Twice Devastated, Twice Restored
University of Georgia baseball players sustain spinal cord injuries and return to school after rehabilitation.
Under a bright, and unseasonably warm January sun in Athens, Ga., Chance Veazey sat in the University of Georgia baseball team’s dugout chatting with teammates, all of whom were equally amazed that the first day of baseball practice, on a January afternoon, really could feel like spring.
A comfortable ease permeated the day, one that the Georgia baseball team hasn’t felt for at least two years.
“There is no place I’d rather be than here with my best friends, guys I love, guys who have sweat together, bled together and cried together and have become like family,” says Chance, 21, of Tifton, Ga. “No place I’d rather be than right here, right now.”
Chance was supposed to be entering his third season as the University of Georgia’s starting second baseman, and he might have been just a few months away from being drafted to play professional baseball.
Instead, he’s learning to live life after a paralyzing injury. Chance sustained a T-10 to -11 complete spinal cord injury in a motorized scooter accident on campus in fall 2009. Today, he is living a life he had not planned. And so is his teammate, 22-year-old Johnathan “JT” Taylor of Acworth, Ga.
JT might have been the starting centerfielder for Georgia this season as a senior. More likely though, he would have been in Athens doing some last-minute training before heading to a professional baseball team’s spring training camp. The best college players are drafted after their junior season. And JT had all the skills to be one of the best.
“Everyone wants to get drafted after their junior year,” JT says. “I’m not sure what my projections were last year, but thankfully, I was drafted by the Texas Rangers. That caught me by surprise, and I can’t thank them enough.”
JT was caught by surprise because Major League Baseball teams don’t usually draft players who cannot walk.
Centerfielder JT, and his best friend, left fielder, Zach Cone, collided in the outfield in early March 2011 while both were tracking a line drive hit left-center. They both dove for the ball, and JT’s head hit Zach’s hip. Zach jumped up immediately, but JT did not, recalls Head Coach Dave Perno.
“We sat there for a minute, thinking, ‘OK, JT, get up. Get up.” Perno says. “Then when I got there, he was conscious, but he couldn’t move.” Perno recalls thinking, “There is no way this can happen again.”
For the second time in less than 18 months, a Georgia baseball player had sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI) – this time a C-5 to -6 complete SCI.
So many questions emerged.
How would Chance, who was injured at the end of fall ball, deal with the reality that he’d never play in a regular spring season baseball game for Georgia? How would JT learn to accept that he might never walk again or live totally independent?
And how would a team of 40 or so young men, most of whom had never known anyone who uses a wheelchair, rally to show their injured friends a mature and committed love that would speak volumes to Chance and JT and forever change every one of them?
It could be a lot to ask of college-age kids. But as it’s playing out, they all feel that showing their commitment to Chance and JT is the least they can do.
There’s a new normal at the Georgia baseball complex, and it looks like this: Chance, in his manual wheelchair, is a constant at home games, some road trips and some practices. JT, sometimes in a powered wheelchair, sometimes in a manual one, is around when his busy schedule of classes and daily rehabilitation allows. But he’s never out of mind. Never. And a team that no longer feels uncomfortable around people in wheelchairs plays every single play like it could be their last one – honoring the all-out style of play of Chance and JT.
“Everything we do this year is for those two guys,” says catcher Brett DeLoach, a roommate of Chance’s. “They were two of our hardest-playing guys. Now we’re learning how strong they are and how they look at the bright side of things. Because of those two, we’re all stronger individuals. We’ve grown in character and integrity, and certainly as a team, we’ve bonded together that much more.”
Perno cannot forget the image of JT lying on the ground, motionless. Nor will he ever forget the phone call that started this emotional roller coaster.
“It was Game One of the World Series between the Yankees and the Phillies,” Perno recalls. “I’m a big Yankees fan, and Chance is a big Phillies fan. When I got a call from Chance’s phone, I figured he was just going to be ragging me about the game.”
But it wasn’t Chance calling. It was an Athens-Clarke County police officer, using Chance’s phone.
“I got to the emergency room, and we spent a lot of time together that day,” Perno says. “He knew his life had changed. I had to call his parents, and it was a difficult, emotional call.”
Chance spent a few days undergoing treatment at St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens. He then completed inpatient and day program rehabilitation at Shepherd Center before returning to classes at UGA in fall 2010. He now lives off campus with four roommates in an accessible home.
“I pretty much picked up right where I had left off,” Chance says. “I have the same roommates, am going to class, working out and going to the field four days a week, helping out with practice however I can. I’m living college like everyone else, probably more on the go than most.”
Chance arrived at Shepherd Center a bit resentful and not ready to accept that life, while radically different, could still be meaningful and full. But as is often the case among Shepherd Center patients, that attitude began to change during his rehabilitation stay.
“At Shepherd, it really was an unbelievable experience,” Chance says. “I was resentful when I first got there, but you just can’t stay that way with all of the wonderful therapists, doctors and facilities, and seeing everyone else’s attitude.
“I couldn’t imagine getting injured like this and not having that kind of place to be. They treated both JT and me great,” he adds.
Chance had a steady stream of teammates and coaches visiting him at Shepherd Center. UGA Associate Director of Sports Medicine Mike Dillon made the trip to Shepherd Center three to four times a week during Chance’s stay.
“Mike was always on top of everything and he always knew exactly what we were doing,” Chance recalls. “He headed the process for my return to Athens and for JT’s, as well – even handling the details about where we would be living and if those places needed any modifications. Mike treated JT and me like we were his own kids who had been hurt, and he still does today – making sure we are in the training room doing what we need to do, staying on us about school and making sure we have everything we need. I can never thank him enough.”
In addition to Dillon’s assistance, visits from Chance’s teammates and coaches helped make the transition back to Athens easier for everyone, Chance says.
“Because they came and saw me so much at the hospital, it wasn’t too much of a shock when I got back in Athens and they saw me this way,” Chance says. “They had been around me in a wheelchair and had seen me progress.”
As for Chance, the adjustment has been fairly smooth.
“Being back has been easier than what I expected,” Chance says. “It’s tough to sit and watch, but what gave me contentment was knowing that I had given it all I had on the field, every play, every pitch, every ground ball. There was nothing that I had left on the field.
“My last fall scrimmage game, I went 3-for-4 and homered in my last at bat,” he says. “That was a great way to go out if you have to go out – a home run on your last swing ever.”
JT, who returned to UGA in January, doesn’t think about what he’s missing now, he says. That kind of thinking would just get in the way. And he doesn’t want anything between him and his goal of walking again.
The odds of that happening aren’t great. He knows that. He just doesn’t buy into it.
“I’m getting pretty comfortable being back in Athens,” he says. “I know what I have to do, and I go about doing it. I’m working to get more strength back to my core, and my function is changing over time for the better. So I keep working harder, expecting more function to come back.”
JT attends classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and then participates in therapy with the Georgia training staff at the baseball complex. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he leaves his dorm around 8 a.m. to travel to Shepherd Center, where he spends a few hours in Beyond Therapy®, an activity-based program that helps improve lifelong health, minimize secondary complications and get the most from any new neural links to participants’ muscles. He returns to Athens in time to go to tutoring in the early evening.
“It’s busy, but I’m not complaining,” he says. “I should graduate in a year and a half in consumer economics. I might want to be a financial planner helping athletes manage their money.”
Of course, the career JT had in mind before his injury was professional baseball player, and Perno believes he would have had an excellent chance.
“JT was an excellent player, one of the fastest guys in all of baseball,” Perno says. “He and Chance both were the type who was always in the right place, doing the right thing, both on the field and off. I never had to worry about those guys.”
As a sophomore, JT batted .335 and led the team in on-base percentage. He was already in the top 10 all-time in stolen bases at Georgia. Then on March 6, 2011, in the second inning of a home game against Florida State University, JT’s baseball career ended.
The spinal cord injury that resulted from JT’s collision with his teammate was a freak accident.
“Of all the collisions I’ve seen in my years of baseball, I don’t know of a kid ever being paralyzed,” Perno says. “I’ve seen broken jaws and such, but not this. I’ve seen guys run through fences, dive headfirst and hit the wall and then get up and play. This was tough to grasp.”
Perno got word in the eighth inning that JT’s injury was serious.
“It broke everyone’s heart,” he says. “As a team, we couldn’t recover from that.”
This spring, the team is hopeful. Eight position players and several pitchers from last year’s team are on the roster. The preseason rankings had them in the top 25. The goal is simple: Make it to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series tournament in June.
“Chance and JT will both be with us if we make it to Omaha,” Perno says. “I don’t care if I have to get a charter plane for JT. We’ll get him out there.”
Much of the reason these two have become such an inspiration to the coach and team stems from what Chance and JT accomplished at Shepherd Center. Instead of being bitter and resentful, both shook off those natural urges and quickly went to work on building the best life possible for themselves.
“They were real gentlemen during what is typically a very stressful time. They assessed the situation and went right to work,” says Herndon Murray, M.D., medical director of Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Program. “They were familiar with the concepts of rehabilitation, of working with an athletic trainer, or in this case with their therapists, because of their years of participation in athletics.
“They understand and accept the concept of hard work to reach goals. It, of course, was helpful that they were both in excellent physical condition at the time of their accidents, and they took advantage of that. And each had excellent support from family and friends, and accepted the facts of their injuries and proceeded rapidly with rehabilitation. They were inspiring to other patients and families through their attitudes and efforts and fully maximized their rehabilitation, making Shepherd Center look good.”
Erin Prentice, Chance’s occupational therapist at Shepherd Center, says that once Chance turned the corner mentally – which didn’t take too long – there was no stopping him.
“It was maybe a couple of weeks into rehabilitation,” she recalls. “When we got down to doing the things he had to do everyday, he realized he didn’t want to have someone do everything for him. He wanted to go back to school, and to his team, and not have to have his parents do everything for him. He told himself he had to start getting independent. And he did.”
JT experienced the same thing.
“Of course, everyone thinks, ‘Why me?’ at first,” JT says. “You get over that with time and push through it. Things happen, and you’ve got to just push through.”
After completing inpatient and day program rehabilitation at Shepherd, JT participated in locomotor training in the NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) at the hospital. Physical therapist Brian Holliday says: “JT was hardworking from the beginning. He was always looking for things he could do outside of my time with him in the NRN program, such as swimming laps on his back in our pool to strengthen his trunk and get cardio work. Our goals were to get him into a manual wheelchair and require less transfer assistance. Both of those goals were met. By the end of his time in NRN, JT’s posture was amazingly good, even on the mats. He continues to push hard for independence.”
At UGA, Mike Dillon, associate director of sports medicine, focuses on helping JT and Chance become as independent and healthy as possible. Dillon was a constant at Shepherd Center during both players’ time as inpatients.
“You can’t put it into words, the emotional toll this took on everyone,” Dillon says. “But my focus is working to get them back to independence and a daily routine. I try not to think about the emotions. It was tough for everyone. I am just trying to do everything I can to make it a little easier.”
For years, Dillon worked with Georgia’s football team. That is when, as an athletic trainer, you fear something like a spinal cord injury. Dillon never thought it would happen on the baseball diamond.
“Professionally, you are prepared for it, but you don’t consider it when you talk about baseball,” he adds.
The UGA coaches and players hope they will never have to deal with another spinal cord injury. But the experience with Chance and JT has taught them a great deal about themselves and the power of a positive outlook.
“No one takes anything for granted on this team anymore,” catcher DeLoach says. “Nothing.”
This time last year, Ryan Payne, ATC, 25, was living in Birmingham, Ala., participating in a sports medicine internship following his graduation from Florida Southern College. He thought, if he got lucky, maybe he’d have a job on a major university’s training staff this year.
That part of the dream played out just like he’d hoped.
But he had never envisioned himself as the live-in caregiver for a University of Georgia baseball player who was paralyzed from the chest down because of a spinal cord injury he sustained in an on-field collision with another player in March 2011.
Neither had Johnathan “JT” Taylor, 22, of Acworth, Ga., imagined he would be the one needing such assistance.
But their lives crossed paths last summer when the University of Georgia began looking at options for JT’s return to college in January after completing inpatient, day program and NeuroRecovery Network rehabilitation therapy at Shepherd Center. Ryan and JT met and talked about Ryan being hired by the baseball program as JT’s live-in caregiver and athletic trainer.
“I had high expectations of what it would be like,” Ryan says. “Would we be friends? I’d be coordinating a lot of things I wasn’t too familiar with. But it’s all been so rewarding. Our friendship has flowed well. He calls me his sidekick. We’re friends without a doubt, but it’s still a professional relationship, too.”
Ryan and JT live in an accessible dorm on the UGA campus in Athens. Ryan assists JT with activities of daily living plus transportation to continued therapy sessions at both Shepherd Center and UGA, where Ryan assists with JT’s exercise routine.
“Living together has been an adjustment for everyone, but things are going well,” Ryan says. “JT wakes up every morning with a smile on his face and has been an encouragement and inspiration to me.”
JT’s mother, Tandra Taylor, is relieved that JT’s return to college has gone well. “He’s staying in Athens on some weekends now,” she says, “and that’s only because of how comfortable he feels there, how good he feels.”
She attributes that comfort level, in large part, to Shepherd Center for the education and training the hospital provided to her and JT during his stay.
“When JT got to Shepherd Center with such a devastating and catastrophic injury, I was amazed at how accommodating and trained they are for those kind of injuries,” Tandra says. “I was there every day from the beginning, and the way they train the parent is one of the best things they do. I wouldn’t have been able to do everything I can do now had we gone to another place. If we were not at Shepherd, I would have been going out of mind trying to help him.”
Tandra also expresses appreciation for everything the UGA staff did for JT during his stay at Shepherd, and all they continue to do now that he’s back in college.
“It’s really been a smooth transition since I got back to Athens,” JT says. “I’m getting a little better all the time. It’s really helped to be back at UGA and have the support of (paralyzed teammate) Chance Veazey, Ryan and everyone. But my mom, she was there for me every day. So I’m not going to let there be too much time in between my trips back home to see her.”
Written by Bill Sanders
Photos by Louie Favorite
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.