Commentary

Georgia inspired by injured players

Originally Published: April 14, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Ga. -- From his perch on the top step of the Georgia baseball team's dugout at Foley Field, Bulldogs coach David Perno watched the soft line drive head into the left-center gap of the outfield.

Johnathan Taylor
Courtesy of Georgia AthleticsJohnathan Taylor's infectious smile and great work ethic made him one of Georgia's most popular players.

In the third inning of Georgia's March 6 game against then-No. 5 Florida State, Seminoles leadoff hitter Devon Travis drove Craig Gullickson's pitch into the outfield. Left fielder Zach Cone and center fielder Johnathan Taylor each went after the ball at full speed.

"I thought, 'Cone's got it,'" Perno said. "'He's got a bead on it, and he's laid out.'"

Cone, a junior from Stone Mountain, Ga., left his feet first in an attempt to make a diving catch. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Taylor dove to make the catch a split second later.

"He was like a bullet," Perno said.

"I saw him out of the corner of my eye," Cone said. "I never saw him dive. The ball was too low. There was no calling it."

Bulldogs assistant coach Jason Eller was standing near Perno in the dugout.

"I thought the pitch was going to be hit on the ground," Eller said. "I actually thought it was going to be a 6-4-3 double play. It was an even-count changeup. Gullickson got [Travis] out in front of it. Unfortunately, he got under it."

Cone, 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, collided with Taylor, who is six inches shorter and about 20 pounds lighter. The top of Taylor's head hit Cone's hip, breaking his neck.

On Thursday, Taylor's doctors at Shepherd Center in Atlanta said he is partially paralyzed but making good progress. After undergoing surgery to stabilize his spinal cord the day after he was hurt, Taylor was transferred on March 11 to Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation facility for spinal-cord injuries.

Dr. Donald Peck Leslie, medical director of the Shepherd Center, said Taylor is breathing on his own and using his arms. Taylor still can't use his fingers and has no feeling below his waist. Because his spinal cord wasn't severed in the injury, doctors said there's reason to believe Taylor's condition might improve.

Dave Perno
Georgia Athletics Dave Perno has kept his squad together in the face of major losses.

"A majority of people with this injury don't walk, unfortunately," Leslie said. "Time will tell. We'll know relatively soon with this young man."

The images of the outfield collision have haunted Taylor's coaches and teammates since he was hurt. Tragically, it's the second time a Georgia baseball player has been paralyzed in three years. In October 2009, freshman second baseman Chance Veazey broke his neck when his scooter was hit by a car near campus.

"It's almost like we're cursed," Georgia shortstop Kyle Farmer said.

On Feb. 20, Arizona State suffered a similar loss when freshman outfielder Cory Hahn suffered a neck injury in a base-running collision in a game against New Mexico. Hahn underwent surgery and is recovering, according to the university.

"It's just like a bad dream," Perno said. "For a little while, you get a reprieve. But then you always come back to it. I remember waking up the Monday morning after it happened. There was an eight- to 10-minute period where everything was OK. But then you think, 'God, we've got to go through this all over again.'"

Cone, who suffered a concussion and lacerations behind his ear from the collision, didn't initially believe Taylor was badly hurt.

"I asked him if he was OK," Cone said. "He said, 'Yeah, I just got the wind knocked out of me.'"

But when Perno and trainer Mike Dillon reached Cone and Taylor in the outfield, Perno knew something was terribly wrong.

"When you got out there, you were numb all over," Perno said. "I couldn't believe what was transpiring out there. I was just completely overwhelmed because of who it was. Two of your best players couldn't do anything. One of them is lying on the field motionless and couldn't move anything. The other one was completely disoriented. He didn't know where he was or what was going on. His head was bleeding."

Taylor, a junior from Acworth, Ga., was conscious while lying on the turf.

"That's what made it worse," Perno said. "He was completely conscious and couldn't feel anything."

UGA trainers poked and prodded Taylor to determine the extent of his injuries.

"He kept saying he wanted to get up," Perno said. "He kept saying, 'OK, I'm going to get up now. I'm going to get up now.'

"Then he asked us if he was standing up."

An ambulance transported Taylor to St. Mary's Hospital in Athens. In the eighth inning of Georgia's game against FSU, Dillon broke the terrible news to Perno.

"It doesn't look good," Dillon told Perno.

Later that night, Cone visited Taylor in the hospital.

"The first thing he said to me was, 'Don't worry about it. We both went after it, and there was nothing we could do,'" Cone recalled.

Veazey & Cone
Georgia Athletics Chance Veazey, with Zach Cone, has provided unique support to Taylor.

Perno said the Bulldogs lost more than one of their best players. Taylor is perhaps the Bulldogs' most well-liked player because of his infectious smile and tireless work ethic.

"With Chance, there's no question we lost a piece of our heart," Perno said. "With JT, we lost our heart and soul. He was so fun to watch. That's the most difficult thing because he has worked so hard and finished last year so strong. His dream was to play here and play in the College World Series and then go play pro ball. At 5-foot-8, he was going to have a chance to make those dreams become reality."

Taylor hit over .300 in each of his first two seasons at Georgia. Although Taylor was off to a slow start this season, hitting .182 in 11 games, Perno said he was beginning to find his stride.

"He was eventually going to be JT," Perno said. "He was going to be on the bases and be a great defender and get some clutch hits."

Georgia's players haven't forgotten their injured teammate. UGA players have alternated wearing Taylor's No. 2 jersey in games. They're wearing "JT-2" stickers on the back of their batting helmets, and there is a large "JT-2" logo on the left-center wall at Foley Field. A "JT-2" sign also hangs on the side of a green house above Kudzu Hill down the right-field line.

Perno carries a framed photograph of Taylor to every game, placing it near the team's bat rack. Georgia players visit Taylor at Shepherd Center nearly every day, and pitchers who aren't scheduled to throw in midweek games listen to UGA games on the radio with him in his room at Shepherd Center.

Perno and Veazey, who works as a student coach with the UGA baseball team, visit Taylor together at least once a week. Perno said Veazey's perseverance has helped not only Taylor but also Georgia's other players cope with his injuries.

Johnathan Taylor
Georgia Athletics Taylor had MLB dreams before suffering his injury.

"I think it's crucial," Perno said. "I think it's huge for the players to see that Chance is in good spirits and how he handles it. It gives you a greater appreciation for life."

Veazey told Taylor to tackle his rehabilitation the same way he did baseball.

"I just told him he's going to have to have a good attitude and the same work ethic he had in baseball," Veazey said. "He's going to have to apply it to life every day."

Georgia's other players are trying to work as hard as Taylor and Veazey.

After starting the season with a 9-13 record, the Bulldogs have rallied to win each of their first three series against SEC foes. The Bulldogs won two of three games against then-No. 9 LSU, swept three games against then-No. 24 Mississippi State and won two of three games at Ole Miss.

Heading into this weekend's series against No. 4 Florida at Foley Field, the Bulldogs are 8-4 in SEC games, two games behind leaders South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

But after enduring so much heartbreak in the past three years, Georgia's games have become mere footnotes to a backdrop of such tragedy.

"For it to happen once in a team's lifetime is pretty unordinary," Farmer said. "For it to happen twice is just crazy. It definitely tests your faith."

Farmer, who is Veazey's roommate, got a tattoo under his right biceps after his teammate was hurt three years ago.

It reads: "Second Chance."

"This is our second chance to do something for them," Farmer said.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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