College Sports

Now paralyzed, player's last hit a lasting memory

ATLANTA — Chance Veazey will always remember that pitch.

Fastball. Low and inside.

He'll always remember what it felt like, too, when his bat connected with the ball.

"The best feeling in the world," he said.

Veazey looked up to see the ball soaring high over the right-field fence, slamming off the top of the scoreboard with a most satisfying thud. It was only a practice game at the University of Georgia, but the rush of hitting one out of the park still surged through his body.

"That's the way you want to go out," Veazey said, his face revealing both sadness and satisfaction.

Two days later, he was paralyzed from the waist down when his scooter slammed into the side of a car. In all likelihood, he'll never walk again, much less return to the sport that was such a big part of his life.

Here was a scrappy 19-year-old who seemingly had it all. A scholarship to Georgia. A starting job waiting for him at second base in his freshman season. The dream of someday making it to the big leagues.

It was snatched away before he got a chance to play his first college game.

Veazey was one of the shortest guys on the team at 5-foot-9, but he made up for his lack of size with guts and guile. Like he always told his dad, baseball was much more of a mental game than a physical game.

"I just wanted to be the little fireball of the team," he said. "In-your-face baseball. I wasn't going to back down from anyone."

Veazey arrived on the Georgia campus this past fall and made an immediate impact during a series of intrasquad games. He hit over .300 while striking out fewer times than anyone on the team. He played solid defense and showed he was capable of stealing a base.

Coach David Perno was convinced that this little spark plug of a player from rural south Georgia had what it took to be a starter.

"He played the right way," Perno said, "and he played for the right reasons."

On Oct. 28, two days after that last fall scrimmage, Veazey was studying for a test at a learning center on the Georgia campus.

He finished up about 10:30 p.m. and hopped on his scooter for the short ride back to his dorm room.

He never made it.

Veazey said a car turned in front of him as he was going through a green light. He made a split-second decision that might have saved his life but severed his spine.

"I was doing about 30 or 35 mph," he said. "I didn't have time to swerve or anything like that. I knew I could hit the car and go flying 40 to 50 feet. So my first instinct was to lay it down. Just lay the bike down on its side. I hit the pavement. I was conscious the whole time, but I don't really know what happened. I know I slammed into the car, but I don't remember that part. I just remember laying it down and then not being able to get up from the concrete."

Veazey knew right away that he was paralyzed.

"Sometimes, they say, the impact from something like that can jar the body, and it will only be temporary," he said. "But as I was laying there on the ground, I knew. I couldn't move my legs. I knew it wasn't temporary.

"The odds of me walking again are nothing."

After recovering from surgery to stabilize his shattered vertebrae, Veazey was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the nation's best facilities for treating spinal injuries, to prepare for this new phase of his life.

Despite losing more than 20 pounds, he took on rehab with the same determination he showed on the baseball field. He learned everything from dressing himself to driving with only his hands to maneuvering a wheelchair over curbs, a daunting challenge that most take for granted.

"You never see the type of obstacles that people in wheelchairs have to go through until you're actually in that situation," Veazey said. "It's a lot more difficult than you think it is."

For instance, to get his chair over a 6-inch curb, Veazey had to learn to pop up the front wheels, lean back just so much, and push the back wheels with enough force to get them up and over. Even more tricky is getting down a curb, which involves much the same process but more timing than strength. One of the first times he tried, he didn't lean back far enough fell out.

Everyone around him panicked, rushing to his side to make sure he was OK. To Veazey, it was no big deal.

"The harder I push myself, the faster I can get out of here and start living my life again," he said a couple of weeks ago.

On Dec. 18, Veazey did just that.

He checked out of Shepherd and returned home to Tifton, Ga., to spend Christmas surrounded by family and friends. Several local builders gave him quite a homecoming present — the family's two-car garage was converted into a custom, handicapped-accessible apartment for Veazey.

He'll have to return to Shepherd on Monday to begin the next phase of his rehab. But these 10 days at home are a big boost to his outlook.

"I almost forgot what home was like," Veazey said. "It just felt good to feel normal again."

Field of Dreams

When Chance was nine years old and already showing how much he loved baseball, his father, Todd, and and uncle built a regulation Little League field next to the family home for the youngster to practice on. When Chance made the high school team, Todd expanded the field.

The family had so many good times on that field: Todd hitting grounders to Chance out at second base, his mom over at first taking his throws, Chance's grandfather standing just off the kid's shoulder, yelling fielding tips.

They called it their own "Field of Dreams."

The father still walks out to that field from time to time, remembering the good times and doing his best to cope with the overwhelming reality of Chance's dreams being snuffed out in the blink of an eye.

But even with his paralysis, Chance will be able to have kids some day.

The Veazeys will keep their Field of Dreams for the next generation.

"I can hardly wait," Todd said.