We'll blog from Jesuit at Dunedin on Tuesday with updates from other playoff games, including softball. Go to blogs.tampabay.com/preps.
DADE CITY — Hours before his team's senior night game against Zephyrhills, Pasco High baseball coach Ricky Giles, a huge man with a resounding deep bellow, told his players to take a knee on the grass behind home plate.
Giles was seated in the bleachers just on the other side of a chain-link fence. He asked team captain Jake Schrader to come up and sit beside him. Performance had sagged recently. So, too, had camaraderie. Giles said a few things then pulled a letter written in cursive, author unknown, from his pocket and handed it to Schrader to read.
I wish everyone here would put themselves in Henry's shoes for one minute. I've never heard him complain or whine one time. What I do see is a kid who comes to every game home and away to support his team. He would trade places with any of you in a minute to be able to play the game he loves. Maybe tonight we could focus on the team and being there for each other, like he has been for you.
Schrader kept his sunglasses on for the entire reading, mostly to shroud the tears. He and Henry Johnson, after all, have played baseball together roughly the past decade — except for this year.
A freak accident during a Jan. 19 preseason practice put Henry in the emergency room then a neck brace.
"He takes it a lot better than I would," said Schrader, also clueless to who wrote the letter. "I don't think I would've been able to be here. He has yet to miss a practice, a game, anything. He has a lot more heart than a lot of these kids on this team, which makes it even worse."
James Henry Johnson, a soft-spoken senior right-hander raised on Dade City's rural outskirts, entered 2009 as the undisputed ace of Pasco's pitching staff. As that fateful practice adjourned, he was wrestling with some teammates near third base when he tripped over his feet and fell back. A buddy fell on top of him.
Suddenly, Henry said, his whole body felt like your funny bone does when it hits something. He never lost consciousness but initially could barely move his left hand.
The horseplay "was something he never does. It's so out of character for him," said Henry's mom, Irene. "They had an experience back when they played in (the San Antonio Dixie League). Kids were horsing around, and one broke his leg during practice before our season started."
At the dawn of the most important baseball season of his life, Henry had dislodged the C4 vertebra and pinched a blood vessel on the left side of his neck. Two surgeries were required, including one to cap an artery to prevent blood clotting or worse, a stroke.
Henry spent four days at Tampa General Hospital, a day and a half of that in traction.
"He says, 'Daddy, I've messed up. I'm sorry,' " recalled Henry's dad, Donnie. "I said, 'Son, stop. We'll get through this. Don't worry about this at all.' … From the time they moved him in there (to TGH), he never moved that head until he got into surgery.
"He knows where he wants to go and what he wants to do."
And what he wanted to do, more than anything, was return to the mound for his senior year. A day after his second surgery, Henry says, the doctor told him "12 weeks." By then, most of the season would be gone. But Henry could salvage a few late-season starts and work his way into throwing shape for the playoffs.
He circled senior night as his return date.
Henry has never scared anyone with his velocity, but boy, can he find a strike zone. As the lanky No. 3 pitcher for the 26-7 Pirates last season, he finished 8-0 with a 1.00 ERA. In 49 innings, he struck out only 39 but walked only six. When he didn't pitch, he played third base and hit .323.
The graduation of Pasco's No. 1 and 2 pitchers left him as the bona fide ace entering 2009. He essentially geared his offseason toward the Feb. 19 season opener against Land O'Lakes.
He spent that evening in the dugout, his head immobilized by a cumbersome gray neck brace. Pasco lost 10-6.
"It was pretty hard knowing you could do something but you can't," said Henry, who dropped roughly 10 pounds (to about 160) from his 6-foot-2 frame.
Henry couldn't throw, hit, run or even catch. But he could be there. So he did that, even if it was the equivalent of a surfer driving to the beach every day but never stepping foot on the sand.
He came to every practice, suited up for every game. Initially, he pedaled a stationary bike near the third-base dugout. Later, he fed balls into the pitching machine during batting practice. No one would have blamed him for spending his afternoons elsewhere. Henry, after all, had been cleared to fish. And he loved fishing.
Yet the only times he was even tardy was when his rehab ran late. Instead of studying hitters, he learned patience. Instead of reeling in catfish, using raw hot dog pieces for bait, he cast hope that the 12 weeks would elapse quickly and he could be effective in May.
"It's basically my family. That's how Coach Giles runs it," Henry said. "I mean, they were there for me, so I'm here for them."
As March segued into April, Henry started wearing the brace less, especially around the house. Finally, 12 weeks came and went. A nurse practitioner for Henry's surgeon did the anticipated checkup. According to Henry, the nurse reported the neck "good as new." He could resume his normal activities.
"The surgeon said 12 weeks, it would be as good as new. And then my practitioner said six months I can't throw a baseball or nothing," said Henry, between spits of sunflower seeds last week while watching teammates take cuts against a pitching machine.
"And all he was looking at was my X-rays."
A happy ending
Henry, in uniform and neck brace, joined his parents on the field for the April 17 senior night. Then he watched junior teammate Brennan Allen pitch the first complete game of his life in a 4-2 win over Zephyrhills. Three nights later, he watched Mitchell lefty Patrick Schuster toss his fourth consecutive no-hitter.
Henry had really wanted the ball for that game, too.
"I learned to be a little more patient and not take anything for granted anymore," Henry said. "That's one of the big things. I'm just happy I can walk. Real thankful."
Finally, some natural sweetener was added to the bitterness. Less than two weeks ago, Henry, whose grade point average is above 3.5, accepted an offer from nearby Division II Saint Leo to join the roster next season as a walk-on.
Lions coach Russ McNickle "saw me last year, and he knows what I can do," Henry said. "He says there's no doubt in his mind that I can come back and keep throwing strikes."
Henry will be in the dugout Tuesday when the Pirates begin play in the Class 4A region tournament. In a month or so, he'll get his diploma, giving him an education in one hand and a college baseball deal in the other. A far cry from fused vertebrae and near-ruptured arteries.
Remember the first words of the unknown author.
I wish everyone here would put themselves in Henry's shoes for one minute.
No imploring needed these days. Many probably wish they were in his shoes.
"I'll tell you right now, he's blessed," Giles said.
"He's a blessed young man."
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3350.