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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Jon Wilhite doesn't take life for granted

Survivor of the crash that killed Nick Adenhart and two others sends a message: Don't drink and drive

July 19, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

OAKLAND — It was an embrace from halfway around the world, from someone he might never meet. That was the gesture that touched Jon Wilhite the most.

You go out with three friends one night, and no one knows who you are. Then a collision with an accused drunk driver kills all three of your friends, and very nearly kills you, and everyone knows who you are.

This is because one of those friends is a major league baseball player, Nick Adenhart.

Your family and friends rally around you. Your college rallies around you. Baseball players rally around you, and fans do too.

The support is not simply emotional. The support is financial too. Your doctor, the one who put your skull back atop your spine, says the bill for surgery and rehabilitation could hit $1 million.

So one day you open a letter, wishing you well. The letter is from Iraq, from a member of the United States military that has heard your story. He tucks $100 inside the letter.

Soon another letter arrives, from the same soldier, with another $100.

"That was pretty cool, for a soldier to give some of his paycheck," Wilhite said, "which I know is not a lot."

Out of tragedy has come grace and thanksgiving -- and laughter, no disrespect intended. We celebrated life Saturday, the life of a young man determined not to surrender his vitality.

From a distance, you would not have noticed anything remarkable about the two guys walking toward the home dugout Saturday, the one in the white T-shirt and the one in the green sweatshirt.

As the two guys got closer, you knew. Wilhite, 24, was the one in the T-shirt, and the brown shorts, and the Vans.

He had to turn his whole body, not just his neck, in order to look at someone not standing directly in front of him. He walked stiffly and spoke haltingly.

"If you think I'm talking slowly now," Wilhite said, "I was talking 100 times slower before."

The one in the green sweatshirt was Kurt Suzuki of the A's. He led Wilhite into the dugout, and they sat together on the bench.

"This is a huge day for me," Suzuki said. "You can't really put it into words, being able to be with him on the same field again."

They played together at Cal State Fullerton, both catchers.

Two Fullerton students raised money by selling "Team Jon Wilhite" and "Titan Family Forever" wristbands in the school colors, blue and orange. The Orange County Flyers, the independent league team managed by former Fullerton star Phil Nevin, opened their gates for free one night and turned the game into a fundraiser for Wilhite.

But no member of the Titans family has done more for Wilhite than Suzuki. He and his wife, Renee, have raised more than $50,000 through the sale and auction of baseball memorabilia, much of it solicited through contacts provided by his veteran teammate, former Angels shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

Cabrera marveled as he watched video of Wilhite enduring the daily rehabilitation sessions that train him to walk, talk and eat.

"I'm not a psychologist, but he has the best attitude ever," Cabrera said. "That's a strong guy. You don't know how strong a person is in a moment of courage, but in a moment of weakness. He's shown a lot. It's amazing."

The Angels invited Wilhite to their stadium for a private visit last month. Mike Scioscia was his favorite player growing up -- it's a catcher thing -- and Scioscia greeted him with a light touch.

"You're not one of those Dodgers fans, are you?" Scioscia said.

Wilhite shuffled to the batting cage, where he met Torii Hunter.

"You felt like you didn't want to laugh, because of what he went through," Hunter said. "He's laughing. He's having fun. He's thankful to be able to crack those jokes again."

He'll be back at Angel Stadium next month, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch the next time the A's are in Anaheim.

Before he threw out the first pitch here Saturday, Wilhite sat with Suzuki in the dugout, marveling about the comforts of the private plane A's owner Lew Wolff provided for him, his parents and his two brothers to fly up from Los Angeles.

Wilhite chatted about meeting Suzuki at freshman orientation, about his plans to go surfing and snowboarding, about his hope that he can recover well enough to do everything short of jumping off tall buildings.

"I'm scared of heights anyway," Wilhite said.

He answered every question at length, except this one: Do you think about why you're still here, why you survived when your friends did not?

"There isn't an answer to that question," he said.

Perhaps there is.

In the first week after the car crash, in a week in which no one knew whether Wilhite would survive, his brother Michael said family members were amazed by the constant calls from three other families.

The calls came from the families of Adenhart and Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart, the three friends killed in the crash, all sharing hope amid their grief. So, before Wilhite threw out the first pitch Saturday, fans were asked to watch a video.

How hard it must have been for Wilhite to make a video that thousands of fans would see, in which his words would not always be easily understood. Yet how easy it must have been too, knowing his friends could live on through his efforts, and that something good might come out of it.

"I am here to throw out the first pitch in honor of my friends Henry, Nick and Courtney," Wilhite said on the video. "Please do me a favor: Don't drink and drive. It will save lives."

And then he threw the first pitch, to Suzuki, as players from the A's and Angels applauded from the top step of their dugouts. Wilhite threw his hands up, in triumph. May he enjoy many more moments of triumph.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Donations to the Jon Wilhite Recovery Fund can be made at any Wells Fargo Bank branch (account 3980643658) or via check sent to the Manhattan Beach Little League, P.O. Box 3512, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266. Checks should include "Jon Wilhite Recovery Fund" on the memo line.

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