KRAVITZ: Hemophiliac baseball player pays it forward - and pays it back to the late Ryan White

Ken, Matt & Julie Olovich at one of Matt Olovich's baseball games at Guerin Catholic High School on Tuesday, May 2, 2017 (WTHR Photo/Bob Kravitz)
Bob Kravitz

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WTHR) - This is the way most 12-year-olds think: They play a travel baseball game, they hit a towering homerun, and then they want their folks to take them out to grab some pizza or ice cream, or both. Twelve-year-olds being 12-year-olds, the world doesn’t extend much beyond their own noses.

Matt Olovich of Fishers was not a typical 12-year-old, just as he’s not a typical 17-year-old now. For one thing, he is a hemophiliac and has to infuse clotting factor into his bloodstream every other day. For another, he’s one of the top baseball players in the state, playing at Guerin Catholic, preparing to play ball at Franklin next season. But what happened after the game in which he hit one of his 19 homeruns that year, that’s what makes him different. And special.

After retrieving that homerun ball, Olovich had an idea. The game was in Cicero, and Cicero is where Ryan White, the heroic young man who had hemophilia and died of AIDS after a series of blood transfusions, has been buried since his death in 1990. So Olovich grabbed the baseball and inscribed the following words:

“Thanks, Ryan.’’

Then he, along with his family, made the short trip down the road to White’s gravesite near downtown Cicero and lovingly placed the baseball there.

“I told my folks, 'The gravesite is nearby. Let’s stop and visit since he was such an inspiration to all the hemophiliacs who came after him',’’ Olovich said. “So I put my homerun ball there as a thank you for all that he did.

“Back when he was alive, nobody knew much about hemophilia or AIDS, people were mean to him, but he paved the way for every hemophiliac who came after him. The important thing is, he just wanted to be a normal kid. And that’s how I feel. I just want to be a normal kid. That’s how it is for all of us. We know we have some limits, but we just want to be normal and do things that everybody else does.’’

The baseball is now in the Ryan White portion of the “Power of Children’’ exhibit at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

It is a cloudy, blustery day, hardly the kind of day that once inspired Ernie Banks to intone, “Let’s play two!’’ Still, Guerin is here and so is the road team, Lapel, preparing for a game in front of hardcore friends and family who are braving the elements.

Over at third base, Matt Olovich is taking infield practice.

Tyler & Travis Rivers (WTHR Photo/Bob Kravitz)

Near the dugout behind first base, Travis Rivers of McCordsville and his 5-year-old son Tyler stand and watch, trying to avoid the unceasing chill wind. The Rivers don’t know Matt Olovich that well – they only met one time previously – but the relationship between Matt and Tyler is a deep and abiding one.

See, Tyler Rivers, who will be 6 in July, is a hemophiliac, too.

While Olovich’s condition is a bit more severe, requiring him to infuse clotting factor every other day, Rivers only has to do it when he injures himself – whether that’s while playing baseball or just bumping into a piece of furniture. Still, they share a bond. Matt was Tyler’s age once, had the same issues, the same challenges, but he overcame all of them, just the way little Tyler plans to overcome them.

“I play baseball,’’ Tyler tells me before seeking shelter in his father’s arms.

Once upon a time, parents of a hemophiliac wanted to put their children in bubble wrap, protect them from injury at every turn. I can remember a classmate in grade school, a hemophiliac, who wore a helmet everywhere he went. Now, the list of limitations is dwindling. No football, no hockey, no heavy contacts sports, but baseball, track, swimming…almost everything else is inbounds.

For a time, the Oloviches wondered how active their new son could be. They got their answers quickly.

“We would go for treatment and they would tell us [physical activity is] good for their joints, good for their minds, as opposed to keeping them in bubble wrap,’’ his mother, Julie Olovich, said. “They used to put kids in helmets, and it traumatizes them when they’re around other kids.’’

Matt and Tyler met by happenstance. Travis had recently read a story about Matt in a hemophilia newsletter, about how he had overcome his condition and become a college-bound baseball player at Guerin. Then one day Travis was in the clinic at the Indiana Hemophelia and Thrombosis Center the same day Matt was there; Matt was recovering from an ACL injury, which becomes more complicated for someone beset by hemophilia. Travis heard the teen talking about baseball, put two and two together and figured out that he was, in fact, the young baseball player he’d read about.

Now, Tyler and his dad are here at Guerin watching Matt for the first time. It won’t be the last.

Matt Olovich, 17, and Tyler Rivers, 5 (WTHR Photo/Bob Kravitz)

“Matt is an inspiration for Tyler,’’ Travis Rivers, his father, said. “He’s a role model. Matt shows Tyler there’s very little he can’t do. I think that’s important.’’

The game begins, the wind blowing hard, and Tyler has a question.

“Daddy,’’ he asks, “when does Matt bat?’’

Like most hemophiliacs, Matt and Tyler were diagnosed early.

Olovich was an early crawler, and constantly had bruises on his body – so many, there were some medical professionals who wondered if he’d been physically abused. “I thought maybe he had a vitamin deficiency,’’ Julie Olovich said. Ken, a pharmacist at Lilly, had graver concerns. “I thought about leukemia,’’ he said.

Said Julie: “It’s shocking when you find out, heart-wrenching because you don’t know what the future holds. I could remember reading an article about Ryan White and I didn’t know. I was uneducated about hemophilia. Is my baby going to get AIDS? Is he going to survive? Until we got educated on it, we didn’t know.’’

Tyler was born with bruises on his shins. He was diagnosed early, a relatively easy diagnosis given their son’s genetic predisposition to hemophilia.

“Still, there was a little bit of denial, like, `OK, let’s retest him'," Travis said. “I was a football guy. I played at Knightstown and a little bit at Earlham. I thought I’d have a son and he’d play football like dad, and then one of the first things they told us was `No football.’ Now that he’s a little older, it’s tougher. I talk to my wife, 'Should we let him play flag football?' and she says, `No, what if he likes it,’ and then we’d have to cut him off when they switch to pads. But he plays just about everything else.’’

He turned to Tyler.

“Do you want to play football?’’ he asked.

Tyler answered quickly. “Yes,’’ he said.

Well, then.

A few decades ago, a person with hemophilia had several limitations, and it remains a personal memory of one young boy in my grade school who was hemophilic and wore a helmet most of the time. In 1982, the medical community noted that hemophiliacs who had drug transfusions were coming down with HIV/AIDS. Scores, of course, died. It wasn’t until 1995 that Prophylaxis, the drug Matt and Tyler take, became the standard of treatment, allowing them, and other people with hemophilia, to live a long, healthy and largely active life.

Ryan White, the brave young man, came along too soon, and then he left us too soon.

Matt Olovich knows he is blessed.

He paid it back, paid homage to Ryan White with a gesture that is unique for a 12-year-old. Now he is paying it forward, showing 5-year-old Tyler Rivers you can do almost anything you want in life, disease or no disease.

Want more Kravitz? Subscribe to The Bob Kravitz Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or TuneIn. If you have a good story idea that's worth writing, feel free to send it to