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, the chance to get in some fall swings before the season began in the spring, 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, one of the country’s top college baseball programs. 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 told The Associated Press during an interview in his room at the Shepherd Center, one of the country’s leading facilities for spinal injuries. "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 batted 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.
Sure, it was only practice. Things would get a lot tougher when Veazey was going against other Southeastern Conference schools. Still, 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 in his very first game.
"He played the right way," Perno said, "and he played for the right reasons."
On Oct. 28, two days after that last fall scrimmage, after rapping out three hits including the aforementioned homer in his final at-bat, Veazey was studying for a psychology test with some friends and teammates 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 may 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 to prepare for this new, unexpected 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 folks just 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-high 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 and tumbled onto the floor.
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 when reached on his cell phone at his new digs. "It just felt good to feel normal again."
Of course, Veazey still faces perhaps the most difficult part of his rehab — a full acceptance of all that he’s lost. For paraplegics, this is a process that everyone goes through on their own terms.
"From what the people at Shepherd told us, it could take Chance a year and a half or two years to adjust to his injury," said his father, Todd Veazey. "There’s going to be times he’s riding down the road and he may need to pull over, cry a little, then get back in his truck and move on."
It’s already been tough enough on his parents. Chance’s mom, Darby Veazey, played softball at Florida State, and both she and her husband had been so looking forward to watching their boy play for the Bulldogs. In fact, just a few days before his accident, she had completed the travel and hotel arrangements for them to attend his games next season, both home and away.
"It’s been hard for me because I know the price I paid and I know the price he’s paid," Darby said, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I got to live my dream, and I know what that meant to me. He didn’t get to live his dream."
A few weeks ago, Chance and his father were able to get away for a hunting trip. On their way back to Shepherd, all of Todd’s emotions came pouring out to his son.
"I thought it was important for Chance to know from me, that when he signed with the University of Georgia, that was good enough for me," Todd said, choking up. "I felt like that validated everything I knew about him as a player."
When Chance earned a starting job before he ever played his first college game, Todd couldn’t have been more proud. That feeling remains, stronger than ever.
"I know what that feeling must have felt like," the father told his son that day, when it was just the two of them. "And you know Chance, I don’t think you could’ve duplicated that feeling, even if you ended up in the pros one day. I think you hit the pinnacle in baseball, knowing you made it to a great university and you were going to be a starter. I want you to know that, for dad, that was enough. I was completely satisfied."
The Veazey home is located in a rural area outside of Tifton. When Chance was 9 years old and already showing how much he loved baseball, his father and uncle built a regulation Little League field next to the house 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, filling his head with 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 you know, 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.