One brief minute. Sixty fleeting seconds. Few people realize – perhaps mercifully – the significance that a single passing moment can have in a lifetime full of them. But if the chorus from Kelly Clarkson’s “One Minute” is any indication, the American Idol winner gets it.
“One minute you laugh / The next minute you’re slowly sinking into something black / I get the feeling that lately nothing ever really lasts / Cause one minute goes fast / One minute goes fast / One minute goes fast.”
And I’m pretty sure that Jon Wilhite gets it too.
On April 9, 2009, good pals Wilhite, a former Cal State Fullerton catcher, Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart (22), Courtney Stewart (20) and Wilhite’s childhood friend, Henry Pearson (25) were headed to a Fullerton club to celebrate Adenhart’s successful major league season debut against the Oakland Athletics.
But fate had other plans. The four friends collided with a drunk driver who had run a red light and plowed into their car at a speed in excess of 65 mph. Stewart and Pearson died at the scene. Adenhart died at the hospital.
Skillful paramedics were able to extract the seriously injured Wilhite from the car using the Jaws of Life. Unaware of the severity of his injuries, the gifted emergency workers managed to keep Wilhite alive and placed a rigid collar on him.
Upon arriving at the hospital, Wilhite’s doctors discovered that the only things holding his head in place were skin, muscle and the collar; Wilhite had been internally decapitated. The doctors could not operate on him. Wilhite’s lungs had collapsed and his brain was swelling.
For six days, the battered Wilhite lay immobilized by a steel halo screwed into his skull. Eventually a 30-member surgical team was able to use rods and screws to delicately place a titanium plate connecting Wilhite’s neck to his skull.
The incredibly fortunate Wilhite began his miraculous rehabilitation three weeks later. He was soon able to walk, speak and swallow on his own. But the real turning point came two months later when the gregarious Wilhite’s comical personality reappeared, drolly pointing out that the spine straightening had actually made him taller.
Remarkably, within 14 weeks of an injury that kills 95 percent of its victims, Wilhite was throwing the opening pitch at a baseball game at Cal State Fullerton’s Goodwin Field with barely a hint of unsteadiness or stiffness.
Given Wilhite’s well-deserved popularity as a ceremonial hurler, he laughingly describes himself as a “professional first pitcher.” But the community sees him as much, much more. In April of 2012, the UC Irvine Medical Center honored Wilhite as a “Hero of Healing.”
Tonight along with three other courageous individuals – Colonel Greg Gadson, Cory Hahn, and Sam Schmidt – Wilhite will be honored at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Tempe Sports Authority Foundation’s Courage Awards.
The Tempe Sports Authority Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, established the annual prestigious Courage Awards in 1994 through the volunteer efforts of the board. The award ceremony celebrates exceptional men and women athletes and individuals who triumph over obstacles to rise above physical challenges or overcome significant injury to persevere and achieve their goals. These role models demonstrate heroism in the face of adversity and inspire young people nationwide.
In advance of this year’s event, Wilhite was kind enough to chat with me about his inspiring story. It was readily apparent that the former college baseball player knew that he’d been blessed with extra innings.
“I got a change in life perspective, you know? People put too much importance on the small things or things that don’t really matter. When at the end of the day, life’s about family and friends and faith, and the rest of that is background.”
“It’s always been positive and stuff. But the grind of going through what I went through and the recovery – you take little things for granted. I had to relearn to do pretty much everything again. Little things, such as eating were hard, you know? Swallowing liquids. Even just walking somewhere. Those are things you don’t even think about. But those are things that I had to totally relearn. And so I just try not to take anything for granted.”
Wilhite’s has certainly faced some formidable physical challenges. But perhaps the most difficult trials during his recovery have been facing the loss of his three friends.
“For the first two years – I’d say a year and a half at least – I was just so preoccupied with my physical recovery that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think. I was doing all these rehabs, I was exhausted.”
“I’m dealing with the mental side now. And I wouldn’t say it’s guilt. I think sometimes I put too much pressure on myself to just try and have fun. Moments when I’m down, I almost feel sort of guilty just because they’re not here.”
“They would trade a day and here I’m letting a rough day at work get me down or something. They were three people that live life to the fullest. I just can’t try to live up to the way they lived because they were just all real special.”
People that have been “lucky” enough to experience significant trials in life have remarked that the lessons that they learned as a result often become more difficult to remember as time passes. But it’s hard to imagine Wilhite forgetting what he’s been through.
“I have several reminders and things that go back, just to keep my perspective and sort of keep my edge on everyone else. Because not many people are given a second chance at this thing. There’s a website called Caring Bridge. Someone told my mom and my parents about it when I first got to the hospital. And it’s a way for them to give family and friends updates.”
“So they would update each day on my progress in the hospital and there’s a way for people to reach out and send me well wishes and that sort of thing. My mom actually had that made into a book. There’s a hard copy. That way I’ll always have it.”
“And sometimes when I’m not in the right place, I’ll take a look at that and just try and remember how far I’ve come and how well I’m doing. Because there’s points in the day where I have the normal stresses that I just need to try and keep at bay. Life’s all about perspective and how you look at things, you know?”
After chatting with Wilhite for a few minutes, there’s no question that he has a remarkable perspective.
“Yeah, probably not as much as I should have. But it definitely pushes me to get to the gym four to five days a week. I’m still an athlete even though I don’t play sports. I still have that mentality. I’m always trying to find ways that I can improve. I just started running again, so it’s nice to get full on moving, like actually trying to sprint.”
“It’s just a lot of the tools and stuff I’ve learned as an athlete that I try and apply. And there could be days where I’m tired and don’t want to go, but I realize how lucky I am to even be here. And I’m gonna get my butt there and work my butt off.”
Wilhite’s hard earned perspective extends to his selection as a Courage Award honoree. “I was blown away when I was even brought up. I just looked at some of the past recipients and they are people and stories that I’ve heard about. They’re very inspiring stories and for me to be the one they’re telling the story about – it’s an honor.”
“People are defined by adversity and how they deal with it. I was dealt a tough hand just like everyone else who has this award. But being honored here just shows and proves to me and some other people how I dealt with adversity.”
“And I think that says a lot about me as a person and my family and the way I was brought up and my coaches. There’s a lot of different people who molded me and allowed me to deal with this the way I did.”
As Wilhite continues his inspirational recovery, don’t bet against him achieving the impossible. Just don’t expect him to make the next Harlem Shake video.
“(Laughing) Doubtful. But right now, I have a really good opportunity in what I’m doing for my dad, work wise. I’ve been doing it for about a year and I’m just getting my feet under me there and dealing with the last few hurdles of the mental side of things that pop up every once in a while.”
“I could see myself in the next year or so getting involved back with baseball, not to make money or whatever, just like the local high school. My buddy’s a high school coach at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach.”
“I just miss the game and I miss being around athletics. I miss you helping people achieve their goals. I would also like to use the stage I was presented to address the issue of drinking and driving. That would help too, in my recovery, to look at the bigger picture of things.”
Even after spending just a few moments with Jon Wilhite, it’s obvious that his picture of life is enormous. And that in itself is worthy of any award he may ever receive…
Tonight’s special event will take place at Phoenix Marriott Tempe at The Buttes (2000 Westcourt Way) in Tempe, Arizona. The evening will include a cocktail reception and silent auction starting at 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner, a live auction, and award ceremony filled with moving stories of perseverance and triumph at 7 p.m.
Tickets are available now at www.tempe-sports-authority-foundation.org or by calling 480.940.8666. Proceeds from the sale of tickets, auction and raffle purchases will benefit many youth-oriented non-profit organizations and provide scholarship opportunities for local students facing their own challenges that make it difficult to attend Arizona colleges.