May 9, 2010
By Matt Winklejohn
Sometimes it becomes more obvious that much of life is defined by the prism through which it is viewed, and Friday a reminder smiled broadly in Georgia Tech’s baseball locker room.
Brandon Wimpey was in the house, made to feel like a king by trainer Walter Smith, catcher Cole Leonida and all the Yellow Jackets on an afternoon where – perhaps for a few moments at least – cerebral palsy was rendered an afterthought.
“This is a huge deal. For somebody who loves sports as much as he does, who played it but has it taken away, and to see what these guys get to do and enjoy it . . . this is a big moment for him,” said Kimberly Wimpey, Brandon’s mother. “I know he will remember it. He remembers a lot of big things that have happened because not that many good things happen to him.”
A 16-year-old former catcher, Wimpey loves Tech. His mother busted out photos of his bedroom, and no home makeover could match it. Stark gold walls, white and black trim, the GT logo in several places, posters, memorabilia, Tech rug, linens . . . you name it.
Smith, who’s been on the staff at Tech for 25 years, made sure to top all of that.
He first learned of Wimpey when former Tech reserve quarterback Mike Rhodes (1985-’88) and the Wimpey family attended the April 16 game against Clemson, which Tech won on a 10th-inning home run.
Rhodes had recently become acquainted with the Wimpeys, learned of Brandon’s love of the Jackets, lined up a trip to the game and while there spoke with Smith. They know each other well from their extensive times shared together when the former student-athlete suffered a serious rotator cuff injury.
“I was injured more than I was on the field,” Rhodes said with a laugh. “Through the grapevine they found out I went to school here, and we brought Brandon to the Clemson (baseball) game and he met Paul Johnson and Josh(ua) Nesbitt, and then we rolled him over to the baseball game. Coach Danny Hall had invited us.
“I saw Walt, and was telling him about Brandon and that his favorite player was Cole (Leonida). And all this was Walt’s idea.”
All this included Leonida meeting Brandon and his family at Gate 1 at 4 p.m. Friday, three hours before the Jackets played UIC, and then visiting the locker room, the training room, going to batting practice and viewing Tech’s 8-4 win from the suite area in Russ Chandler Stadium.
“Mike and I were talking and I said, ‘You know, let’s do something special,’ ” Smith said. “My thinking was to make him an honorary bat boy, but I thought we should take it further than that, make it his day, so to speak. I was piggy-backing off the ESPN Make-a-wish-come-true thing they do where pro athletes bring a handicapped kid in the locker room and show them around.”
Cool as Brandon’s bedroom is, Tech’s locker room, training room and batting tunnel (cages) all form perhaps the ultimate man cave. There is a bunker feel about the place, low ceilings (not in the hitting area), and one gets the sensation of being part of a tight-knit clan just by being in there.
“Buzz” was present as Smith, Leonida and others showed the Wimpeys around. Brandon received a Tech batting helmet signed by every player and more. Smith also gave him a bag tag with the name and number of a former student-athlete who was supposed to play baseball a few years back at Tech but never did: Calvin Johnson, # 21. “I have two left,” Smith said with a smile.
Eyes wide open, Wimpey rolled through the locker room a few hours before the game, clearly amazed. The stalls (and some of the floor space in front of them) are fairly jammed with the personal effects of players, a table in the middle of the room was stacked with food. “We get Boston Market before just about every home game,” Smith said. “Jim Rome Is Burning” was on ESPN on an overhead TV.
At one time or another, every player introduced himself to Wimpey, and while he was in the players’ lounge — a cozy if small room with sofas to sink into — being shown the Jackets’ wall of fame with plaques honoring former players, Hall stopped in and said hello.
Shortly before 5:00, Deck McGuire, who was to pitch in the 7 p.m. game, stuck his head in the room. He quietly told Smith that he was about to take his customary pre-game shower – a ritual – and wanted to warn the visitors so that nobody would wander back through the locker room and past the adjacent showers at the wrong time. “I don’t want to scare anybody,” McGuire said with a grin.
Once upon a time, Wimpey wasn’t scared when he played catcher. He struggled, but loved it to his core.
Life dealt him a short straw when, just two weeks after birth, viral meningitis settled in his brain. The primary consequence is limited use of his right side. That has worsened. “He played baseball until 9-year-old kid-pitch, and obviously the pitches aren’t accurate and Brandon doesn’t have the flexibility and the agility to move out of the way,” his mother said. “He was getting hit too much.”
A couple years ago, surgery to help Wimpey’s right leg did not work out.
Listening to a mother describe how her son’s right femur was surgically broken, his hamstring and tendons cut, how part of his ankle and some donor bone was used to build the arch in his right foot was difficult for another parent to hear.
But this was worse: “With all the work they did in the foot, they damaged so many nerves that he cannot feel his foot. Now it’s really difficult for him to walk because he doesn’t know when his foot is down. Unfortunately, the surgery didn’t go as well as we had hoped and his walking has gotten a lot worse.”
Wimpey stood for a while in the training room, but spends most of his time in a wheelchair.
Brandon has an older brother, and a younger sister. He merits a lot of attention. His mother and father were gracious Friday. They have stories.
A few subdued moments on the side, away from Brandon as he was talking with players in the training room, underlined the reality that our lives are rarely as pained as they may seem when times are tough.
Brandon’s mother came over to speak with Smith and a writer who was running late and about to leave.
Completely composed to that point, Kimberly offered some heavy perspective. Beyond the gratitude she expressed, she said that while there are physical struggles that everyone can see her son and family endure, there are unseen greater pockets of emotional pain.
Her son’s friends at Woodstock’s Sequoyah High, where Brandon is a sophomore, are getting driver’s licenses, going on dates, to dances and more, “that he’ll never get to do.”
With big, brown eyes moistening, she said that when the family drives by the ball park where a catcher once played, he always says, “I miss those days.”
Tears came, and not just to a mother. “This is such a big deal for him,” the mother said.
Here, a thank-you to Brandon Wimpey for the gift of perspective that he gives, and to Walter Smith and the entire Georgia Tech baseball team for the gift and giving.
“When you think of someone like Brandon, it makes me think of how blessed I am with my kids and grandkids not having a handicap or a disability,” Smith said. “I just always care so much about people – that’s one reason I’m in this field, obviously – that when I see something special like this I want to see what I can do.”