“In the second game, I started to notice a haze and everything appeared like it was in the distance and things started to flicker. Midway through the second set, I couldn’t see out of my left eye.”
To say that Stafford Slick has his eye on the prize might be an understatement.
When he and Billy Allen won AVP Seattle two weeks ago, it took more than vision for Slick to capture his first professional title. This week, they head to AVP San Francisco as the top seed, but when you flash back to May 2016, it’s nothing short of amazing.
That’s because Slick’s career was almost ended during the AVP New Orleans quarterfinals when a spike caught him full force in the left eyeball and tore his retina. It was perilously close to a full detachment. And that’s why Slick wears those protective goggles that have become part of his beach-volleyball persona.
“I was playing in a night match against Russ Marchewka and Mark Burik,” Slick recalled. “I went to block against Russ Marchewka and he closed his eyes, took a big swing and hit one right through the wickets that hit me square in the left eye. It felt like I had been punched in the face with boxing gloves and I went down instantly.
“I had been hit in the head before, but never been hit so squarely in the eye before. I was seeing stars, but everything appeared to be OK, so I continued to play after the medical time-out.”
That might not have been the best decision the 6-foot-8 blocker from Andover, Minn., has made since he started full time in the pro game in 2011.
But he and Allen closed out that set 21-18.
“In the second game, I started to notice a haze and everything appeared like it was in the distance and things started to flicker,” Slick said. “Midway through the second set, I couldn’t see out of my left eye.
“It was just a super-dense fog. I could make out faint lights, I couldn’t see shapes and I couldn’t see the net, bodies, anything. I leaned over to Billy at that point, and told him, ‘If we don’t win this set, I’m going to forfeit because I can’t see.’
“He asked, ‘Do you want to forfeit right now?’ and I said, ‘No, let’s play it out’. They ended up serving me down my line, and knew something was up, and we lost the second set, and we forfeited the match and were escorted by the medical staff directly to the hospital at Tulane Medical Center.”
At the time, his wife Julie was seven months pregnant with Edison and had watched with alarm. Slick texted her to allay her fears: “I’m fine, I’m just going to the hospital to get checked out, everything’s fine, don’t worry.” Julie called him right away.
“I played it so cool: ‘Oh, nothing, I just got hit, it feels kind of weird, I’m just going to have it checked out, nothing to worry about.’
“I didn’t tell her that I couldn’t see out of it. I have never lied to my wife. That’s the first time I’ve lied to my wife and probably the last time that I will, because she was super-pissed at me for a while.
“Later that night, she asked me, ‘What are you guys going to do tomorrow?’ and I replied, ‘What do you mean, what am I going to do tomorrow? I have to go back to the hospital’. She responded, ‘What? I thought this wasn’t a big deal!’
“So I had dug myself a little hole there.”
That Sunday morning, Slick had an appointment with retinal specialist Dr. Sean O’Sullivan. At this point Slick’s vision had improved markedly so he thought he was recovering well.
After examining Slick, O’Sullivan’s first words were: “Wow!”
The diagnosis was a partially detached retina, one of the largest that O’Sullivan said he had ever seen. Slick’s retina was torn 180 degrees across the back of Slick’s peripheral retina. O’Sullivan’s recommendation: barrier laser surgery, essentially spot welding the torn sites on the retina, which needed to be completed as soon as possible to prevent the retina from sliding off the eye.
“Were the retina to slide off the eye, the procedure for a full retinal attachment is fraught with danger, as explained to Slick:
“The procedure for a full retinal detachment is ridiculous,” Slick said, recalling the anxiety of the day. “They take all the fluid out of your eye, they fill it with gas bubbles, they cryo-freeze the retina back onto the gas-filled eyeball, then you have to lay face down for about two weeks.”
So when could O’Sullivan perform the surgery?
“Right now. I’ll go in the other room, fire up the laser right now.”
O’Sullivan said he thought it went well, despite that he had never performed that much laser on one person ever. He estimated that there were around 1000 laser retinal spot welds.
Slick, of course, had no guarantees of full recovery. The doctor recommended he drive home to California because the eye pressure after take-off and throughout the flight could cause the fluid in his eye to escape and cause a full detachment. He also recommended another doctor visit in Austin, Texas, about eight hours drive west of New Orleans.
Slick saw another specialist who assured him that the fluid levels in his eye had increased, the structural integrity of the eyeball was still intact, that the laser procedure had held and that the eyeball was saved.
At that point he was referred to Dr. Colin McCannell at UCLA, a top retinal surgeon, who looked at the images and was comfortable with Slick flying home. Slick got on a plane at 7:30 a.m. the next day and was in Dr. McCannell’s office by 11 a.m.
McCannell performed yet another surgery that Thursday to reduce pressure on the retina and allow it heal better to the eye.
Incredibly, Slick was back out on the sand 30 days later. McCannell said he needed eye protection to compete, so Slick selected Wiley X nerve goggles, which are military ballistic goggles with exchangeable lenses for night and day usage.
Slick went to test the goggles at practice in Huntington Beach, with Ty Tramblie, and against Michael Brunsting and Chase Frishman.
“About four or five points in, I took a shot in the face, and the goggles held up. It was a little spooky at first, I took two or three minutes to make sure everything was OK, but I threw the goggles back on and off we went.
Slick takes a lot of heckling for the goggles.
“Since then, I’ve embraced the goggles. Rosie’s Raiders called me ‘Horace Grant’ in Austin, which I thought was pretty awesome, pretty funny, because when I played basketball when I was in high school I wore Rec specs due to crappy vision, which I’ve had since second grade.
“It is something I will wear for the rest of my career. I don’t want to mess with it or risk it, they’re just second nature and I’ve embraced them in order to bounce back from that injury. The goggles will allow me to play and compete and do what I love, so the heckling is a small price to pay.”
What’s more, Slick has been able to help a number of people in similar eye protective situations.
“It’s been cool to receive some emails and Facebook messages from people asking ‘What are those goggles? Where can I get a pair? Why do you wear them? I have a buddy that has an eye injury, can you help him out?’
“There are a lot of positives that have come from it.”
It’s funny how things can work out, because Slick wasn’t always interested in volleyball. In fact, before they were married, he got into trouble with his then-girlfriend Julie, who was the captain of her high school team and later became a middle blocker at Michigan Tech.
“There was a couple of times that I fell asleep while watching her games,” Slick recalled. “She would make a monster block, look over to me to see if I was paying attention and my head was sliding off my hand while falling asleep.”
Slick was a two-sport athlete in high school as a relief pitcher in baseball and a center in basketball.
“Baseball was my sport. I loved it. I was on board to continue playing in college, but I was at my current height minus 40 pounds, I weighed about a buck 75, so I didn’t have a whole lot of heat behind my fast ball,” he said with a laugh. “I was more of a placement guy.”
Slick never played any organized volleyball in the juniors ranks, but during freshman orientation at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, they handed out a flyer with potential clubs and activities, and in a spur-of-the-moment impulse, Slick checked the “men’s club volleyball” box.
“I went to open gym and I didn’t know how to jump off of two feet, so I kept running slides. I could get up, I could dunk, I could run slides off of one foot, I thought it was pretty fun. It had all the cool stuff that basketball had, but without getting tossed around because I was frail.”
Slick’s eyes were opened when UM-Duluth competed in the Division II National Intramural -Recreational Sports Association club nationals in Kansas City, Mo. They got to watch top-tier club teams like Arizona, Illinois, and Oshkosh compete.
“That was the biggest volleyball event I had ever been to. As soon as I rode up the escalator, I was just in awe at how much volleyball there was, how fired up people were about it, and how awesome the volleyball was at the DI level.
“As our team was getting crushed at the Division II level, I was thinking, ‘I feel like I can compete against these guys.’ “
Slick transferred to the University of Minnesota, where the club team competed at the DI level. UM volunteer coach Wayne Siegert converted Slick from a middle to an outside, giving him the necessary skills to translate to beach.
It wasn’t long before Slick’s teammates took him down to the shores of Lake Calhoun and introduced him to summer beach volleyball, where Slick began his beach career in a t-shirt and basketball shorts.
He wasn’t short on confidence.
”I remember we were playing at my second or third tournament and the AVP was on and we were all sitting around watching Rosie, Jake Gibb, Stein Metzger, and Mike Lambert, and I walked past it, really not paying it much attention, but looking at that level, I was thinking, ‘I think I could compete with those guys,’ that’s where I want to be, and trying to figure out a way to get there and do that.”
What’s more, he had dealt with tibial stress fractures while competing in club volleyball in grad school.
“I came to the realization that if I was going to play volleyball, I needed to play beach, just because it’s softer and easier on my body. I became more invested in beach”.
After completing his master’s degree in educational psychology, Slick tried out for the USA’s high performance team in Muskegon, Mich., where USA coaches Ali Lamberson Wood and Anjinho Bacil encouraged him to attend a two-week high performance camp two weeks later.
That camp in Hermosa, where Slick now lives, changed his world.
“I flew back home, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Hermosa. It definitely took me some time to adjust to Hermosa sand, and the wide open blue skies, not having any pine trees in my peripheral vision, so it took me a while to adjust to the Hermosa environment, but I fell in love with the South Bay in those two weeks. That was in June, and I moved out in October 2009, to basically try to make it work.
“I cashed in all of my bonus miles, bought a one-way ticket from Minneapolis to L.A., took a couple of suitcases and a couple of deflated volleyballs, and just showed up. It was kind of a risk, but it was something that I wanted to pursue and I felt that I could achieve. It was a roller-coaster right off the bat, as the AVP folded the next year in 2010.”
Which forced Slick to find a real job. He became an educational counselor.
“What that did do for me I had secured a full-time job and establish myself in the South Bay. I was able to get a little financial security with my job, figure out ways to train and practice and get a little creative with that, like taking a really long lunch break in the middle of the day to make it work.
“I started playing those tours: the NVL, the Corona Wide Open, and the Jose Cuervo, and got into that grind. Got into my first main draw with a wild card into Chicago with Dain Blanton. “
He also got back together with his high school sweetheart and began a series of what turned out to be semi-annual events, getting engaged in 2012, getting married April 12, 2014, and having their son in 2016.
Slick is now a part-time post-secondary counselor at the Fusion Academy South Bay, an alternative private school that features one-to-one educational instruction. His campus in Hermosa beach only has 65 full-time students to counsel, offering him the flexibility required by a professional beach volleyball player.
Obviously this year it’s paid off. He and Allen made their first final at AVP New York and then cashed in in Seattle.
“The biggest emotion I felt at that time was relief,” Slick said. “Winning an event was something that I was always striving for, a milestone I wanted to achieve. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s definitely something on my career bucket list that every player wants to hit.”
Even more special was the opportunity for Slick to enjoy it with Julie and Edison, who were at the event. He held Edison in his post-match interview.
“It was really special to be able to share that win in Seattle with my family. My wife works full time, we have our challenges, so both of us are working hard, she doesn’t go to too many events outside of California, for her to be there, and Edison too, is something that he won’t necessarily remember, but I’ll never forget it. It was a really special day.”
Slick attributes much of this year’s success having continuity with Allen. In 2014 he played with Will Montgomery, Adrian Carambula, and Derek Olson, in 2015 with Todd Rogers and Sean Rosenthal, and last year with Allen, Ty Tramblie, John Mayer, Rogers and Burik.
“A huge part of it is playing with one partner in both international and domestic events. Billy and I have been practicing together since November. That measure of consistency has definitely helped.
“Billy and I are working with Jon Daze. He has a good head for the game, runs great practices for us and is influential in the box. It’s nice to have experienced coaching and support for what we’re trying to do in the game. We don’t skip over fundamentals, we do a lot of touches, that sort of Brazilian style with high intensity practices, lots of touches, a controlled environment, then expanding those touches into game-like scenarios. You leave every practice pretty exhausted. You got a good workout in.
“We’ve also done a lot of work strategically with serving. Different drills that reward us for serving in different locations. We’re also running a spread offense, which I’ve wanted to run for a while. I ran it a little bit with Adrian.
“I think that is the future of the game. We’re not trying to be ground-breaking, but we’re trying to figure out creatively where we can push the sport and what our progressions are. Our passing and setting is pretty strong, so that allows us to dictate our offense a little bit more than a more traditional up and down game.”
Talk about vision.
“I don’t think about the eye at all when I play. Not any more,” Slick said last week. “I had Lasik November prior to the injury, and it wiped out my perfect vision in that eye. When I’m playing, it doesn’t even cross my mind.”