MARS — Matthew Ferraro felt the pain growing in his lower back.
No stranger to muscle pulls and bumps and bruises as a wrestler at North Catholic High School, Ferraro shrugged it off.
“It just got worse and worse and worse,” Ferraro said.
Still, he went out and wrestled in the Class AA Southwest Regional after winning the section title at 138 pounds and placing fourth in the WPIAL, and went 1-1 on the first day in 2018.
By the second day, the pain was unbearable.
His left leg went numb. He couldn't sit. He couldn't lie down and could barely stand.
He started having chills and then both legs went numb.
That's when he went to the emergency room and his life nearly changed forever.
An MRI revealed an epidural abscess the size of a softball that had burrowed its way into one of his lower back muscles and had actually broken off a piece of bone in Ferraro's spine as it expanded.
It also was pressed against his bladder.
Ferraro endured a seven-hour emergency surgery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and was told he may never wrestle again.
“They said two more days, tops, there would have been a 50 percent chance that I would have been paralyzed from the waist down and a 20 percent chance that I would have died,” Ferraro said.
No one is sure what caused the runaway infection.
There are theories.
Not long before the abscess formed, Ferraro had a root canal. He also suffered an injury on the mat during practice when he scraped off some skin on the side of his back.
To Ferraro, it didn't matter how it happened. He's just glad he was able to overcome it.
“Three to four days (after the surgery) I was walking — shakily,” Ferraro said.
His recovery was much quicker than expected, in fact.
The original prognosis was Ferraro would have to stay in a rehabilitation center, but he was able to skip that entirely.
Ferraro said his physical fitness from being a wrestler helped his recovery tremendously.
“They said that was the biggest reason why I was able to avoid the rehab center,” Ferraro said.
The health scare set Ferraro back on the mat during his senior year this past season, even though he set a career high in wins at 145 and 138 pounds this winter with 25.
He finished his career at North Catholic — which didn't have a team for three of his four seasons — with 88 victories.
Ferraro said he was debating whether or not to wrestle in college before the abscess, but decided after to go all in at the next level.
He signed with Division II Mercyhurst University Friday.
“I figured I put 15 years into this,” Ferraro said, “and after going through that issue last year and getting back on the mat, it would be kind of weird to not keep wrestling.”
Ferraro said the experience didn't necessarily change him — he's always been positive and the type to seize opportunities when they come. But it definitely put things in perspective.
“It was more of reinforcement to not take things for granted,” Ferraro said. “After the surgery, they said there was a good chance I'd never wrestle again and I wasn't going to let that happen.”