Nothing for granted

After two players sustain career-ending spinal cord injuries, the Diamond Dogs rally around their teammates—on and off the field

Nothing for granted

Chance Veazey stops by his near-empty locker to pick up a note on his way to work with UGA Head Trainer Mike Dillon at Foley Field.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

The 2013 Georgia baseball team will debut some new, young talent this year and has several returning players who contributed to last year’s Diamond Dogs squad.

But perhaps the two most important players on the team won’t take the field at all. Chance Veazey and Johnathan “J.T.” Taylor are both confined to wheelchairs since suffering spinal cord injuries. Neither player had an at-bat last year. Neither threw a ball or ran the bases. But they bring the heart, passion and an uncanny knowledge of baseball strategy and motivational skills to Foley Field.

“There is no place I’d rather be than here with my best friends, guys I love, guys who have bled together and cried together and have become like family,” says Veazey, who is paralyzed from the waist down. “No place I’d rather be than right here, right now.”

Veazey, middle, and J.T. Taylor, right, chat with a teammate in the dugout at Foley Field. Photo by Louis Favorite.

UGA baseball coach Dave Perno remembers the phone call he received in October 2009 while he was watching baseball on television.

“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 Veazey. It was an Athens-Clarke County police officer, using Veazey’s phone. Veazey sustained a thoracic-level spinal cord injury when he crashed his scooter in downtown Athens while trying to avoid a collision with a car.

“I got to the emergency room, and we spent a lot of time together that day,” Perno says. “He knew his life had changed that day. I had to call his parents, and it was a difficult, emotional call.”

Nearly 18 months after Veazey’s accident, Perno watched from the sidelines as his worst nightmare recurred. Going for a fly ball, Taylor, in center field, collided headfirst into left fielder Zach Cone’s hip as the two dove for the ball. Cone immediately leapt to his feet.

“We sat there for a minute, thinking, ‘Okay, J.T., get up. Get up,’” Perno says. “Then when I got there, he was conscious but he couldn’t move.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Perno thought to himself. “There is no way this can happen again.”

But it had.

Taylor’s neck was broken in the collision.

So many questions.

How would these young men with talented futures ahead, both on and off the field, deal with their debilitating injuries?

How would the team respond to the magnitude of the tragedy?

After leaving the hospital Veazey arrived at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation facility in Atlanta founded by James Shepherd (BBA ’73), a bit resentful and not ready to accept that life, while radically different, could still be wonderful and full. But his attitude soon began to change.

“At Shepherd, it really was an unbelievable experience,” Veazey says. “I was resentful when I first got there, but you just can’t stay that way with all of the wonderful therapists, and doctors and facilities, and seeing everyone else’s attitude.”

Veazey had a steady stream of teammates and coaches visiting him while there. Mike Dillon, UGA head trainer, made the trip to Shepherd Center daily.

Dillon helps Veazey place his feet on the pedals of a Functional Electrical Stimulation bike to work out his legs in the baseball training room at Foley Field. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker.

It made the transition back to Athens easier on Veazey, and the rest of the team, Veazey says.

“Because they came and saw me so much at the hospital, it wasn’t too much of a shock when I got back here and they saw me this way,” the Tifton native recalls. “They had been around me in a wheelchair and had seen me progress.

“Being back has been easier than what I expected. 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.”

J.T. Taylor with former Bulldog teammates Justin Grimm (left), now a pitcher for the Texas Rangers, and Zach Cone, a rightfielder for the Hickory Crawdads, the Rangers Class A team in the South Atlantic League. Grimm and Cone were with Taylor when he received a Courage Award from the Tempe Sports Authority Foundation in March 2012. Photo by Phil Gudenschwager.

Months later, Dillon found himself back at Shepherd every day, this time visiting Taylor.

“You can’t put it into words, the emotional toll this took on everyone,” Dillon says. “My focus was working on getting them back to independence and a daily routine. I tried not to think about the emotions. It was tough for everyone. I was just trying to do everything I could to make it a little easier.”

For years, Dillon worked with Georgia’s football team. The fear of a spinal injury is always there in football. 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 says.

Had he not been injured, Taylor likely would have completed his college career and be working his way through the minor leagues by now. The Acworth native played in 117 games with 91 starts as a Diamond Dog and was expected to be drafted in his junior season. Despite the injury, the Texas Rangers drafted the center fielder in 2011, their 33rd round pick.

“That caught me by surprise, and I can’t thank them enough,” Taylor says.

Since leaving the Shepherd Center and returning to Athens, Taylor has lived in an accessible dormitory room on campus with Ryan Payne, a sports medicine rehabilitation specialist who is Taylor’s caregiver and athletic trainer. Payne, 25, a graduate of Florida Southern College, takes Taylor back to Atlanta for therapy sessions at Shepherd.

“It’s really been a smooth transition since I got back to Athens,” Taylor said last year. “I’m getting a little better all the time. ”

This spring, Veazey would probably be in his fourth season as UGA’s starting second baseman. Or, he might have been in a position to be drafted last year.

Taylor in action as a Diamond Dog before his injury.

Instead, he’s continuing to learn how to live life to the fullest in a wheelchair. When he returned to campus he lived with his same four roommates in an accessible home off campus.

“I pretty much picked up right where I had left off,” he said then. “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.”

He’s a constant at most home games and on some road trips.

“I’ve been in this situation since I was a freshman, so in that sense, everything feels the same,” he says. “I’m enjoying baseball and this team as much as ever. I’m hoping to go out on a big winning season and then graduate in the fall.” Veazey is earning a business degree from the Terry College.

“I’ve got to get out some time and get in the real world, but I’m not in a real rush. I enjoy being in Athens.”

Taylor, a member of the UGA Athletic Director’s Honor Roll, plans to graduate in December with a degree in family and consumer sciences. Right now he’s focused on getting stronger and trying to regain use of his limbs.

“Rehab is going well,” he says. “I am getting stronger every day in my shoulders and triceps. Emotionally, it gets tough sometimes, but I’m strong enough to get through it. I’ve got friends, family and a team that are helping me strive to get better.”

For the team, having the two former standouts at the field is a constant reminder of how quickly things can change.

“Everything we do is for those two guys,” says catcher Brett Deloach, one of Veazey’s roommates. “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.

Taylor, left, and Veazey continue to help the Diamond Dogs as student assistants as they finish their academic work at UGA. They are pictured here in front of the 1516 Building, a residence hall on East Campus where Taylor lives. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker.

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.

“No one takes anything for granted on this team anymore.”

Bill Sanders is a writer living in Acworth. A version of this story was originally written for Spinal Column, a quarterly magazine produced by the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.