BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — This year's matchup between Traverse City Central and Traverse City West in football was the Patriot Game, honoring veterans.
The hockey version is the Anton Game.
At today's rivalry game at Howe Arena, both teams will be honoring TC West sophomore Erik Anton, who came down with a rare spinal affliction two weeks ago and was paralyzed from the chest down. He's since improved and could eventually make a full recovery.
TC West (2-4) is coming into the game riding a two-game winning streak — including knocking off No. 9-ranked Alpena last Friday — after starting the season 0-4. The Titans will also get one of their top players — Collin Peters — back from a two-game suspension for a check from behind against Hancock on Dec. 8.
Central (5-1), meanwhile, is coming off its first loss and is ranked No. 2 in Division 2.
While the rivalry game is always a big deal, it's taking a little bit of a back seat to Anton's situation.
"It's definitely an empty space," said West teammate Jake Saxton, who played on Anton's line. "We miss him a lot. There's a special place in my heart for Erik. He's like a brother to me."
Each school is selling T-shirts with #EA19 — a Twitter hashtag bearing Anton's initials and jersey number — for $5 to raise funds to help the family. Both teams will also be sporting helmet stickers supporting both Anton and Trevor Franklin, another West player who is going to miss most — if not all — of the season after a back injury from a November car accident.
Nick Schultz — who was Anton's team mentor last year and a linemate this season — has carved the jersey numbers of both missing Titans into the back of his hair.
"He's a strong kid and he's got youth on his side," Schultz said of Anton. "He'll fight. He works hard in practice and workouts, so I know he'll pull through."
Anton's trouble started Dec. 2.
As myelitis often does, its onset was very quick.
Anton played tennis the previous Saturday and helped cut the family Christmas tree on Sunday. That afternoon, there was some complaint about aches and stiffness in his back and legs.
By that Monday evening, he was having trouble walking and after a late-night MRI at Munson Medical Center he was on his was to Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids by 3 a.m.
He was paralyzed from the ribcage down.
"I first heard about it the day of," said Saxton, who has been teammates with Anton for eight straight years. "Jeff (Linenger) told me that he couldn't move or anything. I sent him a text and said, 'I'm here for you. The whole team is here for you. Keep fighting.'
"I was with him that Friday and then hung out with him on the weekend. Then Monday comes around he can't walk."
And Erik is one of the lucky ones. About one-third of transverse myelitis sufferers end up with permanent paralysis and another third have symptoms the rest of their life — a limp, using a walker, among others.
Anton, however, appears to be in the other one-third — the one that makes a full or nearly full recovery.
"Right now, it's looking like he'll eventually make a full recovery," said Erik's father, Mike Anton. "We don't know how fast that will be."
A week ago, doctors said Anton would be at Mary Free Bed in Grand Rapids for six weeks. With every step he takes in physical therapy, that estimate keeps shrinking.
"It's pretty scary," Mike Anton said from the hospital, where Erik is still recovering and performing physical therapy. "For a good week, he had no movement in his legs at all. He's doing great. Every day, he's progressing by leaps and bounds. He's kind of the miracle recovery around here right now. A week ago, he couldn't even move his legs. Then he started walking with a walker and a cane."
He can now walk short distances unassisted, although it's tiring, often needing to sit down.
"He wants to get out of here by Christmas — and he's working hard to do it," Mike Anton said.
According to www.myelitis.org, about 1,400 cases of transverse myelitis occur yearly.
John Linenger was supposed to pick Anton up that Monday for practice.
"That morning that he was not feeling so well, I went to his house to pick him up for morning workouts," Linenger said. "He texted me and said he wasn't going to make it. I was with him the day before, and he was acting completely normal. Twenty-four hours later, he said he couldn't feel his legs and they took him to the hospital right away.
"I used to go over to his house and play on his rink in the winter. He's been like a brother to me and with me pretty much every day. I was scared at the beginning. But I saw him (Sunday) and he was doing a lot better. At first, he was paralyzed from the chest down and now he can walk and he's up and he's trying to climb stairs. He gets a little tired as he's walking, but it's definitely good to see him."
Word spread quickly through the team and school on Dec. 4.
"I just thought he was sick (Monday) and didn't think anything of it," Schultz said. "Tuesday comes, and someone walks in and said, 'Hey, did you hear what happened to Erik?' I didn't even see it coming. It shocked me, big-time. It's our second season-ending injury for a player that involved their back."
After last week's game between the Titans and Bay Reps, both teams posed for photos with Anton's jersey in what West coach Jeremy Rintala called an "emotional" night for his team.
Anton's parents have set up a website at www.carepages.com/carepages/ErikAnton where they provide daily updates on his progress.
Saxton visited Anton last weekend.
"He was up and in good spirits," Saxton said. "Obviously, he was disappointed he couldn't be here with us. It was good to see him. He's making progress."