ATLANTA — Chance Veazey was living out his dream. He had a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Georgia. He impressed his coach so much during fall workouts that he was already penciled in as the starting second baseman.
Tragedy struck before Veazey made it to opening day.
Late last month, the freshman wrapped up a routine study session at the campus learning center, hopped on his scooter and drove out into the night. He never made it to where he was going, colliding with a car along the way. Sprawled out on the ground, he couldn't feel anything in his legs.
Veazey, it turned out, had sustained a devastating spinal cord injury. The grim diagnosis: paralyzed below the waist.
"I can't begin to imagine what's going through his head," Georgia coach David Perno said Thursday, shortly after the first details of Veazey's injury were made public. "There will be no one on our team feeling sorry for themselves anymore, I can tell you that. This was life changing not only for me, but a lot of people close to him."
Veazey was injured Oct. 28 — the first night of the World Series, strangely enough — and transferred about a week later to the Shepherd Center. There he is learning how to live from a wheelchair and perhaps girding himself to face the reality that he may never walk again.
"We're only three weeks into it," said Dr. Donald Peck Leslie, Shepherd's medical director. "I don't think (he's given up on the) hope that something miraculous is going to happen, that the light is going to suddenly turn on. We've seen it happen. We wish it happened more. But we have got to help him deal with the possibility, the probability, that it may not. That's very important."
Over the years, Shepherd has worked with more than 50,000 victims of spinal cord injuries, including hockey player Travis Roy, who was left a quadriplegic by a freak injury on the very first shift of his very first college game. Veazey never made it to his first game, though he had already shown the Bulldogs he was quite a player.
"Some guys have just got it," Perno said. "He had it. He could hit. I mean, he could really hit. He was gritty. He was tough. He played the right way, for the right reasons. This sets us back in a lot of areas, not having him. He definitely would've started for us."
Of course, the coach is far more concerned about Veazey's well-being than what this terrible accident means for next season's lineup. At times, Perno appeared close to tearing up during a news conference at the Shepherd Center, not far from where Veazey was undergoing an already rigorous rehab program.
"He's a part of our family and always will be," Perno said. "We're praying for a miracle."
Veazey and his parents weren't at the news conference. While they wanted everyone to know how he was doing, their pain is apparently still a little too raw to face the media.
The center released a four-minute tape showing Veazey going through some of his daily routine: lifting weights, pulling and tugging on various contraptions. He had a thick, bulky brace around his midsection, but that didn't totally conceal what he was wearing underneath.
A red Georgia T-shirt. Black shorts with the school's logo.
Veazey didn't speak on the video but did manage a brief smile. He mostly grimaced as he sweated his way through the rigorous workout.
"It's incredible how he's taken it," Perno said. "I don't know if he's still got a lot bottled up inside. I can't read that. But I know that you couldn't ask someone to handle it as well mentally as he's handled it up to this point. He's been everybody's strength."
Veazey's accident left him with a fractured 10th vertebrae, but the Shepherd staff hopes he'll be well enough to go home for Thanksgiving next week in the south Georgia town of Tifton. While that will be just a brief respite, he could be discharged from the facility before Christmas.
Of course, that will only be the start of restoring some normalcy to his life.
Veazey is unlikely to ever play baseball again. He does have options, Leslie pointed out.
"There's a lot of things this young man can do if he really wants to," the doctor said. "He may have to channel some of his talents in other areas, whether it be swimming or fencing or wheelchair rugby. I can't tell you how many incredible sports people have come out of here. We love to see someone who's a good athlete get involved in disabled sports."
During intrasquad games this fall, Veazey batted over .300. In the last of those games, two days before his accident he had three hits and went out with a flourish.
His final swing was a homer.
"It was spooky," Perno said.