Twice Devastated, Twice Restored
Two college baseball teammates with spinal cord injuries inspire players and coaches.
Written By Bill Sanders
Photography By Louie Favorite
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.”