In the months that followed a bone cancer diagnosis, Orlando City goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar – more or less – went about the business of being a professional soccer player.
There simply wasn’t time to be slowed down after her received a call that a pain in his leg was Ewing Sarcoma. He treated it like any injury and listened to his options. He found out his recovery time.
The 2015 Homegrown player signee wanted to make sure he could still be a goalkeeper.
“My first thought when I got that phone call from the doctor was, he said it was going to be about a seven-to-eight month process,” Stajduhar said during a May interview with Pro Soccer USA. “The first thought that crossed my mind was, ‘Seven to eight months without being able to play.’ That’s what really brought me down.
“I was absolutely gutted.”
For a while, the pitch was an escape. It was a place he thought about while undergoing treatment.
Toweling off after training, he said playing soccer in Orlando – even with the sun and stifling heat – was what he cared about.
“That’s the only thing I think about,” he said with a smile.
“I feel that my whole life, when I step across the line, everything else goes away. It’s like the whole world falls away and the only thing that matters is the ball, you know?”
He’ll have the time now. There will be less time in the hospital and more on the pitch. There’s time to enjoy his place on Orlando City’s roster.
Stajduhar, 20, was diagnosed in November 2017 and placed on the season-ending injury list. In May, he was cleared to participate in diving drills during training.
On June 19, clad in a suit – he loves fashion and owns five complete suits – Stajduhar rang the bell at the Pediatric Cancer Unit at Orlando Health’s UF Health Cancer Center, signaling the end of six months of treatment.
Stajduhar always knew he’d reach this point.
There were still some low points.
Sitting in a hospital bed, Stajduhar’s thoughts typically wandered to soccer.
For him, it was awful.
“I have two different types of treatment for the chemo,” he said. “One’s a day to a day and a half. One’s five to seven days. During those five to seven days, towards day three or four, those are probably my lowest points, towards the end of those treatments.
“I just want to get out of the hospital and get back here and be able to train and play.”
He would play video games or listen to music – Call of Duty: WWI or the rap trio “Migos,” respectively – but inevitably, he’d think about Sylvan Lake Park and his teammates.
“A lot of times it’s just sitting and thinking about getting back out here on the field,” he said. “It’s almost like torturing yourself. You want to be back on the field so much, but the more you think about it, the worse you feel being stuck in the hospital.”
Plus, when he was first diagnosed, he was told the safest option for him would be surgery that included a knee reconstruction.
“I was like, ‘Crap. That’s probably a whole year gone,’” Stajduhar said.
He didn’t want to halt his development as a player, so he said no to surgery.
“For me, it was never a choice,” he said. “It was always radiation. It was easy, for me.
“My parents were … not skeptical, but cautious, I would say, about doing radiation over surgery. The surgeon, the oncology surgeon, he OK’d it. He said, ‘It’s not ideal, but I think with your situation, it’ll be OK.’ Once he said that, my parents were on board with me as well.”
He had the support of his parents and his girlfriend, but his mother was worried.
“My mom … she just wants me to stay safe and stay healthy through the treatment process so I can finish it,” he said. “They have a more long-term, bigger picture, I would say, than myself. They try to pull me back in from me going too far.”
Every step of the way, Orlando City has been there for Stajduhar.
Without OCB, Stajduhar’s been training 100 percent with the first team. In particular, he’s spent time with goalkeeper Joe Bendik.
Bendik is a mentor and player-coach for Stajduhar. He’s also a friend – someone who provided an Xbox for Stajduhar to play during treatments and a steadfast teammate in the online shooter game “Fortnite.”
Bendik arrived in Orlando in 2016 and started working with Stajduhar soon after that. Bendik, an MLS veteran at that point, said Stajduhar needed some coaching. It was clear Stajduhar had the work ethic, he just needed a guiding hand.
“For us, he never really slowed down,” Bendik said. “He was just kind of held out of things. For every time I talked to him, I’d be like, ‘How are you feeling?’ And he’d say, ‘I’m good. I’m good.’
“You wouldn’t even know it. He’s just a strong individual character. His work ethic is incredible.”
Bendik was dealing with a concussion toward the end of the 2017 season, which meant he got a chance to chat with Stajduhar during Orlando City’s Nov. 4 charity match to benefit Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
“I just remember being really confident,” Bendik said. “I had heard that he was diagnosed with cancer and he wasn’t going to be back until July and all of these things and he’s sitting up in the stands telling me how he needs to go about getting games so he can get some minutes.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Dude, you’ve got to go through chemo, you’ve got to go through radiation. Don’t even think about that.’”
By the time Bendik finished talking to Stajduhar after that charity match, he knew Stajduhar would be just fine.
“It wasn’t even a question for me,” Bendik said.
Orlando City goalkeeper coach Tim Mulqueen said he’s never worked with a player recovering from a cancer diagnosis. He immediately jumped into research to make sure the cancer was survivable.
“My first concern was Mason and his long-term health,” Mulqueen said. “Soccer became secondary. I’ve known Mason for a long time, since he was a kid, so my first concern was for him. Speaking to him, his positive outlook just permeated through everything and it brought me back to life, so to speak.
“It gave me a positive outlook toward how he was going to defeat this.”
Back at it
Now, with chemo in the past, Stajduhar can look toward his next steps with Orlando City.
If he ever wants to start for Orlando City (he hasn’t appeared in an MLS match yet), he’ll have to get past three other goalkeepers. He’s still out for the season and has a ways to go before he’s mimicking German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, his favorite player.
“It’s a difficult task, but I feel like once you conquer all of the adversity and stuff leading up to it, that makes you better,” he said. “One day, I’ll be sitting at the top.”
He’s had his naysayers – nowhere near enough to outweigh the support he’s received.
“It doesn’t matter what other people think or what they say,” he said. “The only opinion that I think matters for everyone is their own opinion. If you think you’re the best, that’s what eventually will happen. You’ll be the best.
“I feel that I can do anything. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Just extreme self-confidence and self-belief. With that, I can take on anything.”