Kinnick love at first sight


Amy Oleson/The Daily Iowan
Tony Balik cheers along with the crowd during the Iowa/Arkansas State football game in Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 3.
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Tears welled up in 66-year-old Tony Balik’s eyes as he snapped photos of Iowa’s black-and-gold warriors storming the historic Kinnick Stadium field.

As he looked on, he brushed them away from the small Tigerhawk imprinted on his cheek, his expression radiating his sense of complete awe at the stadium and the number of fans engulfing his vision for the first time.

After years of darkness, Balik’s vision was fully restored at the UI Hospitals and Clinics in January, allowing him to see his first Hawkeye football game in 48 years.

Guided by his 40-year-old son, Peter, Balik darted his head back and forth trying to take in all the changes made to Kinnick Stadium since fall 1960, the last time he saw the Hawkeyes play.

“I can still visualize the open end zones and worn grass, me sitting in an old section of bleachers on the south side of the field,” the white-haired man said. “I remember seeing fans sit on the hill near the north goal post. It isn’t that way anymore.”

Then known as Iowa Stadium, Kinnick has received a new name and several major makeovers between Balik’s last visit as a teenage boy and now. The university has increased the stadium’s capacity to more than 70,000, renovated its north stands, and installed new turf.

Kinnick’s renovations and the Oct. 3 football match provided an extreme contrast to Balik’s usual game-time experience. Before his surgery, Balik’s Hawkeye football routine consisted of listening to a small hand-held radio providing descriptive audio play-by-play amplified by the roaring crowd.

But now, his one good eye allows him to visually digest his experiences, a new scenario that contrasts the day the darkness overwhelmed his sight.

Entering darkness

On a Saturday morning in the summer of 1961, Balik was working in the cornfields of an Iowa farm.

A recent high-school graduate, the 17-year-old had finished his senior year as an all-conference football player, and he had accepted an offer to play college football for Upper Iowa University that fall.

But those plans changed when he was attempting to fix a leaky valve from a tank mounted on his tractor and ammonia exploded in his face.

The wave of ammonia froze to Balik’s forehead and dripped down into his eyes, chemically burning them so severally that a cloud flooded his vision, leaving him only sensitive to light and object outlines.

“I had to learn how to get around again; it was survival,” said Balik, who now lives in Cedar Rapids.

After a 10-day hospital stay, Balik enrolled at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in Des Moines the following fall term. For one year, he learned valuable auto mechanics and wood-working skills — skills that give you purpose, he said. Balik spent hours building a birch and maple chess table, a feat he still prides himself on today.

“If there was a way to do something, I was going to find a way to do it,” the optimist said. “Can’t wasn’t in my vocabulary.”

Living with no inhibition

Balik’s passion to learn and persevere has helped him live without much pity or judgment. He married twice, raised six children, and worked a fulfilling 37-year career as a social worker for the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Ro Foege, a longtime friend and a former state legislator, praised Balik’s work ethic.

“Tony has always been very motivated to protect the weak and vulnerable,” Foege said. “He knows what it’s like to be vulnerable. His disability generated a real drive within him.”

Balik serves as a member of his church and board member for various community groups, including the Cedar Rapids Salvation Army, Iowa Art Works, Inc., and Kids Against Hunger.

The devout Catholic has worked to help those socially distraught in Cedar Rapids through his active participation in such church organizations as Parish Partners and Social Concerns Committee, and he has also helped implement local disability-friendly programs.

His longtime ceramics teacher Jane Nelson spoke most highly of his communal commitment.

“Tony was the impetus for developing programs in the Cedar Rapids Recreation Department for those with special needs,” Nelson said. “He is one of the most phenomenal people I have ever met.”

Balik also took up hobbies most would think impossible without vision, including pottery, sculpture, and power tool projects.

Foege said he remembers sitting with Balik at his kitchen table years ago, when a beautiful birdhouse in front of them drew Foege’s attention.

“He told me he made it,” Foege said. “Then he proceeded to take me outside and show me his power saw.”

While Balik’s blindness never prevented him from enjoying life, he still sought medical treatments to correct his vision.

Within 10 years after the ammonia accident, Balik underwent two unsuccessful corneal-replacement surgeries, his eye rejecting both transplants.

Years later, he met with Kenneth Goins, a UI clinical associate professor of ophthalmology who introduced him to a new and more advanced treatment: the Boston Keratoprosthesis, a procedure fairly regular at the UIHC, which he performs about once a week.

Having already experienced two failed attempts, Balik prepared himself for the third surgery with an open mind.

“I went in with the mindset that I didn’t have anything to lose, just a whole lot to gain,” Balik said.

Life-changing medicine

During the procedure, surgeons provide the eye with an artificial cornea. Consisting of three pieces, the front and back plates sandwich donated tissue, which are locked together with a titanium ring and placed inside the eye.

But still blind after the operation, Balik realized the surgery had failed as soon as doctors began to remove his eye patch.

“All of our hearts fell, all of our hope was gone,” said Balik’s 38-year-old daughter Sarah Scott. “The prognosis was so awesome; we were so disappointed.”

Doctors rushed to Balik, beginning tests to decipher why the surgery had failed.

Originally doctors thought a blood clot may have developed post-operation, but they later wondered about a possible retinal detachment.

“At this point, all I could believe was that everything happens for reason,” Balik said.

Doctors discovered a risky reattachment surgery, but discovered it had only been a blood clot.

Finally the moment came to take the patch off.

Balik peered over the doctor’s shoulder, anticipating the moment when something, anything, would come into view. Tearing up in astonishment, Balik saw the large “E” on the eye chart he faced.

The surgery had worked.

“I remember Dr. [Stephen] Russell saying ‘Tony that’s great but it’s only going to get better,’ ” Balik said.

For the first time, Balik could make out an outline of his adult children, astonishing them as he described the pink shirt Sarah had worn that day.

Annette Clements, Balik’s 42-year-old daughter, was the only one in the room when her dad’s patch came off. Soon after, more of his children arrived.

“It was so emotional,” Scott said. “We thought about messing with him since he had never seen any of us kids before, but we couldn’t; it was just too heavy.”

But as exciting as the moment was for Tony and his children, one person was missing.

Balik’s wife, Jane, suffers from multiple sclerosis, which made it impossible for her to be there post-surgery. Balik had to wait until later that night to see his love of nearly 30 years.

That night, he walked into his home to see her waiting. Tears fell from his face at her simple greeting: “It’s me.”

“I looked at her and thought, ‘Whoa, she’s a pretty woman,’ ” Tony Balik said, smiling.

After years of blindness, the pictures of how the world and its people look make adjusting to reality difficult.

“The image of what was in my mind of Jane and the kids was different than what I thought,” he said. “I can’t say any of them looked how I thought they did.”

Since the day after his surgery, Balik has kept a journal on his new experiences in his “daily log,” a thick three-ring binder filled with pictures and a written description of his “first” sights.

He will document his first Iowa game in this log, describing the overwhelming sensation.

The colorful pictures of the cheering fans, vibrant performers, and football players will dominate his entry, instilling the memories of last weekend’s game forever.

“Unbelievable,” Balik described the game. “Absolutely, unbelievable.”

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