Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series chronicling New Hope baseball player Jeremiah Jethroe’s recovery from a fractured neck.
At New Hope’s July 16 practice, Michelle Jethroe looks on from her green folding chair in the fifth row behind home plate as her son Jeremiah leaps to snag a high throw from across the diamond, reaching down with his glove to slap a hard tag on the batter’s helmet as the two players converge awkwardly at first base.
Head coach Lee Boyd, always concerned about the lasting impact of injuries like Jeremiah’s, said he, too, still flinches whenever the first baseman makes any risky plays.
“Any time you have a neck injury, you worry about not just the present moment but what the future holds,” Boyd said.
According to Jeremiah, the chance of re-aggravating the fracture is low — for the most part.
“Of course, if I drop another culvert on my head,” he said. “As long as I don’t do anything crazy or off the wall, it should be fine.”
Boyd said Jeremiah is now permanently excused from tarp duty — he sustained his injury when a large culvert pipe he was helping teammates carry after a February practice fell on his neck — so the situation isn’t likely to repeat itself. But he’s still banned by his coach and his mother from sliding or diving for the time being.
“As long as he sees me, he’ll remember, ‘I better not slide. I better not dive,'” Michelle said. “I try to remind him, ‘Please, son, that’s an expensive neck you have there.'”
Otherwise, Jeremiah said, “I’m good.” He has a full range of motion and can swing and throw freely without pain.
“It’s awesome to see him back full speed,” Boyd said. “He’s extremely happy to be out here, and we are, too.”
There in spirit
New Hope only played eight games in 2020 before COVID-19 shut down the season, but Michelle thinks Jeremiah would have played in all of them if he could have.
When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, Jeremiah tried a different option. He asked Michelle to take him to Trojan Field for the team’s Feb. 25 game against East Webster, hoping to sit with his teammates and watch. Again, Michelle said no.
But she found a way to keep Jeremiah connected to his team and to baseball — his “first love.” The Jethroes had a parent of a Trojan teammate stream the game against the Wolverines and a March 3 home game against Caledonia on Facebook Live for Jeremiah’s benefit. Michelle propped up her son in the wood-paneled bed, between the black rails on either side, and turned the screen toward Jeremiah so he could watch.
In that way, Jeremiah stayed close to his team, but it wasn’t for long. The following week, the Trojans squeezed in three games at the Battle of the Beach tournament on the Gulf Coast, but the season was paused before the end of spring break. It never resumed.
But for all the pandemic’s horrors, Michelle said it might have helped in Jeremiah’s case: She no longer had to consider grounding him to keep him off the field.
He still tried, though.
Boyd had to quash Jeremiah’s attempt to return early when New Hope started practicing in June, before his clearance date.
“I told J.J., ‘You’re not getting anywhere near the field without a doctor’s note, buddy,'” Boyd said.
But as the final weeks of Jeremiah’s recovery slipped away, it turned out to be easier than he thought.
“It wasn’t hard because I love baseball,” he said. “I love lifting weights. I love the freedom of being able to do basically whatever I want. So I knew if I wanted to do that, I had to follow orders. It wasn’t hard.”
Before the unlikely accident that sidelined him this spring, Jeremiah had never been kept off the field much. A couple of dislocated shoulders here and some knee inflammation there comprised his past injury history.
Now, he says, he “started off with a bang” for what he considers his first major injury.
“Go big or go home,” Jeremiah said. “I actually went big and went home.”
And although the recovery process was long and arduous, he feels lucky to be back on the field when many other young athletes weren’t as fortunate.
“Man, I could have died,” he said. “I could have been in a really bad place right now if I just wasn’t lucky.”
Jeremiah says perhaps only chance and his thorough exercise routine (Michelle proclaimed him one of the “thicker-necked” Trojans) spared him paralysis — or worse.
“Honestly, if I wasn’t as big as I was and working out as much as I used to, I’d probably be dead or paralyzed,” he said. “If it would have been anyone else out here …”
That’s why, Michelle said, Jeremiah’s glad it was he, rather than a more vulnerable teammate, who suffered the injury.
“He hates that it happened, but if anybody had to get hurt, he’s glad it was him,” she said.
Michelle said the incident left her with a message certain to last a lifetime.
“Cherish life,” she said. “We must cherish every moment of life, because that could have been a whole lot worse than it was.”
All the way through
If Jeremiah ever forgets to do just that, he’s now got two permanent reminders.
Michelle says she has pictures of the plate surgically inserted in Jeremiah’s neck — enduring evidence of her son’s injury.
“Metal detectors at airports are going to be fun now,” Jeremiah said.
Then there’s Jeremiah’s “war wound”: the scar that runs across the right side of his neck. Still slightly raised several months after surgery, the mark cautions Jeremiah that he doesn’t want to go through anything similar a second time.
“Every time I think about doing something stupid, I just rub this scar that I got from surgery,” he said. “It cost a lot, and I don’t need to do that again.”
Jeremiah knows how he got hurt wasn’t something stupid: just a “freak accident” that nobody expected. He says it was “by the grace of God” that he made it, and Michelle echoes the sentiment: Their faith got them through when they were unsure whether surgery would bring about a complete recovery or if the injury could have long-term effects on Jeremiah’s health.
“We had to trust God all the way through this,” Michelle said. “We had to. There was no other way. We had to. We couldn’t do it if we hadn’t trusted God all the way through.”
Michelle, who never misses a practice, was the only spectator in the concrete section behind the plate for the Trojans’ July 16 workout. She watched and cheered — though not without expressing occasional concern — as Jeremiah snagged throws and scooped up grounders at first base, jumped on pitches in the batting cage and scampered around the bases.
Toward the end of practice, Michelle pointed at the field, where her son did what he loved once more.
“That’s what he’s been fighting for right here,” she said.