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Wrecked and recovered: Will Douglas' long road back to baseball

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Varnell — Seconds before his '90s blue Toyota pickup smashed into the culvert and crinkled into a wad of metal on a cloudy December morning, he woke, but there was little he could do.

The truck, cocked downward to the right riding on the steep edge of the drainage ditch, struck the stiff wall of the gravel driveway on a desolate country road in Whitfield County, forcing the strong, young body of Coahulla Creek High School pitcher Will Douglas to be flung forward into the steering wheel, violently bending it up toward the windshield.

His hips dislocated and shattered as they crunched against the rigid wheel and his body briefly collapsed into a ball. Without a seatbelt, he was powerless as his body was tossed around like a limp ragdoll before coming to rest back in the driver's seat.

The excruciating pain instantly shot through his body faster than the adrenaline could numb. Everything else went quiet as his painful groans echoed.

Then it briefly went dark.

"I remember waking up in the ditch because my truck was basically sideways," Douglas said. "In that split second, I thought my dad was gonna be so mad at me. I don't remember the wreck. I don't remember hitting the culvert. I guess I was in so much shock and passed out."

Two months before his much-anticipated junior season, everything changed. In fewer than five seconds, his life was altered and his baseball career was put on hold.

Dalton Daily Citizen

Contributed photo

After the accident, Coahulla Creek pitcher Will Douglas' truck was totalled.

The crash

Douglas has been playing baseball for most of his life, since he was 7 or 8 years old, pitching for most of it. His father, Pat, had been his rec league coach until he entered middle school and Douglas' passion for the sport grew with every pitch and swing.

"I've been playing baseball as long as I can remember," he said. "It means a lot. It's something that's been part of my life since I was really little that rolls around every spring that I get to look forward to."

In his first varsity start on the mound as a sophomore, Douglas threw a complete game, allowing two earned runs with three strikeouts in a 3-2 win over North Murray High School.

He was on the rise.

"He had such a strong season, especially on the mound," Coahulla Creek baseball coach Michael Bolen said. "He had a great summer and fall in the weight room. I was very eager and excited to see him perform his junior year."

Douglas was getting stronger, his pitches were getting faster and cleaner and he was becoming the player he always knew he could be.

Then it was all stripped away and he was reduced to a kid laying in a hospital bed with little to no use of his legs.

"It sucked," Douglas said. "It was bad because you only get four years of high school baseball and (the crash) took away a quarter of that."

The night before the accident, four days before the new year in 2016, his mother, Lyn, pleaded with him to not go hunting in the morning. She insisted he sleep in and get rest for an upcoming basketball game he was supposed to play in later that night.

"I said nope, I'm going duck hunting," Douglas remembered, saying his dad finally convinced his mother into letting him spend the morning trudging around the lakes of North Georgia.

The next day, on a typical cool and cloudy late-December morning, Douglas gathered his rifle and hunting gear and headed out in search of some ducks. He shot two or three of them before getting bored of his initial spot and headed to a lake not far from his house that he figured would have some ducks lurking around.

When he got there, there were already a few hunters around who said to come back another day. Douglas obliged and headed home to rest up for basketball.

He didn't feel tired.

On his way home, heading west on Riverdale Road, a mile east of Beaverdale Road, he dosed off. He didn't feel it coming and couldn't fight it.

The next thing he remembered was laying in agony in the seat of his truck.

The truck, which once belonged to his grandfather, stood still, implanted in the side of the culvert, front bumper caved in, headlights shattered and axle folded. The front, passenger side wheel bent back under the wheel well.

Fire trucks and ambulances soon filled the once quiet stretch of road.

XRay

Contributed photo

Douglas needed four rods and a handful of screws to repair his dislocated and shattered hips.

The aftermath

Lyn had just gotten back from a morning workout at the gym when she got a call from Pat.

"I don't know how bad it is, but Will's been in a car accident," he told her.

Without hesitation, she grabbed a pair of flip flops and drove to the accident scene still dressed in her sweatpants.

It's was only a few miles from the Douglas home to the crash site. At first she couldn't find where her son was, but after the road crested at the top of a rolling hill, she saw the lights. Emergency workers wouldn't let her near the truck as the paramedics attempted to extricate him from the crumpled vehicle.

"The first thing I saw was his little truck all smashed up," she said. "I wanted him to know I was there and I said, 'Will, I'm here and you're gonna be just fine.'"

Calm to that point, she hadn't yet processed the severity of the situation.

Manipulating his body through the door of the cab wasn't a simple task. Lyn described it as trying to get a desk through a doorway. As emergency workers poked and prodded their way around, trying to free him, the pain became more and more unbearable with every turn.

"Getting out of the truck and getting to the ambulance was the worst because my legs were all jacked up," Douglas said. "And they didn't know so they just ripped my legs out of the car and put me on the stretcher. I was screaming."

Once they got him out and put him on the stretcher and into the ambulance, he was taken to Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton. Upon arrival, orthopedic surgeon John Norman assessed the damage to Douglas' hips.

He had shattered his pelvis and had nerve damage stretching down to his knee on his right leg. During impact, his right side took the brunt of the force, splintered and dislocated.

Norman set his hips back in place, stimulating blood flow, before transferring Douglas to Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn., to begin repairing what Douglas had done to his body.

"That's when I realized exactly what was happening," Lyn said. "I was so hurt for Will because I knew he was in pain, but I was also upset because I remember thinking this was gonna be a marker for the rest of his life.

"I just remember thinking how much he enjoyed playing sports and stuff and that that might not be the way it was before. That it was gonna change. It's hard seeing your kid hurt like that."

Dalton Daily Citizen

Coahulla Creek High School baseball coach Michael Bolen visits with Will Douglas in the hospital.

The fix

After a nine-hour surgery to piece together the fractures, inserting four rods on his right hip and a handful of screws on both sides, Douglas spent the night laying in the trauma center not knowing what the future held.

That night, he said, was one of the worst nights. He remembers hearing patients wheeled in and out in pain, screaming. It was unlike anything he had seen or heard before.

"It was disturbing," he said somewhat cringing. "I was in there all night and there were people coming in that were worse off than me, screaming. It was scary."

One of the biggest question marks was baseball. Though it was far from their biggest concern, it was on everyone's mind. Would he play again? How would this alter his ability to participate in the sport he had spent the past 10 years playing?

When Bolen got the news, he was crushed, not for his team, but for the player he knew was about to be something special.

While standing in line with his wife and daughter at Disney World, waiting to meet Princess Moana, Bolen got a text that read, "call me as soon as possible."

"It was a sickening feeling," Bolen said. "You felt your stomach start to turn immediately. It was tough news to take, not just from the baseball side. But you didn't know if he would be able to come back the same or even come back at all."

Dalton Daily Citizen

Contributed photo

Douglas throws a baseball in his backyard not long after his accident. He was forced to use a wheel chair for 12 weeks.

The comeback

Douglas began his rehab the moment he felt able. He and his grandfather would go into the back yard and toss a ball back and forth with Douglas sitting on a wicker chair.

He spent 12 weeks in a wheelchair, unable to move his legs much. His family made minor alterations to their house, adding a hospital bed to their master bedroom because his wheelchair couldn't fit through the doorway of his bedroom and building ramps so he could get out the front door and off the porch. His older brother, Walter, even brought down their PlayStation and TV from the upstairs bonus room so he would have a nice setup in the den.

It was a lot to get used to. The injury stripped him of abilities he'd never thought about living without. But as he always did, Douglas took it in stride with a smile on his face.

"I had to lift my legs up with my arms to move places," he said. "I couldn't shower for three weeks. I couldn't use the bathroom by myself, I had to get a catheter put in because everything was all blocked up and swollen."

He did his schoolwork at home, usually all in one day. He sat at home and flipped through different shows on Netflix. He would get driven to Dalton's Associates In Orthopedics & Sports Medicine clinic two or three times a week for physical therapy, doing squats and band work to keep his legs at even strength.

It was a stress-free life he was living. But that didn't last and before long, the urges to return to the field began to surface.

"Once I was good to go I was at every home game that I could get to and every close away game," said Douglas, who would wheel his chair into the dugout and watch. "I'd come to practice sometimes and sit and watch. It sucked because I wanted to be playing."

As he rested, his bones healed and his strength began to return. After his three months in a wheelchair, he began the real push to get back onto the field.

On April 20, 2017 15 weeks after his accident, Douglas got his first at-bat since the crash.

With his family and supporters at his back, people who had prayed for him and given him anything he needed over the past three months, he stepped up to the plate pinch-hitting for teammate Drew Sage and drilled an RBI-single.

"It was a mini celebration in the dugout," Bolen said. "A lot of high fives as he came off the field. It was a special moment. He was told to take it easy, we weren't expecting a full on sprint. We were trying to hold him back, but that's hard to do with somebody that wants to go out and compete as much as he did."

Coahulla Creek embarked on a historic run, reaching the Class 3A Final Four for the first time in school history. But though he had a very small role on the team, Douglas sat in the dugout for most of it.

"It was killing him," teammate Michael King said. "Will loves baseball, it's his favorite sport. Him not being able to play, I know that hurt him a lot."

In a 5-0 loss to Pike County High School in their final game, Douglas got another at-bat. He was a shell of what he was at that point a season before, but he had come a long way from where he sat three months prior.

To him and his family, that was enough.

"It was just like it should be," Lyn said. "It felt right. I didn't feel anything but this is how it's supposed to be. Like things had finally got back to normal. You learn a lot about your kids when they go through something like that. It's good to know that where he was and what he had been through, he never gave up. Even when he really could have, he never said I'm not gonna play baseball again. That never even crossed his mind."

As a senior, he feels as close to 100 percent as he's felt in the last year. Watching his windup on the mound, you wouldn't notice a different hitch in his step or a dropoff in velocity. If it wasn't for the foot-long scars running parallel up his thighs, curling up and around his hips, you couldn't tell what he'd been through.

But for a while after the accident, hidden behind a bright smile, sat a hint of disappointment and regret. He felt like he had thrown away an entire season, but it's made him take in each game he has left.

"It made me appreciate things more," Douglas said. "I had basically everybody everywhere praying for me. Everybody knows about it everywhere I go. I had a lot of people behind me.

"It's my last season. I have (nine) more games left and I'm done with baseball forever, which sucks. But I just have to make the most of it while I can."

Dalton Daily Citizen

Coahulla Creek High School senior Will Douglas celebrates a walk-off home run in an 11-1 win over Murray County High School on March 16.

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