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Painful journey persists for USF catcher Levi Borders

The Bulls' former consensus all-conference pick has suffered from mysterious pain in his lower body for more than two years.
USF catcher Levi Borders is greeted by athletic director Mark Harlan during the Bulls' senior day ceremony in Tampa on April 29, 2018. (Photo by Travis Pendergrass for USF Athletics)
USF catcher Levi Borders is greeted by athletic director Mark Harlan during the Bulls' senior day ceremony in Tampa on April 29, 2018. (Photo by Travis Pendergrass for USF Athletics)
Published May 30, 2018
Updated May 30, 2018

CLEARWATER — He sits in a shaded portion of the Spectrum Field stands, high above and behind home plate. Every now and again on this bright afternoon, USF's Levi Borders gazes at the action below.

The eyes that once elicited stern focus now betray only wistfulness.

"I guess everything happens for a reason, right?" he says.

In a previous life, he had a far more intimate vantage point, crouched directly in front of the umpire. No one loved to catch more than Borders, the firstborn son of a journeyman big-league catcher. And no one could hold a candle to his durability. Dude was Cal Ripken with a chest protector.

In 2015, he started all 61 games behind the plate for USF, exiting only in the waning innings of a blowout victory or hopeless deficit.

"He literally took no off-days," said former Bulls teammate Tommy Eveld, now a reliever in the Diamondbacks organization. "I just remember him being a guy who didn't want to come out of the game. And he didn't want to take his base when he got hit by a pitch either."

But that was one mysterious, horrific medical odyssey ago. A sixth-year senior, Borders remains on USF's roster, but hasn't appeared in a game since March 20, 2016. In the last two years, he has undergone surgery to repair five different hernias and a torn hip labrum. Yet the pain persists.

"It's been very crazy," said Borders' mother, Kathy. "Very frustrating."

He has consulted doctors in Philadelphia, New York, Texas, California, Connecticut, North Carolina, and nearly every major city in Florida. On Wednesday, he was set for another surgery at Duke Medical Center, where his mom said doctors planned to take care of a cyst on or near his spine that could be nudging against a nerve.

"It's been a long, tedious process," said Borders' father, Pat, the 1992 World Series MVP with the Blue Jays. "He's got constant pain all the time, to some degree."

He has just spent this morning on a dugout bench, watching USF fall 4-2 to Wichita State in its American Athletic Conference tournament opener. USF's failure to piece any hits together accounts for only part of his discomfort. The other is the pain in his pelvic area that at this moment, he rates a 7 on a scale of 10.

"I like to think of myself as a pretty tough guy," Borders said. "I usually don't let pain bother me, but pain on a daily basis, this certain type of pain, just starts wearing on not only your body but your mind."

Levi Borders with his parents, Kathy and Pat, at USF’s senior day on April 29. (Travis Pendergrass for USF Athletics)
Levi Borders with his parents, Kathy and Pat, at USF’s senior day on April 29. (Travis Pendergrass for USF Athletics)

The Iron Bull

Durability was but one component in Borders' staggering 2015 season, when USF ended a 13-year NCAA Tournament drought. He also threw out 26 would-be base stealers (second-most in the conference), hit .291 with nine home runs and 45 RBIs, and was a unanimous first-team All-AAC pick by the league coaches.

"He had the mentality of just a bulldog," said former teammate and roommate Kevin Merrell, now a shortstop in the A's organization. "I don't think I've ever had a teammate that had a mentality like him. Catching that many games? You've got to have some serious grit."

RELATED: USF baseball happily relies on consistent Borders

The year before, Borders appeared in 55 games, starting 54 at catcher. A chunk of the off-seasons were spent on the Borders' sprawling family farm in Lake Wales, where Borders and some of his siblings mowed, dug fence posts, put up miles of barbed wire and loaded cattle onto trailers for transport to market.

"He's the type of guy that's always looking for some kind of work," said former USF designated hitter Luke Borders, Levi's younger brother by 14 months. "We have cows and stuff, and he's always fixing the fences, putting up barbed wire. Even in the scorching sun, it doesn't matter."

But by the fall of 2015, Borders began sensing a type of discomfort — which he describes as "burning, aching, cramping" — from his lower back on down. When it failed to dissipate, he winced his way through winter drills and the early stage of the 2016 season, hitting .241 in 16 games (15 as catcher).

"Finally, we went over after a game one night and took him out to dinner, and that's when he was like, 'Mom, I am in so much pain, there are times I don't even want to be out there,' " Kathy Borders said. "Those words have never come out of my child's mouth."

They certainly didn't when he played quarterback at Winter Haven High. Or when he transitioned from shortstop to catcher for the Blue Devils baseball team coached by his dad. Or when the bundle of barbed wire never seemed to shrink on one of those purgatorial July afternoons on the farm. Borders always answered the bell.

Now he couldn't. "I wanted to be there for the guys and be able to enjoy it, finish school and get on with my life," he said. "But the pain just got to where I wasn't enjoying being on the field like I normally do."

Initially, the school announced Borders would miss the rest of the '16 season with a bacterial infection, though his parents say doctors remain unsure if he ever had one. Nonetheless, he took antibiotics intravenously for an extended period, which failed to lessen the pain. USF finished 24-33.

The myriad doctors' appointments followed, and Borders' weight dropped. He contemplated a comeback to the baseball team in 2017, but only a few swings or a brief session of long toss resulted in agony the next morning, thwarting his hopes.

"I'd say he was around 215 (pounds) at his peak," Luke Borders said. "And at one point, he was down to 180."

With pain a perpetual nemesis, Borders struggled to sleep, much less study. Early in the process, he ditched all his medications and painkillers when they began moderately altering his personality.

"He always had his cushion that he sits on, and there were times where you could just tell he didn't really want to (socialize)," recalled Merrell, who lived with the Borders brothers in an apartment complex a relay throw from USF Baseball Stadium.

"He was always nice and stuff, but sometimes he just didn't really want to talk. You could tell it was just weighing on him."

Still, Borders remained in school, accepting the chronic discomfort as what he called his "new norm."

"I have nine kids (ranging in age from 27 to 4), and all of 'em are pretty tough," said Pat Borders, who spent parts of 17 seasons in the majors with nine different clubs. "He defines that definition of being tough, as far as my kids anyway."

On May 2, 2017, Borders underwent a seven-hour surgery in New York City to correct a sports hernia, femoral hernia, umbilical hernia and two inguinal hernias, according to his mother. A tear of his right hip labrum also was found and repaired at that time.

A few days later, he formally received his economics degree from USF, though he didn't participate in the school's commencement exercises.

"Several of the doctors he's gone to were amazed that he continued to play with this, and also got his degree," Kathy Borders said. "All the other patients that they have with this have quit their jobs, quit school. They were really amazed that he was able to finish and continue to play for as long as he did."

Levi Borders behind the plate during a 2015 USF game. (USF Athletics)
Levi Borders behind the plate during a 2015 USF game. (USF Athletics)

Portrait of persistence

Though he has remained on the roster this season and has taken postgraduate classes, Borders said the lingering pain made a comeback essentially implausible. Instead, he has lent a hand wherever he could, attending roughly 90 percent of USF's regular season home games as well as the AAC tournament in Clearwater.

He was recognized with his parents at USF's senior day ceremony on April 29. Kathy Borders said the school has helped foot the bill financially during her son's medical ordeal, and has helped expedite appointments with doctors the family may have struggled to arrange on its own.

"They have been very supportive and a very big help," she said.

The family continues praying the procedure slated for Wednesday, two days before the Bulls begin NCAA Tournament play in DeLand, will alleviate the pain once and for all. A week earlier, while observing the AAC tournament, Borders said a Philadelphia doctor told him if this surgery didn't work, he had "one more trick up his sleeve."

"Hopefully one or the other, or a combination of the two, can get me to where I can be happy," he said.

The old-school catcher would love to get reacquainted with the old normal.

"The hardest part is seeing your child in pain daily, because there's never a break from it," Kathy Borders said.

"There are days that are better than other days, but there's never a break from it — it's every day. That's been the hardest part of this, seeing your child in pain daily. It's been tough. But I do thank God daily that it's nothing awful awful."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.