The Hardest Steel

When I was 17 years old, I received unfortunate news from an orthopedic surgeon. At that point, I had been a baseball player for over 12 years and I lived and breathed the sport. The hard truth was that I had thrown a baseball so many times in my life (I don’t endorse 13 year olds pitching and/or catching triple-headers before their arms have had a chance to fully develop) that the ligaments and tendons in my shoulder became too loose, which negatively affected my arm strength. As a result, I was only able to throw hard for a few innings per game before acquiring a “dead arm,” thereafter losing most velocity on my throws, which heavily impacted my performance.

This happening to me at 17 was the worst timing imaginable. I tirelessly trained my entire life to play college (or professional) baseball. Fact: an athlete’s junior and senior seasons were and are imperative for his or her chances to play beyond the high school level. Regardless, I had a decision to make. The surgeon gave me two choices: I could either play my senior year with the condition, enjoying the time with my teammates, knowing that it would more than likely be the last season of my baseball career, or I could take a chance and have shoulder surgery in hopes of regaining arm strength and velocity so that I could (maybe) continue playing. There was no guarantee that I would be able to throw hard again or to perform, even with the surgery.

Not knowing what was in store, I told the surgeon that day that I wanted to, without question, proceed with the surgery. I was on a mission. I would continue my journey even if it killed me!

Looking back, it feels as though it was not long thereafter that I rolled out of the operating room. With an arm covered in permanent marker diagrams and a head marred with waning grogginess, the last of the anesthesia dissipated. Then I felt it: a deep ache in my right shoulder that I knew wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.

Over the next few months, a physical therapist assisted in stretching my arm out, slowly but surely. With each successive degree it moved painfully upwards, the primary goal was for my arm to eventually be stretched to the 180-degree mark, pointing straight to the sky (or to the ceiling tile above the tiny, athlete-infested room inside of what is now Gwinnett Medical Center). As the therapist forced my arm beyond where it wanted to go, I could feel the scar tissue crack and disband. The pain was so great at times that I almost vomited (more than once).

During that hellacious time, something that my dad told me growing up began to resonate in my spirit: Through the hottest fire comes the hardest steel. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Once again, I was at a crossroads and had a decision to make. I could either quit doing therapy and live a normal life outside of playing baseball or I could dig deep, endure the pain and persevere. I chose the latter.

It took my arm over a year to fully heal and to regain strength. I walked on at Georgia Perimeter College in the Spring of 2006 where I was redshirted (thanks to rules and regulations). I attended every single practice and every single game without immediate reward knowing that I wouldn’t be able to play until the following season. I ran the same amount of laps that my teammates were forced to run when we lost, took batting practice until my hands were blistered, caught bullpen after bullpen in the smoldering heat of summertime, only to sit impatiently on the bench for forty games that year. Why? Because something was happening inside of me that extended far beyond that run-down baseball field in Clarkston, GA. Although I didn’t fully understand it then, I understand it now. With each uncomfortable throw that I made, with each practice swing that I took, my character was being shaped.

As I suited up for our first game in the fall, I was unbelievably proud to wear that jersey. My hope had been restored as I stood in the batter’s box for the first time in over a year. We played two games that day and I had six hits, one of which was my first collegiate homerun! I would go on to play for a full two seasons at GPC before transferring to UGA to finish my education.

There have been more than a few challenges I’ve faced since – at school, at work and at home – with each I have known that it is necessary to dig deep, to endure the pain and to persevere. After all, through the hottest fire comes the hardest steel.