George Mason’s Inside The Huddle: Playing For Two

  0 VolleyMob Contributors | April 24th, 2017 | College - Men's Indoor, EIVA, News

Written and courtesy of Teodor Handarov, George Mason Athletics

Every athlete – at any level of competition – has his or her reason or purpose to compete.

“I play because I love the game” is one of the more common responses to the ever-old question “Why do you play?”

“I play to win,” another would say.

Regardless of answer, there’s always an internal motive that helps athletes through difficult practices, grueling conditioning and all other hardships behind the curtains of the glamorous life of college athletics.

Hayden Wagner loves the game; he has loved it ever since eighth grade, when he first gave it a shot. He is also competitive as a freshman gets. It is easy to note that when watching him give it all in every practice or seeing the quiet, subtle frustration on his face when one of his serves or swings ends up in the net or out.

However, neither of those factors is why he plays. Rather than a “what”, his answer to the question involves a “who” – his little sister Diana, with whom he shares a deep connection and a person who he dedicates much to.

“The whole reason why I started volleyball was because of her,” said Wagner, who recently completed his first year at Mason. “When she played volleyball I played lacrosse but we would always pepper in the driveway, even though I wasn’t very good. When I got to eighth grade I told myself, ‘Eh, why not try it? Let’s see what happens.'”

Despite the obvious differences between lacrosse and volleyball, Hayden turned out to be a natural. He put together a decorated high school volleyball career, which included two District 3 and one AAA Pennsylvania State Championship titles with Central York as well as All-League, All-District, and All-State honors. It is Diana who he credits for sparking his interest, but when asked to remember those early moments, Diana can’t.

The culprits for the lapse in her memory are epilepsy and, more specifically, Ring Chromosome 002020 Syndrome (RC20), a rare genetic mutation with fewer than 100 documented cases in the world.  In Diana’s case, 30 percent of the DNA on her 20th chromosome has mutated, which caused seizures, cognitive decline and change in behavior. At a time when Wagner was cruising through the ranks of head coach Todd Goodling’s Panthers, all of the sudden volleyball did not seem as important because of the drastic deterioration in his sister’s health.

Everything started when Hayden was in ninth grade and Diana was in seventh grade.

“Nobody in my family really understood why it was happening, what exactly was going on,” he said. “That was the biggest challenge, figuring out how to get the process going.”

After undergoing numerous neurological and neuropsychological tests to confirm her epileptic condition, Diana immediately began the standard medicinal treatment. As that proved ineffective, the next 15 months were “awful” by all family accounts – Diana’s seizures worsened and began affecting her abilities to walk, talk, go to school, and other everyday motor functions. In a desperate attempt to give her brain rest from nonstop seizures, in the summer of 2013 Diana was put in a medically induced coma in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, with the hope that her brain would reset for the better.

“She was very ill and almost lost her life,” said mother Kira Wagner, who eventually started a non-profit to provide support for, spread awareness about, and encourage research on RC20. “She and I were there for 63 days and she had to go to rehab to relearn how to walk, talk, etc.”

Although work back in York, Pa. forced some normalcy in his lifestyle that summer, Wagner was by no means a bystander while his sister was fighting for her life. He, father Jan and older brother Nathan often made the three-hour round-trip commute to at least provide moral support and inspirit the ladies.

Worried to death about the most important women in his life but realizing that positivity would serve everyone better, Wagner would put all of his energy into generating even the faintest of smiles from his little sister. Going back to a time of few positive memories, with a smile on her face Kira proudly shares pictures of Hayden coming to the hospital dressed in purple, the worldwide symbol of epilepsy awareness.

It was during those challenging months, at an age when typical brother-sister relationships consist of constant bickering and driving their parents insane, that Hayden’s and Diana’s relationship further developed into the strong bond that it is today.

That connection proved vital when it was time for Diana to come out of the coma. When medical professionals tried to get some reaction out of her, such as an eye twitch of the subtlest move of a finger movement, they often got nothing.

Hayden, however, would always break through.

“I would sit next to her and talk to her,” he said. “I would get her to do a little thumb twitch or maybe to even give me the slightest of a smile.

“Those littlest movements were an incredible sign of relief for me, my parents, my brother and the whole community that supported us through it all.”

Finally bringing Diana home brought forth another challenge, one that is still ongoing. As result of the coma she had lost all of her memory of life before it and had to relearn every aspect of it, including the relationships with people she loved.

Once again living under the same roof as his sister, Hayden’s interest in the care-giving process increased even more and he jumped at every opportunity to aid his parents and the at-home nurses in reintroducing Diana to her old life.

“He asked a lot of questions about her medications, doctors and about RC20,” his mother said. “He always reacted well in an emergency and was eager to be a part of the support and solution.”

According to Kira, the experience helped Wagner mature early for his years. In fact, one of her accounts from Philadelphia turned the tables for one of Hayden’s first grown-up decisions of what to study in college.

“My mom would tell me that the doctor would come in once or twice a week just to check in and make sure that everything was ok, but the nurse was there 24/7 to make sure that my sister was doing well,” Wagner said. “So I thought to myself, why would I want to be in charge of 10-15 people and only see them once or twice a week when I can really focus on one, two, or three people and be that strong and caring nurse for a specific individual at a time when he or she needs it?”

Wagner acted on his passion for helping people and enrolled in Mason as a Nursing major last summer.

Largely due to the care and support by the loved ones around her, by the time her brother’s senior season of high school came around, Diana was well enough to join her father – who has missed only two matches in Hayden’s entire career – and mother at every Central York home match. When the Panthers needed it, she would even cheer on them at nearby road matches.

Wagner appreciated the additional support and capped off his high school career in style, picking up 417 kills, 32 service aces, 73 blocks, and nearly 5.0 points per set. He better have, or he would have a problem.

“She has her little notebook where she will keep her stats and make comments,” Wagner said with a hint of nostalgia. “She may not know everyone’s name on the team, but she will use [jersey] numbers and count the errors. If you make an error, she will mark it.”

In the winter Diana made her first RAC appearance, watching the Patriots in action against nationally ranked Loyola Chicago early in the season. Although she could not see Mason win, if you ask her brother, there has not been a match or a practice, a triumph or a fall, a swing or a serve which she has missed in the last five years.

Ever since his freshman season of high school, Wagner has played with shoes commemorating his sister’s struggles. He has been using a variety of features from Diana’s personality, such as her initials (DLW), favorite color (lime green), and the jersey number from her playing days (22). Coming in all styles and designs, all pairs through the years have shared one feature: they have all been purple.

“Once everything happened with my sister, I decided that instead of just playing the game, I want to play the game for her because she can’t anymore,” said Wagner, who was recruited as an outside hitter but was gradually converted into an opposite hitter this season.

In ninth grade Wagner also wore No. 13 on his shoes to honor an epileptic childhood friend as well and Kira Wagner said that’s just the kind of person her son is.

“Honestly, I was not surprised, Hayden is very caring and creative,” she said. “Of course, I am very proud that he took such a dark moment in his life and turned it into a tangible, visual representation of strength, determination, and perseverance. Then he brought that to the volleyball court to enhance his intensity and passion for the sport and the game.”

Given that the team had developed a tradition to wear matching shoes in the past, Wagner thought that coming to Mason would put an end to the purple match-shoe tradition but continued wearing them to practice. During one of the preseason practices head coach Jay Hosack pulled the player on the side and expressed interest in the so-called “story behind the purple shoes”. After a few minutes it had been decided that tradition would continue.

In his first collegiate season, Wagner wore a primarily white Adidas shoes with the laces and the back of the shoe splashed with Mason green. The best feature about them was the “22 Diana” embroidered in white on the outside of the purple tongue which popped nicely in contrast with the green and gold RAC floor.

“As long as they were Adidas I had no reason to say no,” Hosack said. “Everybody has a drive and this is his so I want him to feel comfortable to be himself and feel that he’s part of a family and that we are all here for him.”

Family – the most important thing in this world for Wagner. He may still be looking for his role in his new Mason Volleyball family, but being as talented and social as he is, there is no doubt that he has the time and potential to grow into the cool uncle who everyone loves.

As for Diana, she may not remember how her brother’s volleyball adventure began, but she will certainly remember this chapter of it because now she has a whole bunch of new Patriot brothers who will remind her…and who want to stay in the “Good” section of her notebook.

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