Talon Harris sported a fat lip and eight or 10 blue stitches in his mouth as he dug in at the plate at Veterans Park in Soddy-Daisy last week.
It was only appropriate for a guy used to giving his all on the field.
The former Soddy-Daisy High School baseball star was making his first appearance in an official game since a devastating March 2012 truck wreck left him with a brain injury, broken bones and a bruised heart and lung.
Harris' mouth injury had come in an earlier practice for a church softball league game, a different venue than the college baseball game he might have expected to be playing in before the wreck, but one he vows is only a stepping stone to bigger things.
"I'm confident I will make it back to what I love to do," he says. "I am 200 percent sure of getting back out there catching, hitting and throwing people out by a mile."
Harris was a designated hitter for Rechoboth Baptist Church on this night, but mom Lori Humphreys says he has been working out with his former coaches at Soddy-Daisy, has been hitting the ball solidly and has been throwing well.
"He is able to do a lot of things," she says. "He's pretty quick on his feet. He's coming back around. Eventually, it's all going to come together."
Harris knows he has hurdles to overcome.
"I'm not hitting and running as fast as I used to be," he says, adding, "Catching is a lot different with the size of the softball."
The now 18-year-old was one of the region's top baseball players as a high school junior, slamming 18 home runs to tie for tops in the area and raising eyebrows from Major League scouts.
His speed of 4.3 to 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash was also impressive for the 6-foot-3 outfielder.
Harris' wreck, on Old Dayton Pike on March 3, 2012, occurred as he was driving his 1992 Ford Ranger pickup to a 9 a.m. Saturday practice.
"It was way too early for a high school athlete," he says.
Harris doesn't remember exactly what happened, but his mom says witnesses reported he wasn't swerving or speeding. When he veered off the road and hit a tree, he was doing only 32 miles an hour.
"We honestly have no idea why he wrecked," she says.
What they do know is he wasn't wearing his seat belt.
"We always have worn our seat belt," says Humphreys, who since the accident has advocated with area groups for seat-belt usage. "We enforced wearing a seat belt. For whatever reason, he didn't have it on."
Harris apparently hit his head on the windshield or the steering wheel but didn't have a body-absorbing airbag to minimize the impact.
He broke every bone in his face, had his nose nearly severed, fractured a hip, broke some ribs, shattered an ankle, experienced brain swelling and at one point quit breathing.
"They barely got him trached," Humphreys says.
The situation was so bad, Erlanger's Life Force helicopter was called but sent back, because "they couldn't wait," she says.
Humphreys got the call from Soddy-Daisy baseball coach Jared Hensley.
"It's the phone call you never want to get," she says.
Rechoboth pastor Alan Stewart says people thought there was not a chance in the world he would survive.
"His nose was literally ripped aside his face," he says. "I've seen a lot of things as a pastor, but this was one of the worst."
What followed for the teenager was just over a month in Erlanger hospital, then about two and a half months at the Shepherd Center for physical rehabilitation in Atlanta.
Harris didn't say his first word or take his first step until late May 2012. His mom says he had to retrain to do all the things she once initially helped him learn. Indeed, when he came home in mid-June, he still wore a diaper.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Since returning home, he has continued his physical rehabilitation for three hours a day three days a week at Siskin Hospital.
"His memory is still healing," Humphreys says. "Some days he remembers a lot. Some days you have to give him cues, remind him.
"He walks without any assistance," she says. "The fine motor skills in his right hand are not that good. His right arm is not able to straighten out. Everything is so tight in his leg and his hip."
Harris also occasionally wakes in the morning with a leg that starts shaking uncontrollably.
"It goes into bouncing up and down," he says. "It's tiring."
But Harris has beaten the odds so far, so not returning to a field was not an option for a guy his mother says has been a "risk-taking, adrenaline rush[-seeking], natural, talented athlete" since he was a kid.
"From what they said," he says, "I was not supposed to get out of a hospital bed. I proved them wrong."
Still, Harris says, "I want to conquer so many things in life. I want people to shake their head and say, 'I can't believe he did it.'"
So far, softball is the closest he's come to his former life. Of that, he says, "the past is the past, the future is the future."
But Harris is embracing the softball as he did football, basketball and baseball at Soddy-Daisy High.
Indeed, several weeks before the first game, Humphreys says, they came home from physical therapy at 11:30 a.m., and Harris immediately began searching for his baseball pants. By 1:30 p.m., she says, he'd put on his practice togs, slipped on his cleats and stuffed his glove in his back pocket. But practice wasn't until 7:30 p.m.
In his first official game, Harris, dressed in a print T-shirt and blue Nike shorts, served as a vocal cheerleader while his team was in the field.
"Here we go, defense, here we go," he yelled, his still-hoarse voice a remnant of his accident.
When it was finally Harris' turn, he made contact, eliciting applause from both sides and shuffling down to first. When his teammates drove him home after another at-bat, he couldn't help stomping on home plate, gesticulating to the fans and taking a victory lap through the home stands.
"Get Elvis off the field," the opposing catcher said, laughing.
"He has a wonderful sense of humor," said Stewart.
Harris had enough credits to graduate from Soddy-Daisy and his baseball scholarship is being held for him by Cleveland State Community College. He says his short-term goal is to improve "my walking," but he doesn't want to limit the next few years.
"I can't wait to see what the future brings, what the man upstairs has in mind for me to become," he says, adding a desire beyond active sports to be a coach.
Although Humphreys says because of his desire, "he doesn't always realize things are more of a challenge than they are," she's no less optimistic.
"We just say things have just been delayed," she says.
Contact Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...