By Charles O’Brien
Quakertown, PA/Flemington, NJ – Any minute now, Austin Mininger will begin his game day rituals as he prepares to take the ice for the New Jersey Renegades, a Tier III junior team in the first-year North American 3 Atlantic Hockey League. The opponent does not matter. The rink could be any one of the numerous tri-state facilities. The outcome of today’s game is not relevant and the 19-year old forward is indifferent to his place on head coach Peter Rossi’s depth chart.
While every aspect of the game matters to players locked into battles with countless others in the hopes of being “noticed” for their opportunity, whether to advance to a higher level or a chance to land one of the ultimate prizes: a college hockey opportunity or a chance to play professionally, it’s different for Austin. Each day the five-foot-ten forward steps out on to the ice for another day, he again stakes his claim to a bigger prize: life.
Unbeknownst to his teammates, opponents, parents, and even those who knew him best, Mininger’s biggest, and most important, face off, hasn’t been with an opponent on the ice, but rather, an opponent off of it. Mininger has spent the last 11 years of his life battling his innermost thoughts, ones which threatened to not only end his playing career, but to end his life.
“Everybody has his or her fight and this is mine,” he said.
Mininger’s playing career begins just like so many others: taking to the ice at an early age, seven in Austin’s case, falling in love with sport and not looking back.
“I think I am a little too young to remember my first time on the ice,” he says. “But I do remember certain experiences, such as my first goal.”
Trying other sports such as soccer and baseball, Mininger preferred the faster pace of hockey and decided to focus his energies.
“There was just something about hockey,” he reflects. “I just knew that that was the sport I wanted to take to a higher level.”
Through a friendship with Jake Leamer, Mininger’s first junior opportunity came with the Walpole Express of the former Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. Although he didn’t move to Massachusetts with a set goal, Mininger, then just 16-years old, hoped to gain the exposure he couldn’t get in his small Pennsylvania town. He desired to parlay his time with the Express into an opportunity, any opportunity, to get further in hockey, be it with an advanced junior league, major juniors, or a collegiate opportunity.
Although the loose understanding was that Mininger would advance from the Walpole program within two years, it didn’t go quite as scripted. The next 18 months would be the rockiest period of not only Mininger’s playing career, but of his young life.
To fully understand how those dark days came to be, Austin explains that his first set of issues arose long before his junior hockey career.
“When I was about eight years old, I started having some problems in school,” he begins. “I was getting constant headaches, went for an MRI and was diagnosed with a chiari malformation.”
A chiari malformation is a condition where brain tissue, specifically in the cerebellum, extends into the spinal canal. While treatment varies depending on the severity of the condition, medication can be administered while the malformation is monitored for changes. Doctors could also perform laminectomy (surgical removal of the back part of the vertebrae to relieve pressure) or a decompressive crainiectomy (removal of part of the skull so that an injured brain can swell without being squeezed), but the Miningers opted not to not proceed with surgery because there was not a guarantee that either procedure would improve the Austin’s quality of life. However, the exploration of the surgical process left quite the impression on a vulnerable child.
“[The malformation] wasn’t really the main problem (in Walpole), but it extends from it,” he continues. “After meeting with a specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, just learning about the surgical process, the next morning, something was different, something had changed.”
Mininger then had difficulty completing subsequent school days and struggled with separation anxiety from his parents, to the point where he was asked not to return to school until the issues were resolved. After years of searching for the cause of his emotional struggles, Mininger was diagnosed with Pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections, or PANDAS.
PANDAS is a hypothesis that a subset of children exist, suffering from the rapid onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or tic disorders, which are brought on by the presence of an untreated strep virus in the body, which then interferes with basal ganglia functions of the brain. While PANDAS is not validated as an actual disease, or listed as a diagnosis by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Mininger was certainly feeling the impact of this autoimmune disorder. Essentially, his body was starting to attack itself, causing severe OCD, anxiety and depression.
After his symptoms began as a third grader, Mininger was never able to complete a full year of school, although he was able to graduate high school through an online program.
“It was scary to me, so I was just unable to go back to school,” he says with an emotional tickle in his voice, as he intimately shares aspects of his life he’s never shared in this form.
“When I went to Walpole, a big part of that decision was that I wasn’t going to a school building, I would be taking cyber courses, but even then, it didn’t work out.”
Despite suffering through bouts of depression, Mininger refers to his first year with the Express as successful. But as he was preparing for his second year, things worsened.
“It was extremely difficult,” he continued. “I was set to begin play in the Eastern Hockey League and a month into it, I knew something was wrong again. I started to do things to myself, I started to hurt myself, I started to resort to cutting, which was something I never thought I would have done, but I figured that if I took the pain out on myself, I wouldn’t have to feel anything going on around me.”
Mininger struggled to materialize and maintain friendships, struggled to participate in things because he didn’t want to be around other people, was scared of crowds, and was scared of what people thought of him. He’d gotten used to feeling different and the only place he’d been able to feel like himself was on the ice, and it too, was now just another place where Mininger’s demons had taken over.
“The OCD was starting to take over my life, he said. “Whenever I was going through a compulsion, or a ritual, I thought I was hearing a voice in my head and it escalated and started telling me to do other things. It was almost like it wasn’t me anymore. When it became too much, I just got really depressed and one thing led to another. Depression led to cutting. Cutting led to suicidal thoughts.”
Scared by the fact that he enjoyed what he was now doing to himself, Mininger made the difficult call to his parents to return home and to seek help. To ultimately get the help he need, Mininger was prepared to walk away from the game that he always found solace in, until a timely call from Rossi changed that plan.
“He reached out to me and said ‘I don’t want you to walk away from the sport that you love’, Mininger said. “I’d rather you stay on the ice and have something to look forward to.”
Had that call not happened, Mininger was indeed ready to walk away from the game.
“I was thinking that if I can’t beat this, if I can’t get better, I can’t play hockey anymore and then there’s nothing worth living for,” he said. “But, when I realized that it was starting to affect my hockey, that was the turning point.”
Rossi previously offered Mininger a spot with his Renegades, but Austin opted to pursue the opportunity with Walpole. Rossi never held that rejection against the young player, displaying compassion above and beyond his position, and offered Austin a place on his team rather than letting him walk away from the game. Rossi learned of Mininger’s story through Austin’s longtime friend, Steven Violett, a forward and team leader for the Renegades for the past three seasons.
Mental illness is near and dear to Rossi’s heart because his younger brother lost his own battle with mental illness, ultimately taking his own life, and in his memory, the Renegades host an annual Suicide Prevention Awareness game.
“The situation with my brother definitely made it more personal for me,” Rossi said. “Since my brother’s passing, I have tried to raise awareness for mental illness and remove the stigma around talking about it.
“The Renegades support this cause. We discuss it with our players and try to be a safe place for our players away from the stresses of life.”
Even then, Austin wasn’t sure he could beat his inner voices and return to something he enjoyed.
“I was talking to my parents and I said, maybe I can’t do it; maybe it’s not enough,” Austin continued. “I came to the point where I was almost thinking that this disorder, these thoughts, they defeated me, so if Pete wouldn’t have offered, I don’t think I would be playing hockey anymore and because hockey was my escape, I don’t know where that would have ended up.
“When I was depressed, that led into having suicidal thoughts and I thought I’d be better off dead, which is a scary thought, but that was my reality. The only thing that kept me going was the possibility of what could happen [with] hockey. I thought that hockey was the only chance I had to make something of myself. It was all I felt I had worth living for and Coach Rossi gave me that chance. He helped save my life.”
Sharing these statements brings out visible and audible emotion in Mininger. He’s never shared those words with anyone, including Rossi.
With a renewed focus on getting his career back on track, Mininger knew that if he was to move towards being a functioning adult, he had to make changes, especially if he was to take advantage of his new lease on the ice.
Mininger and his family temporarily relocated to Florida to get Austin the treatment needed to get his life back in order. The treatment like so many others the family has endured over the years was expensive and the years of in and outpatient treatments, psychiatrists and psychologists, alternative schools and special treatments, have certainly taken a financial toll on the family_Austin suggests that it’s a big reason why he never spent money flying to various tryouts because he had other financial commitments.
Austin returned from Florida and finished his 2015-16 season with the Renegades and is excited about the possibilities ahead of him in ’16-’17. With life slowly making its way back on track, Austin is no longer afraid to share his story, hoping that his tale can serve as inspiration to others who may feel like they are in a similar place he has since crawled out of.
“In the hockey community, I haven’t really heard a story quite like the one I’ve had to tell,” he said. “I’ve met other kids who’ve been able to get through PANDAS with treatment, but unfortunately, my body wouldn’t respond to medication, so for me to able to fight it, while it’s still a part of me, is a big deal for me.
“There are plenty of kids who have struggles far worse than mine and I just want people to know that no matter what they’re going through, they can still make something of themselves.”
While his goal remain unchanged, Mininger hopes to use his new lease on life and his opportunity in the NA3AHL as a stepping-stone to bigger and better things.
“It really has been a rough road,” he said. “I never asked for this life but I wouldn’t trade it for the world either because I have a very good family that loves me, plenty of support from other people, Coach Pete being one of them, and I’m on my road to recovery. I’m hoping to do better things in life and to make something of myself.”
“He’s already drawing some interest,” Rossi said. “Austin’s future will now be determined by Austin. If he keeps up the hard work on and off the ice, I know he will be successful.”
After all, who will doubt Mininger? Just by waking up each morning and stepping on to the ice, he continues to score his biggest victory.