, but was dominant once again. He threw more innings per game in 2011 than 2010. The guy simply doesn’t know how to lose. It’s not in there; he doesn’t have that thing that says losing is an option. It’s not even like he is over the top competitive either, it’s not there, losing isn’t in him, anywhere. He literally is a Champ.”
Champ graduated from Brock with a degree in physical education, and elected to continue his education this fall at Lakehead University enrolling in teachers college.