MUSKEGON – Alex Carder’s commitment to the West Michigan Ironmen goes even deeper than anyone could have imagined.

In many ways that’s not surprising. Carder has been the face of the franchise since the Ironmen first took the field back in 2016.

He has been the starting quarterback – and a very good one – every season except the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, and announced last year that he would be back again this year.

But if ever there was a season when Carder might have retired – or at least stepped away for a while – this might well have been it.

Last summer Carder’s wife, Anina Carder, 32, was diagnosed with breast cancer and learned she was in for a tough battle.

Since then she has undergone chemotherapy and a mastectomy, and her prognosis is looking up, according to Carder.

Ironmen quarterback Alex Carder with his wife, Anina, and their son, Sandro.

But even going back several months, when the situation was not quite so hopeful, there was never any question about Carder returning for another season of Ironmen football.

“I am in the prime of it,” Carder said about his football career. “I’m only 34, and I don’t foresee the end at any point right now. Obviously we have been through a lot this year, but my wife is a competitor. That’s how we met. When the conversation came up about this season, it wasn’t even a conversation. She just said ‘You are doing it.’ She has never been anything but supportive. She has been a true inspiration through this whole process.

“Besides, we have a year-and-a-half old son, and I’ve got to keep playing so he can see pops out there and have some memory of it. He was at a game last year, but at that age it was just a little bit overwhelming. He has a 7:30 or 8 bedtime, so he may end up seeing more games further down the road.”

The life-altering news hit the Carder home last summer, not long after the veteran quarterback led the Ironmen to the inaugural Great Lakes Arena Football league championship.

It was a huge jolt for an otherwise healthy, active young couple in their 30s who both work full-time while raising their young son.

For Carder, it meant doing whatever he could to be as helpful and supportive as possible while his wife went through chemotherapy treatments and prepared for surgery.

“We actually got the news on our anniversary last year, June 30,” Carder said. “That’s when everything reared its ugly face and down the rabbit hole we went.

Carder drops back to pass in a game last season. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“When anybody goes through this, you just have this big dose of perspective about getting the most out of every single day. For a while there we weren’t promised a future and it got real dark.

“You just have to pick up the slack wherever you can. We’ve had to really lean on each other, not only with the day-to-day stuff, but emotionally as well. The only way to get through any of this is to lean up against each other.

“You want to offer solutions, but a lot of times all you can do is share the hurt and be along for the ride. Most of the time you try to stay positive until it gets annoying, then you just sort of hang around. With both of us in medical careers, we almost know too much, which makes it harder to deal with.”

With an improved prognosis, Anina is getting ready to become more active again, which is a positive turn of events for the family.

“With her type of breast cancer, they do chemo ahead of time, so she went through all of that, then had the mastectomy,” Carder said. “Right now she is recovering from that and plans on going back to work next week. She is as strong-willed as they come. It’s more of an effort to try to slow her down a little, more than anything else.

“We are in a good spot now in terms of her prognosis. We are about as happy as we can be at this point.”

Veteran QB pumped up for Saturday’s opener

Carder is a different kind of quarterback than he was back in 2016 when he first came to the Ironmen.

Back then, he was a talented young QB fresh out of Western Michigan University who hoped to use arena football as a stop on the way to a career in the National Football League.

These days, Carder has settled happily into a middle-class lifestyle as a family man with a full-time career away from football.

But along the way he fell in love with the Ironmen, the town and the fans, and has continued to return every spring to lead the successful team with his big arm and commanding presence.

He was really good again last year, completing 65 of 104 passes for 941 yards and 33 touchdowns. He was great in the league championship game, completing 18 of 28 passes for 242 yards and a pretty amazing nine touchdowns, helping the Ironmen beat the Southern Michigan Apex 81-25.

Carder says he’s very pumped up for Saturday night, when the Ironmen will open the 2024 season by hosting the Tri-State Bucks at Trinity Health Arena.

Carder hands the ball off during a game last season. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“I’m looking forward to getting back out there,” he said. “From what (general manager Nate Smith) tells me, there are already quite a few tickets sold. There seems to be a good buzz around town.”

With an older body, and less time to work on his game, Carder admits that it’s more difficult these days to remain in playing shape, but says he finds ways to compensate.

“Where maybe it takes me longer to recover and I’m sore longer after the games, I also know my body more, when to push it and when not to,” he said. “Your body weakens with age, but your mind fills in those gaps.

“I’m as active as I can be all the time. I’m feeling good.”

Carder says this year’s Ironmen squad is comprised of a good mix of veterans and newcomers who have come together well in preseason practices.

He’s looking forward to playing for new head coach Terry Mitchell, the team’s former offensive coordinator who was promoted when Smith stepped aside as head coach a few months ago to concentrate on being the team’s general manager.

“I think we definitely have a cohesive group,” Carder said. “With Terry having been a player, I think we are definitely playing at a higher level, in terms of where we’re at heading into the season, than in years past. We have a great combination of talent – veterans and rookies – and the right type of guys. I think there is more buy-in than in years past.”

Carder gets ready to kick an extra point for the Ironmen. Photo/Jeremy Clark

When asked if a new season of football will help him take his mind off his wife’s battle with cancer, Carder said no, but it will be a welcome outlet for a lot of pent-up emotion.

“When we first started camp, on my first drive over here, for whatever reason I just got super emotional,” he said. “That’s been happening a lot lately. The games will be more of a release for all of the anger I have that I can’t take out on anybody.”

Carder said Ironmen football is more than just his personal passion. He said his wife also loves the team and comes to the games as often as possible, and that will be the case again this season, despite her continuing health challenges.

Anina is an athlete herself. They met while Carder was the quarterback at WMU and she was on the women’s soccer team.

“She makes all the games she can,” he said. “It’s harder now with the little one, but she’s been a supporter since 2016 and has been along for the whole ride. We definitely have a sports-filled household. There are different types of balls everywhere. We both pride ourselves on being outside as much as possible and playing sports.”

The Carders’ little boy, Sandro, has already shown signs of being drawn to football, or really any activity that involves any sort of ball.

“He’s obsessed with balls,” Carder said about his son. “We can’t make it out of the house without me taking a ball out of my football bag for him on the way to day care. He’s going to be a good person to play catch with soon.”