Montour's Stefko proof 'miracles do happen'
When Andy Stefko lifts the sleeve of his Montour volleyball shirt to reveal a ragged scar wrapped around his right bicep, you better understand why teammates call the 16-year-old an inspiration.
Stefko has worn the scar for three years, a gnarly path where a shattered windowpane sliced through his skin, muscle, nerves and an artery.
"It's weird, because I still can't feel my first three fingers: my thumb, my pointer and my middle finger," said Stefko, a junior at Montour, who needed three units of blood and five hours of surgery to survive and then repair an injury that he believes nearly killed him.
"All I have is some sensation," he said while rubbing his fingers together, before matter-of-factly adding a remarkable part of his recovery story: "Those are the three I use to set the ball."
And, yet, Stefko still sets exceptionally well. He's a first-year starter for a Montour varsity program that's nearing its 27th consecutive trip to the WPIAL playoffs, and he has played an important role on court and off.
"He's a leader because he understands you don't always get a second chance whether that's in life or sports," Montour coach Brendon Aleski said. "His appreciation level is higher than most kids."
With his sleeve down, Stefko's 6-foot-3 build fits his status as one of the better setters in the WPIAL. He leads the Spartans with 279 assists. But with his sleeve pulled up, the scar gives the first clue that Stefko has overcome long odds.
"The fact that he's still playing — and the fact that he's still alive — is a testament that miracles do happen," said friend and teammate Michael Kochis, an outside hitter who benefits from Stefko's sets. "I think about it every time we're on the court."
Within these past three years, Stefko also has broken his right arm twice while snowboarding, dislocated the thumb on his left hand playing volleyball and underwent surgery to cut a painful cyst from the first joint of his right index finger — a procedure that required a bone graft from his wrist.
And he hasn't missed a volleyball season since he started playing in fifth grade.
"I just love the sport," Stefko said. "I could have given up volleyball, but I didn't want to."
Stefko nearly had no choice on May 25, 2007, when he was at a party celebrating a friend's birthday. During a game of capture-the-flag, Stefko, then 13, hopped over some hedges that were near the neighbor's house, not realizing there was a window behind them. His momentum carried his right arm through the glass.
"When I pulled it out, I looked down and saw my bone. And I saw blood squirting like a fountain," said Stefko, who began shouting for help from the family hosting the party. "Zach Wockenfuss and his parents saved my life. They used a belt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding."
Stefko was taken by ambulance to Allegheny General Hospital for emergency surgery to stop the bleeding. The surgeons also worked to reattach his median nerve, which had retracted into his arm like a snapped rubber band.
"I didn't realize how serious it was until the trauma doctor called me," said his mother, Cheryl, who was two hours into a drive to Penn State when the accident happened. "The trauma doctor told me Andy's arm was ice cold, snow white and had no movement when he arrived. That's when it hit me."
"They didn't think I was going to move my fingers for 9 to 12 months after surgery," Stefko said, "but when I woke up the next morning they asked me to move my fingers, and I moved them. The doctors who were there were calling others in to see. They said this is awesome."
That gave Stefko motivation for nine months of physical rehabilitation. He wore a brace on his right hand as a freshman and sophomore, but has shed even that support this season.
"I want to cry when I watch him play," said Cheryl, who attributes the recovery to the prayers and support of friends. "People say it's a miracle."
Stefko said it took time to overcome his hesitance, but that's no longer an issue. He has 36 kills this season, an aggressive approach that matches his growing confidence but makes his coach nervous at times.
"Part of it is concern for his health," Aleski said, "and part is because he's very important to us. We don't have anybody who could do as good of a job as Andy. As a player and as a person, he's irreplaceable."