This is my 101st post! yay!
Narrowing his eyes on home plate for the ceremonial first pitch Friday, Tim Berta shook off the imaginary sign from his catcher and everyone laughed.
Then he took off his purple cap and looked toward the five banners on the outfield wall with the names of the Bluffton University players killed in a bus crash just over a year ago.
The laughter gave way to tears.
Berta, who has spent countless hours learning to walk and talk after he was critically injured in the crash, didn't want anyone to forget why they were all gathered to dedicate the school's refurbished ball field.
"I've got to do that out of respect," he had told his mom, Karen.
Berta suffered head injuries that critically damaged areas of his brain that control his muscles and speech. He still doesn't have control over all the movements of his left hand and his steps are measured and slow. Yet, doctors have been amazed by his progress, which continues at a time when most people with brain injuries see their improvements slow down.
Berta, of Ida, Mich., was a catcher his first two years at Bluffton before he decided to concentrate on school and football. But he stayed involved with the baseball team as a student coach.
That's why he was on the Florida-bound bus with the team when it plunged off a freeway overpass in Atlanta a year ago in March.
Of those who survived, Berta's injuries were the worst.
Few things have brought him more joy than throwing a baseball again.
Just before Christmas, coach James Grandey asked Berta to throw out the first pitch. At the time, he couldn't walk on his own.
Toss it underhand if you have to, the coach told him.
Berta vowed to walk out on the field - by himself.
And he did just that Friday afternoon with Grandey by his side.
Donations that poured into the school following the accident paid for the team's new field and a memorial named Circle of Remembrance that sits just beyond right field.
Before the game, Berta led the team in prayer. He thanked God for the beautiful day and the game of baseball. And then he told the players not take anything for granted.
"It can be gone in a matter of seconds," he said.
Everyone cheered, even the umpires, as he slowly made his way to between home plate and the mound. He flashed a wide grin. His mom calls it his "playground smile."
It wasn't a perfect first pitch. The ball bounced just wide of the plate. But that hardly mattered to anyone - except Berta. It also hardly mattered that the game, against Franklin College of Indiana, ended in an 8-3 loss.
"It was bittersweet," Berta said of the dedication ceremony. "We wouldn't have this kind of field if it wasn't for those five."
For the others who survived the crash, seeing Berta was a sign that it was OK to move forward.
"It's another part of the healing," Grandey said. "It's been over a year and we're still healing every day."
For nearly all of Berta's life, tossing a ball never took much thought.
He was catching balls when he was 10-months-old, and tossing them in the air and knocking them around the backyard with a bat when he was three.
It was simply a gift.
"He was just born with it, just like some people have brown or blue eyes," Karen Berta said.
Berta played all sports in high school. Football was his favorite. His long arms and fingers made him a natural wide receiver.
In baseball, he loved playing catcher because it allowed him to touch the ball on every play.
Even after the accident while he was in coma, he would reflexively and repeatedly make a throwing motion with his right arm, his parents said.
His brain remembered the motion.
Once he woke up, he started tossing a soft squishy ball that was the size and color of a baseball. He'd play catch with friends visiting him in the hospital.
Fortunately, most of Berta's injuries were to his left side, allowing him to write, eat and throw with his dominant right hand.
His first attempt throwing a baseball after the accident came just over a month ago on a basketball court.
It bounced short of the target.
On the next throw, he stepped forward with his right leg. And the ball hit the mitt with a "pop."
Berta vowed he wasn't nervous before the first pitch Friday.
For him, it was one more chance to wear a Bluffton jersey, feel the laces of the ball and make everyone smile again.
Tragic Sport Crashes
March 2, 2007 - Bluffton UniversityBluffton's bus plunged off a highway ramp in Atlanta and slammed into the I-75 pavement, killing seven people and injuring 29, as the baseball team traveled to its first tournament game during spring break.
January 11, 2008 - Bathurst High SchoolSeven students were killed after the van that was carrying the Bathurst High School boys' basketball team crossed the center line and collided with a truck.
January 30, 2001 - Oklahoma StateOklahoma State University lost two members of its basketball team along with six team staffers and broadcasters in a 2001 wreck in Colorado.
November 14, 1970 - Marshall UniversityWidely considered the worst single air tragedy in NCAA sports history, 37 Marshall University football players were killed in a plane crash in Kenova, West Virginia.
October 29, 1960 - Cal Poly San Luis ObispoSixteen Cal-Poly football players died when their plane crashed outside of Toledo, Ohio. This crash is attributed as one reason why NFL broadcaster and Cal Poly alumnus John Madden refuses to fly.