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By Nick Ellis/ Special to The Californian
By LOUIS AMESTOY, Director of Audience Development email@example.com
You really have to have a pretty good reason to want to drive to Stockton -- at any time -- but especially if it requires an immediate turnaround back to Bakersfield.
That was weighing on me last Saturday morning. The Bakersfield Condors were on the verge of team history: a win would close out their series with Stockton and propel them into the ECHL's Western Conference finals. I also like spending time with grumpy Mike Griffith, the Bakersfield Californian's most veteran employee, and who has covered sports here for 37 years.
Two pretty good reasons to make that drive up the 99, but I still wasn't convinced.
Then Ryan Holt, the Condors amiable play-by-play man, called with a desperate plea early Saturday morning. "Are you coming up?" he asked with urgency. "I'm not sure," I said. "If you can come up, you can do us a huge favor?"
Turns out that Condors player Matt Thurber, who most, including Thurber, figured was done for the season, was going to play Saturday night, but the team had forgotten one key thing that would allow the 24-year-old from Beaver Dam, Wisc., to play.
"Can you bring his jersey up?" Holt asked.
Who could say no? I couldn't.
Game 5 closeout, hanging with Griff, and bringing a jersey up for Thurber. Game on. So, I drove to Rabobank Arena, fetched the jersey from a security guard, hung it in the back of my 2003 Honda Accord and hit the road.
Now, Thurber's story is compelling. Last month, it was uncertain if he'd play again this season. During the Utah playoff series, Thurber became ill, vomiting so violently he tore his esophagus. He remembers nothing, not even a helicopter ride from one Salt Lake City hospital to another.
"I didn't even know I was in a different hospital at first," said Thurber, who lost six pints of blood and needed numerous transfusions. "I had the opportunity to have great support from my family, my fiance, and had great doctors there who really helped me get through all of that. It was a very scary experience."
But on Friday, Thurber gained medical clearance to play and the only thing holding him back was a uniform. So, up the 99 I drove with purpose. Through blowing dust, cow poop and boredom.
Arriving about 6 p.m., I was greeted by Holt, who snatched the jersey, drug me into the arena and disappeared. About 15 minutes into the first period, with the Condors trailing, I started thinking this was a really dumb idea. Visions of the trek south was starting to feel ominous (about 2:30 a.m. on the way back it did feel that way).
The Condors were playing some uninspired hockey and by the time the second period rolled around they were down 3-0. Thurber wasn't going to be used much by coach Troy Mann, but that began to change. He played a bit in the first period, played a lot in the second, winning several faceoffs, and seemed to help get the team back on its feet during that key second period.
"I thought he was a little bit rusty in the first period, but I thought he was good the rest of the game," said Mann of Thurber's performance.
Then the Condors blasted the Thunder, silencing the vocal home crowd, with two quick goals in the waning minutes of the second period to cut the lead to 3-2. In the third period, a different Condors team showed up and Stockton withered under the pressure.
"Being three goals down was pretty wild," Thurber said. "Those two at the end of the second really helped get the momentum back. It was a huge win for us."
With a 5-3 win, Thurber had just played a key part in a historic Condors win. You could argue that we were part of the story, but in the end we were helping a young man get back on his feet.
And in my book, everyone deserves a favor.