By Bradley Guire - Times-News writer Sunday, December 13, 2009
The scar runs the length of Igor Jozelic’s right thigh, but it doesn’t hurt.
It didn’t stop him from playing varsity football and basketball at Canyon Ridge High School. It didn’t stop him from coming off the bench against Filer in the Riverhawks’ first ever game on Dec. 1 and throwing himself around the floor, going for rebounds and loose balls and breaking up passes in his first varsity game.
The scar represents the journey he’s made since birth, one that started on another continent during the hell of the Bosnian War, which tore his homeland apart.
Igor was born in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (formerly Yugoslavia), in 1993 to Rudolf and Enisa Jozelic. For a while, it was up to Enisa to care for Igor and his older sister, Nina.
“My father was in the war (as a helicopter pilot),” Igor said. “He wasn’t there when I was born.”
It wasn’t long before doctors realized something was wrong with Igor’s right leg, and the hospital stay, Enisa said, lasted five months.
“He had an infection, a bone infection in his hip,” Rudolf said. Doctors initially thought it was only a dislocated hip as Igor walked without pain, playing like any other baby. The infection was later diagnosed, and the Jozelics knew that the care Igor needed was available in America. When he was only 11 months old, they left their home behind and made their way to Idaho. Upon arrival, American doctors further identified the problem and sent Igor to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City.
Igor required four surgeries through the first three years of his life to correct the problem, and none was easy. He doesn’t remember a lot about the situation because he was so young, but Rudolf and Enisa recalled the effort that went into the surgeries.
“They said it would be a two-hour surgery,” Rudolf said of the first surgery in 1994. “It was more like six hours. The hip had practically become dust. What they did was a bone transplantation for his hip.”
As the family struggled with their status as refugees — Rudolf could not find work as a pilot, and Enisa spoke little English upon arrival — Igor’s strength grew. While Igor could walk with a large cast, Rudolf said the usual form of transit was scooting around the floor on his backside.
After the final surgery in 1996, doctors placed no restrictions on Igor’s activities. He had pain for four or five years after surgery, sharp pains, but they faded, and he soon followed big sister’s lead and picked up a basketball. Igor was in fourth grade when he played on his first organized team.
“That was my first year in rec,” Igor said. “My sister played for Twin Falls (High School), and she’s an inspiration for me.”
Igor also plays football, which worries Enisa despite the fact that she sees him become stronger as the time passes.
“I’m going all the time and watching Igor’s basketball games,” she said. “He’s better every year because he had lots of surgery.
“Sorry, but I must say that I hate football. It’s a very hard sport. I go a couple of times and watch Igor’s football games, and I’m scared.”
Mike Ridgeway, head coach of the Riverhawks basketball team, is impressed by Igor’s work ethic and the fact that one could never tell the 5-foot-11 sophomore guard endured so much surgery with the way he plays.
“He’s just a hard worker,” Ridgeway said. “What he does (in the classroom) carries over to the court and everything he does. I wish all my kids were like him.”
Igor would love to spend this year learning the finer details of basketball so he can earn a starting spot next season. He sees plenty of minutes off the bench, but he knows there’s a ways to go.
“I’m comfortable playing down low, but I know there’s a size difference,” said Igor, who has the build but lacks the height for the post, “so I could play a little more perimeter, shooting guard or something. I just have to get my ball handling down a little more.”
Once every year or two, Igor makes the trip down to Salt Lake City for a medical evaluation, and the family is always mindful of their good fortune.
“Who knows if he stayed (in Bosnia and Herzegovina)?” Rudolf said. “Everything crumbled. Who knows what kind of health care he got there? It was the best move for us. It was a mess. It was war. Like every war, it was dirty. Somebody’s always going to suffer. We were just one of many families that suffered, but I will tell you that we were very lucky.”
And now Igor gets to help a new school start a new tradition just as his family started a new life in America.
Bradley Guire may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 208-735-3229.