GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Jason Jitoboh won’t step foot onto a basketball court without his glasses. And he doesn’t even need them to see.
The darkened lenses merely provide extra protection for what eyesight Jitoboh has remaining.
Florida’s 6-foot-11 center took a finger to his left eye at Tennessee last January and spent the better part of a year trying to get right. He’s had four surgeries already and might have a fifth following the season.
So when the Gators (12-9, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) host the second-ranked Volunteers (18-3, 7-1) on Wednesday night, Jitoboh will be focused on finding some closure on a trying and unexpected journey that started with a routine rebounding effort during a midweek game in Knoxville and continues a little more than 12 months later.
“I’ve had this game marked for a while,” Jitoboh said.
For good reason. Jitoboh left his last outing against the Vols bloodied and unable to see in one eye. He had surgery the next morning to repair a ruptured muscle that had prevented any eye movement. He had several more operations to repair a detached retina and optic nerve damage.
Adding to disorientation and discomfort, doctors dropped protective oil into his healing eye and ordered him to lay face down for roughly 20 hours a day for three months. He would spend 50 minutes with his head in a massage pillow and then get a 10-minute break during which he’d try to cram in all his normal activities.
“I would’ve gone crazy if I did that all day,” Jitoboh said. “So I tried to find loopholes. I’d stand up and look down. It was just finding different ways to heal and also live life.”
With his parents living in Abuja, Nigeria, and unable to get to Gainesville on short notice, Jitoboh relied on head athletic trainer Duke Werner for moral support.
“He got to the point where he didn’t know if he wanted to play again,” Werner said. “He got really down. … There’s been a real toll on this guy that people probably don’t realize. It was serious.”
Jitoboh missed the final 14 games last season. His sight slowly started to return a few weeks after the injury. He could make out shapes, then colors. His peripheral vision returned, too, but his straight-ahead sight in that eye remained foggy for months — even to this day.
“It’s been a long process, long journey for sure,” said Jitoboh, whose mother was able to join him in Gainesville for two weeks around his third surgery. “I think I’m most proud of not giving up, my resiliency, not just laying down and not letting it change my character, who I am as a person. I think that’s what I’m most proud of.
“What I did is almost impossible. It would’ve been easier to lay down and give up and just let the obstacle win.”
Jitoboh missed an entire semester of coursework because he couldn’t look at a computer screen, and he packed on a few extra pounds because he was unable to work out, let alone practice.
He eventually gained clearance to return to the court in short stints last May, but “my depth perception was horrible.” Catching the ball was difficult; running without losing his balance was nearly impossible.
Over time, as his workload increased, his brain started suppressing his left eye and recalibrating everything he does through the right one. He’s still a work in progress, coming off the bench to spell Colin Castleton and averaging 2.7 points and 1.5 rebounds while playing a little less than 10 minutes a game.
But considering where he was a year ago, he'll take it.
“Not a lot of guys can go through what he’s been through," Castleton said. “The biggest thing for me that really shocked me was just the approach he took every day, having a great, positive mindset. He has great energy."
Jitoboh, who attended Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, knows several of his upcoming opponents well. He holds no grudge against Tennessee senior Olivier Nkamhoua, who poked him during the rebound.
He just wants his vision back to normal, something that will require more time and maybe another surgery.
“I don’t want to show that I belong ’cause I know that I belong,” he said. “I just want to show people what I’m still capable of. Like, I can still play at a high level. I can still impact winning no matter what.”
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