Bluffton Baseball Team To Receive NCAA Honor

January 7, 2010
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Beavers Lost Five Team Members In 2007 Bus Crash

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(From The NCAA News)

The NCAA Honors Committee has named the 2007 Bluffton baseball team and former Army football student-athlete and Iraq War veteran Gregory Gadson as 2010 Inspiration Award recipients.

Five Bluffton baseball players were killed in a bus crash in March 2007, but the team came back to finish the season. Gadson lost parts of both legs after being injured in a bomb explosion while serving in Iraq but found new ways to contribute in the wake of the life-changing event.

Both the Bluffton team and Gadson will be recognized on January 15 during the Honors Celebration at the 2010 NCAA Convention in Atlanta.

Bluffton head coach James Grandey at a 2008 memorial

The Inspiration award is presented to a current coach or administrator or to a current or former varsity student-athlete who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome the event and now serves as a role model to give hope and inspiration to others in similar situations.

For a member of the armed forces confronted with a situation in the line of duty to be considered for the honor, the action must be clearly above and beyond the call of duty and so recognized by the appropriate military command.

Following are stories of how the recipients worked to inspire those around them.

Tragedy and triumph

When the Bluffton baseball team took the field March 30, 2007, it was no ordinary season opener.

The event had been delayed for nearly a month. The Beavers’ equipment and uniforms were new. Donations came from a variety of sources, including three Major League Baseball teams and Nike. Most importantly, the Beavers took the diamond missing five of their own, not to injury, but to death.

In the early morning hours of March 2, 2007, a charter bus carrying 30 of the 42 players and three coaches plummeted from an overpass onto I-75 in Atlanta. The team was en route to its season opener in Florida.

Killed in the crash were student-athletes Tyler Williams, a sophomore outfielder; David Betts, a sophomore infielder; Cody Holp, a freshman pitcher; Scott Harmon, a freshman infielder; and Zachary Arend, a freshman pitcher. The bus driver and his wife also died in the accident.

But just 28 days after the devastating loss, the squad took the first steps toward moving forward, not only for themselves, but for their lost teammates and the rest of the 1,200-student campus located in northwest Ohio.

“There were many moments of healing that moved us through this loss, and many of them revolved around the team taking leadership and saying we want to get back on the field,” said Bluffton President James Harder. “It was clearly a very moving day when they took the field again.”

That the 2007 season would become a reality was understandably in question – not only because of the significant loss of life, but for practical reasons as well. A number of the other Bluffton players and coaches, including head coach James Grandey, were severely injured, and the team’s equipment, which had been stored in the bottom of the bus, had been ruined.

Harder announced publicly that no decision on the season would be made until after a campus memorial service that honored the five student-athletes. During a team meeting a week later, the remaining players made it clear they wanted to continue with the season.

“They did this for themselves for a sense of healing but also from a conviction that it’s what their fallen teammates would have wanted,” Harder said. “They took the field and finished the season. It was really a spectacular moment.”

The "Touching Home" centerpiece of Bluffton's "Circle of Remembrance"

Though the squad and the institution have moved on, the lost student-athletes are far from forgotten. A year after the accident, the university dedicated the Circle of Remembrance, a permanent memorial to the five players. It sits along the side of the baseball field, which was rebuilt largely from funds donated for that purpose.

The memorial includes a low, circular wall with five stone benches, plaques with photos and descriptions of each player lost and five flowering trees that blossom in the spring. At its center is a sculpture conceived by the chair of the Bluffton art department called “Touching Home,” which features the footprints made from the cleats of each of the lost student-athletes and the handprints of every member of the 2007 team.

Of the 25 surviving student-athletes who were on the bus, 24 will graduate from Bluffton. One left the university in 2008 to play minor-league baseball.

Harder said the team and the university tried to approach the unexpected and terrible loss in a way that honored and respected the lost students with the help of the community and the strength and determination of a fine team of student-athletes and coaches.

“So often we focus on wins and losses, but there’s so much more that can happen and does happen through the team experience and through the finest ideals of college athletics,” said Harder. “This is an example of that.”

Leading the way

At Army, Gadson anchored a defensive unit that helped the football team post a 9-3 record and earn a berth in the Sun Bowl during his senior year. He displayed that same leadership as a commander of a field artillery battalion in Baghdad, Iraq,

Greg Gadson with Army General Jim Shelton

during the operational surge in 2007. On May 7, Gadson’s four-vehicle patrol was struck by an improvised explosive device as it was returning to headquarters from a memorial service.

Gadson almost died in the explosion, losing nearly 70 pints of blood. He was evacuated from Iraq to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was so severely injured that he eventually underwent surgery to have both his legs amputated above the knee.

But Gadson did not allow the life-altering injury to become a life-ending one. Less than 10 weeks after being hurt, he returned to Army to participate in an annual reunion and golf tournament hosted by the Army Football Club. A year after the explosion, he pursued and earned an executive master of policy management degree within the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute.

Gadson remains in the Army, currently serving as an Army War College senior fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He also has worked with the medical community to test the most contemporary technology in prosthetic knees.

Family, friends, former Army teammates and other soldiers with whom Gadson served have played a big role in his recovery. So, he said, has his faith.

“When something like this happens, you go through the stages of grief and you ask why. Ultimately, you’re not going to come up with an answer, at least one that satisfies you, I suppose,” said Gadson. “But my faith is a tremendous part of what happened to me. When I was lying on the battlefield dying I know I asked God to live and I made it.”

Gadson with N.Y. Giants quarterback Eli Manning

Gadson dedicates much of his time speaking with others about courage, perseverance and teamwork. The NFL’s New York Giants were so moved by Gadson’s story that they made him an honorary co-captain during their run to the 2007 Super Bowl title.

While he was still in the hospital, Gadson received a visit from his former Army football teammate and current Giants’ wide receivers coach Mike Sullivan, who later arranged for Gadson to attend New York’s regular-season matchup against the Washington Redskins in Washington, D.C. He also offered an emotional address to the team before the game.

“What I shared was that there are a lot of things going on in life, but only the folks in that room could have an impact on what happened,” recalled Gadson, a lieutenant colonel. “Tomorrow is not promised. You don’t always have another opportunity, and I’m living proof of that. Your life can change in a flash and boom. You have to play your best all the time.”

The Giants maintained contact with Gadson throughout the remainder of the season and throughout their playoff run. They not only designated Gadson as an honorary team captain during the postseason but also made sure he was on hand for games in Tampa and Green Bay (as well as at the Super Bowl).

Gadson said an important part of moving forward, especially in the face of potentially overwhelming situations, is accepting the circumstances.

“If you don’t accept it, I don’t think you can really move on,” he said. “The second part of this is to take it one day at a time. If you look at a mountain and it’s huge, it can seem overwhelming. But, if you take one step, focus on the moment, live in the moment the best you can, then you’ll get to where you are trying to go.”

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