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Shaped by dad's near-death experience, Joey Vrzich a shot of life for Pepperdine

Vrzich
Pepperdine Athletics

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Each time Joey Vrzich completes a golf swing is a reminder to live life to the fullest.

Forever inked on the inside of the Pepperdine senior’s left bicep is the date July 4, 1989 (drawn as 7.4.89 and accented by a curvy line with three strikes through it to signify Vrzich, 22, being the third oldest of his four brothers), and it becomes visible once Vrzich’s shirt sleeve rides up his arm on his finish.

“You know, I wasn’t supposed to be here,” he said.

Nearly 32 years ago, before any of the Vrzich boys were born, Vrzich’s father, Michael, was driving his motor home along Interstate 8, returning from Parker, Arizona, to his home near San Diego, when an 85-gallon propane tank exploded, engulfing the camper in flames. Michael Vrzich barely escaped alive, but the 28-year-old suffered severe burns over 95% of his body. Doctors initially gave him just 24 hours to live.

“The odds were against him,” UC San Diego Medical Center burn surgeon John Hansbrough told the Los Angeles Times a few months after the accident. “We thought he would almost certainly die by the first week. But he’s a very strong-willed person. That’s really what brought him through.”

Miraculously, after dozens of major surgeries, including three back operations, Michael survived. He soon married his wife, Nicol, whom he had just started dating three weeks before the explosion, and they had four kids, all boys: John, Justin, Joey and Jerrod. They later adopted a fifth son, Danny.

“I asked for God to send me a man to love me,” Nicol says, playfully. “I should’ve been a little more specific.”

Joey was, by all accounts, the wildest child of the bunch. Though he respected the boundaries set by his parents, he was constantly pushing those boundaries. He was adventurous and free-spirited but also immature and emotional. When he graduated from Christian High in El Cajon, he couldn’t wait to leave the nest, moving out in less than 48 hours.

But college was good for Joey, who won twice in his first two seasons at the University of Nevada. He became more empathetic and happier while keeping his outgoing personality. When the Wolfpack made it to regionals in Joey’s sophomore year, he did a backflip live on Golf Channel. It was the same flip that Joey once blindly did off the rocks at Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe, splashing some 30 feet into the water below as his brothers anxiously watched to see if he’d ever resurface.

“How many trips does he take where I worry about him hurting himself? Pretty much all of them,” Michael said. “They’re all daredevils.”

Arguably Joey’s biggest leap, though, was when he transferred to Pepperdine, joining a roster loaded with standouts. He played his first two events as an individual before working his way into the lineup, finishing the shortened season with three top-10s.

“He was a big fish in a small pond, and then he just decided he wasn’t getting any better,” Nicol said, “so he needed to become a guppy and he had to fight.”

Joey quickly latched on to eventual Haskins Award winner Sahith Theegala in that first season, learning how to chip and understanding that scoring doesn’t always have to look pretty. Coincidentally, it was Theegala who helped talk Pepperdine coach Michael Beard into accepting Joey’s transfer, saying, “Coach, everybody likes Joey.”

Joey’s personality has been a shot of life for the Waves. He keeps the mood light with his upbeat energy. He’s a constant fashion statement, always donning colorful tube socks on the course. He’s a big snowboarder. Oh, and don’t even think about challenging him in Call of Duty; Joey’s in the top 1% of all users in the first-person shooter game.

“He puts about as much time into it as golf,” quipped Justin Vrzich, who played college golf at Cal State-San Marcos before recently turning pro.

Waves assistant coach Blaine Woodruff, a frequent COD victim, remembers last spring when Joey shot 69 in the final round of the Amer Ari Invitational despite severely spraining his ankle playing football with his teammates on a Hawaiian beach. The next tournament, with his ankle heavily wrapped, Woodruff spotted Joey on the roof of the team’s rental home, attempting to jump into the pool. (He did tie for sixth that week.)

While close friends like SMU’s Ollie Osborne will joke that Joey still “acts like a 12-year-old,” Joey has continued to mature as a person and a golfer. Justin Vrzich noticed a big flip switch last summer after Joey won the prestigious California State Amateur at Torrey Pines.

“He just seemed so sure of himself,” Justin said. “It was a calm that I’ve never seen before from him. He was so in control.”

Vrzich
Courtesy photo

That confidence translated into a huge senior season for Joey, who led Pepperdine in scoring average (69.96) and top-10s (six) entering this week’s NCAA Championship, where he again paces the Waves at 1 over and T-16 through 54 holes.

“He’s been such a horse for us,” Beard said.

Beard believes Joey gets his resiliency from his dad. Over the years, Joey has come to realize that more. It’s why he doesn’t hesitate when asked who his biggest inspiration is. It’s why he and his brothers decided a couple of years ago while at the family vacation home in Incline Village, Nevada, to get matching tattoos to commemorate the date of Michael’s accident.

“That guy is so humble, you wouldn’t even know what he’s been through,” Joey said. “I base my life off of that, and I've learned a lot from it. What I shoot here today does not matter. When I look back at him and what he went through, if I shoot 80 here, who cares?”

Michael is unsurprisingly Joey’s biggest fan, too. His injuries don’t allow him to play, but he sure does love watching his son compete. Back when Joey and his brothers first picked up the game, Michael was ecstatic that Joey could even get the ball in the air. Several years later, when Joey advanced to match play in his U.S. Amateur debut after making birdie at Riviera’s iconic 10th hole in a playoff (and in typical Joey fashion, from the front right bunker), Michael was in tears.

“I’d never seen him prouder,” said Joey, who won one match that week before losing to eventual runner-up Doug Ghim. “I love when he comes to watch; he’s always so positive, but it’s funny, he also gets really, really emotional.”

Who can blame him? Michael Vrzich wasn’t supposed to be here. Neither was his son, Joey. Yet, here they both are at Grayhawk Golf Club, Joey contending and Michael watching from just outside the ropes.

“This is awesome,” Michael said, choking up and barely able to get out words for fear of losing it.

“I love it.”