“Being an athlete allowed me to look at the treatment plan and see the end, you know that after the nine-week process, the data shows that it works about 95 percent of the time. My mentality was to endure it, get through it, and I was likely to be fine and healthy.”
— Matt Prosser
The AVP Hermosa qualifier begins Thursday and 86 teams will be competing for eight spots in the main draw. No matter what happens, 38-year-old Matt Prosser is already a winner.
That’s because Prosser received extraordinarily good news July 9 when his oncologist —actually weeping with joy — declared his testicular cancer in remission after a rigorous nine-week course of chemotherapy. Prosser had that testicle removed just more than three months ago, on April 5.
When the AVP last stopped in Hermosa Beach in 2010, Prosser was a finalist with John Mayer. Thursday he is seeded 38th in the qualifier with partner Eric Beranek, but this tournament is certainly more significant than seven years ago, considering what he’s overcome.
“It was a huge relief when you rewind it four months and you were told that you have testicular cancer and now everything is back to normal,” Prosser said this week. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me.
“I’m excited to be back to normal and be a better person and a better dad because of this challenge. It was a huge psychological challenge that I had a huge amount of support from friends and family and the volleyball community.
“For me it’s being able to play again, it’s also that the last time the AVP was here in Hermosa, John and I were in the finals, so that’s some sentimental value to me too.”
Prosser, who works in medical sales for the Stryker Corporation, assisting doctors with products to repair and reconstruct ACLs, PCLs, torn labrums and the like, even provided products for Reid Priddy’s ACL reconstruction.
He was born in Oxnard Calif., spent nearly his entire life in nearby Ventura. He was a multi-sport athlete growing up, tall but relatively thin.
“I didn’t like the boxing out in basketball, nor throwing elbows, and I was never a football guy and I was too tall for soccer,” Prosser said. “ One day I asked my dad to teach me how to play volleybal and I learned with starting to pass in the front yard. I got hooked.”
Prosser, a middle blocker, played at Buena High School in Ventura from 1994-1997, and at the Seaside Volleyball Club in San Diego, where they won the 18s national championship in 1997. It was during those years that he started playing beach in Ventura with a much older and more experienced group.
It was also at the Seaside Volleyball Club that he gained the attention of Alan Knipe, who recruited him to Long Beach State. Prosser was a three-time All-American and the Beach made it to the NCAA championship match in 1999. Prosser played a year professionally in Maribor, Slovenia in 2003, and then served as an assistant coach to Knipe from 2004-08 while completing his degree in broadcast journalism.
But Prosser’s first love was always the beach, despite being a middle blocker, not required to pass or play defense.
“It was definitely a challenging transition. It took a long time, and I’m still trying to master how to set the ball on the beach,” he said with a laughs. “I’ve been out of college for 20 years. That’s the thing that I’ve always liked about beach volleyball, you become a more well-rounded player. Most of my indoor career was before the libero, so I did get to play defense and pass in rare instances.
“Passing has always been a fun skill and setting is extremely important. It was difficult to even become good at for me. I’m a bump setter, not a hand setter, because I never wanted to give up points to the other team because of hand setting and just getting really good at bump setting.”
Prosser’s game was peaking in 2010, when he finished second in AVP Hermosa with Mayer, but the tour went bankrupt following the next event in Long Beach.
The year before — on July 17, 2009, he met Kristen Ursillo.
“I was in my second year of law school,” Kristin recalled. “I wasn’t playing volleyball any more, but on a whim, I wanted to play with a friend, Krystal Jackson. I had seen Matt before, but we hadn’t really spoken. He came down to meet me and he had gone to high school with Krystal, so she introduced us as we were warming up for the first round of the qualifier and that was sort of it.
“I asked him if he wanted to watch my game and he said, ‘That’s why I’m here,’ and then he went over and introduced himself to my family. We qualified that day, and made it to Saturday, and he basically spent the weekend with me and my family. We’ve been together ever since.”
That day they met was also significant for Krystal Jackson. Prosser introduced her to one of his old college teammates, Curtis Jackson, and they also are married.
The Prossers have two children, 3-year-old Nolan and Welles, 1, and after Welles was born, Prosser considered a vasectomy, put it off and then scheduled one for this past February. His urologist noticed an irregularity on one of his testicles and the ultrasound showed a carcinoma on the testicle, requiring a CT scan for further review.
It showed that the cancer had traveled up two lymph nodes, one in Prosser’s abdomen, and one in the diaphragm with the diagnosis of Stage 2b non-seminoma testicular cancer.
Kristen, now general counsel for the Fairly group, a company that practices sports entertainment law, with clients like the NFL, Major League Baseball and entertainment studios, was stunned.
“I wasn’t with him when he received the diagnosis. I was on a business trip in Burbank. My reaction was shock, he‘s so big and strong, and healthy, a professional athlete, you don’t think that happens to that demographic,” Kristin said. “Up to that point, we’d lived a very blessed life and a special story, we had been kind of invincible, so for that to happen, it felt like everything we knew didn’t make sense for a while, that was the hardest part.”
The surgery was April 5.
“I felt completely normal leading up to this,” Prosser said. “I had no signs of illness, I was in good athletic shape, I was trying to work out and be in shape, I felt completely normal. For the doctor to tell me that ‘you have cancer,’ it was challenging information to be told.
“Life was good, I had two healthy children, work was good, you get thrown this curve ball and it’s something you’re not really prepared for. You have to deal with it, and move forward.
“Once I got the diagnosis, the most important thing was to get informed and determine a treatment path. Second, was to learn if the condition is hereditary. Fortunately, it was not and I was able to take refuge in the fact that it was just me that would have to deal with this process and not the boys. I wanted it to be me and nobody else. I took solace in that.
“I wrapped my head around that, and then it came down to figuring out what was going to be the best treatment plan. I looked at it a lot like athletics. Training, making a plan, and being better at what I needed to be better at in order to improve, and we saw five different doctors, got five opinions on a treatment plan, and they all recommended the same protocol. They all recommended three cycles of chemotherapy. That was the hardest thing for me to take.”
That was exhausting.
“Each cycle was three weeks and it was not fun. It was a lot of long days at an infusion center in Santa Monica. You sit in a recliner, and they hook you up to an IV bag, and you take in all the medication.
“In the three-week cycle, the first week is five days in a row of five hours a day of chemotherapy infusions. The second and third week are just that Monday for two hours. So the first week of the cycle was pretty challenging, but the second and third weren’t that bad.
“I never got extremely ill, but I got run down, I felt tired and lethargic, I didn’t have an appetite, I felt hung over. You’re getting all these chemicals pushed into your body that make you feel hung over.
“Being an athlete allowed me to look at the treatment plan and see the end, you know that after the nine-week process, the data shows that it works about 95 percent of the time. My mentality was to endure it, get through it, and I was likely to be fine and healthy.
“I have an amazing support team, Kristen was amazing. She was a rock. She made it much more easy for me. Both mine and her parents helped out. With two young children at home I was pretty much useless during chemotherapy.
“I lost the hair on my head, my beard is spotty. I haven’t had any hair since mid-May and it’s a lot easier. The only thing I have to worry about now is getting sunburned, because the chemo makes me a little more sensitive to the sun.
“After the chemo was done, I had a CT scan July 5th, I got my results on the 7th, which showed that the chemotherapy drugs did their job, the lymph nodes had shrunk to near-normal sizes, giving me a clean bill of health. I have to follow up every three months or so to keep an eye on things, but the recurrence rate is extremely low because of the treatment path, so now I’m trying to get life back to normal.”
Normal for Prosser means back to playing volleyball, although he will play with a chemo port embedded in his chest:
“I wasn’t expecting to play in Hermosa, I was originally looking towards Manhattan, but I had been playing during the chemo, I was able to play about once a week during the easy weeks. I’ve been able to play about six weeks, and about the last two weeks I’ve been able to train at a high level.”
After texting nearly everyone on his phone in an effort to find a partner, Prosser settled on the 20-year-old Beranek, a top qualifier.
“I reached out to Ian Satterfield, another former 49er, trying to see who needed partners, who was available and Ian gave me Eric’s number. I explained the situation. He’s young, he’s got a big gas tank, he’s fast, we’re going to give it a real solid effort and see what we can do.
“We are able to practice for our first time this week. Volleyball is really a haven for me.,” said Prosser, who went into Thursday’s AVP as the 37th seed in the qualifier with Beranek. They were scheduled to play Robert deAurora and John Schwengel.
The significance of this week isn’t lost on Kristin Prosser.
“To touch mortality is a gift most people our age don’t get to feel,” Kristin said. “We’re in our 30’s. We’re not what you think a family that deals with cancer looks like. To be able to have that, so that every single minute, its feels more. It touches more. You feel every day more. We love each other that much more. We play with our kids with that much more joy.
“That was what I took away from this experience. Play in that tournament. Go on that trip. Let’s take our children down to the beach, even though it’s bedtime. Let’s do those things that you sort of forget to do when you’re just living.”