By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
On a sunny but chilly day at Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley, a Greenbrier West batter lifted a fly ball to shallow right field. Independence second baseman Drew D’Angelo went back on the ball, as right fielder Daniel Kostenko simultaneously came racing in.
Kostenko caught the ball before the new teammates collided. Kostenko held on, and neither player was hurt.
In the stands, Vince and Teresa D’Angelo were able to exhale. It was a play they will remember forever, thankful their son was OK, just as every parent would be.
But it wasn’t the play. It wasn’t the moment, not the nightmare that likewise will reside in their memories for the rest of their lives. As much as they may want to forget March 22, 2012, it simply won’t go away.
“I remember it vividly,” Vince said.
As if anyone could forget what happened, that play on an early April day in Beckley served as a chilling reminder. Only the surroundings and the uniforms were different. The play itself was eerily identical to the one that almost changed Drew’s life in ways he never envisioned.
Only, he wouldn’t let that happen. If they didn’t already know, Vince and Teresa D’Angelo learned all about their son’s determination. And they realized just how strong human compassion really can be.
March 22, 2012
Baseball means so much to Drew D’Angelo. He’s a fan of the game, one he plays with impactful determination every time he puts on a uniform. It is through the game that he plans to put himself through college.
To him, the play was nothing out of the ordinary. There was no sense of impending danger on that early spring day in Oak Hill, even on a field still damp from the rain that had fallen earlier.
Just like that play against Greenbrier West, D’Angelo — playing for Oak Hill, not yet having transferred to Independence — went back on a shallow fly ball to right. Just as he had been taught, as he had done since he started playing.
As he went back, teammate Adam Jones came rushing in from right. On this occasion, it was D’Angelo who caught the ball. Unlike Kostenko, he was unable to hold on.
“The field was really wet that day,” D’Angelo said. “As I went up, my left foot planted in the ground. The right fielder collided with me and it shattered my tibia and fibula.
Chris Walls, now an assistant coach at Independence, was D’Angelo’s head coach at Oak Hill. He saw the injury, comparing the sickening thud to linebackers smacking pads on a football field.
“It scared me to death,” Walls said. “We were sitting in the third base dugout and he was in shallow right field and it sounded like it was right beside us. I knew (it was serious) as soon as he went down and grabbed his leg and his foot was pointing in the other direction. The main thing was just going out there and calming him down.”
Vince never actually saw the collision, at least not as it happened.
As many fans of Oak Hill baseball often do, Vince was watching the game from a lawn chair behind the chain link backstop. Somehow, he knew. He didn’t know what was going to happen, only that it was going to be bad for someone.
He rose out of his chair and started around the first base dugout, not prepared — try as he might — for what was about to happen.
“I heard the scream, but I didn’t know which kid it was,” he said. “It was something that no parent will ever forget.”
“Actually, when I hit it didn’t hurt,” D’Angelo said. “When I looked up, that’s when the pain shot up my back and my leg. I looked, and everything went numb. I about went into shock, until coach Walls came out there and started (consoling) me. So I came back to my senses and (realized) it’s broke. I knew right there. I couldn’t move.”
Teresa was working the concession stand, which is located on a hill high above and well beyond the left field line, and did not see the play, either.
“Somebody got word to her that it was Drew,” Vince said.
There was no ambulance on site so one had to be called. Vince estimates it took the ambulance 30-45 minutes to arrive. To a parent waiting for someone to attend to his or her injured child, it might as well have been a year.
But that’s where the D’Angelos learned about the kindness of others, that friends and even strangers can be counted on when needed most.
The kindness of strangers
D’Angelo waited on the ambulance to arrive, but assistance was needed immediately. Fortunately, two mothers who just happen to be nurses were among the mothers there to support their sons, just as Vince and Teresa were there to do.
Kathy Smith, whose son, Bubba, was D’Angelo’s teammate at Oak Hill, went to the scene. So, too, did Kim Williams, only she wasn’t wearing the Red Devils’ red and black. Her son, Tanner, played for Bluefield, which was Oak Hill’s opponent that day.
Williams, a nurse in the Mercer County school system, swore she was just there to cheer for Tanner and his teammates. She had previously been the athletic trainer for Bluefield’s legendary football program and had past experience working in an emergency room.
She had promised herself that, on this night, she was off the clock.
“I told my husband that I was not going to be in uniform,” she said. “If anybody got hurt, I was going to sit still and be stubborn. I was just going to be Mom.”
Of course, when D’Angelo went down and coach Justin Gilbert yelled to her, “We need you,” that promise was quickly broken.
Smith and Williams, by all accounts, helped ease the moment for D’Angelo, who was in immense pain as he lay on the moist outfield grass.
“Mrs. Williams from Bluefield and Mrs. Smith from Oak Hill came to the field and they really saved me,” D’Angelo said. “They held my leg in place and gave me morphine before the ambulance got there. They were really helpful in the situation.”
“They were both there and held his leg up the whole time while we waited for the ambulance,” Vince said. “That really did a lot for him.”
“What concerned me was that his leg was so deformed initially,” Williams said. “The most important thing was to make sure there was a good pulse in that foot. We didn’t want something to cut the off the circulation to that foot.”
The nurses’ expertise in handling the situation was needed for more than just D’Angelo.
“I’ll tell you what, it helped me out,” said Walls. “I don’t know who was in worse shape, me or his dad, as far as pacing and not knowing what to do.”
When the ambulance arrived, D’Angelo was taken off the field, the fans made their way back to their seats and the game resumed, even if no one really felt like playing baseball that night.
‘We were devastated’
D’Angelo was taken to nearby Plateau Medical Center, but orthopedic surgeon Dr. S. Brett Whitfield was on vacation. He was then immediately rushed to Charleston Area Medical Center. He arrived at 11:30 that night, but surgery was not performed until 6 a.m. the next day.
But on the way to Charleston, things became more complicated.
Compartment syndrome, a condition in which swelling occurs after an injury and can result in circulation being cut off, which could lead to the killing of muscles, had set in.
“I asked the doctor, what is the best and worst (scenarios),” Vince said. “He said, ‘Best case is that it isn’t affecting the muscles. Worst case is that we have to amputate.’
“My wife and I,” Vince said, “were devastated.”
‘What must his
parents be thinking?’
While waiting for surgery, Vince was approached by the father of D’Angelo’s roommate. He took a look at Vince and, somehow, he just knew.
“He came out and said, ‘Baseball?’ and I said yeah,” Vince said. “He said, ‘Mine, too.’”
The man’s name was Barry Kincaid. His son, Dusty, was pitching for Winfield just three nights before D’Angelo’s injury and was hit in the head by a line drive. He suffered a fractured skull and had to have surgery to relieve swelling and bleeding in his brain.
Vince learned of the story on a state television news station the night before D’Angelo was hurt.
“I started thinking, ‘Oh, God, what must his parents be thinking?’” Vince said. “Talking to him, I think that kind of settled me down.”
Nine days and four surgeries later, D’Angelo was on his way back home.
D’Angelo had been told that it would be nine months to a year before he would be able to participate in athletics again.
They obviously were not familiar with his drive and determination.
He was on crutches for a week before he his leg was placed in a plastic boot. When that happened, D’Angelo threw the crutches in the trash. For the next three to four weeks, he went full blast with his rehab.
Physical therapy involved the usual weightlifting and treadmill work. But that was just what he did during the day under the watchful eye of Beckley orthopedist Dr. John Beasley.
Vince had a membership to Bodyworks in Beckley, and D’Angelo used it to work with Aaron Lambert, formerly an assistant baseball coach at Mountain State Academy when D’Angelo played there as a freshman.
“He was instrumental in getting Drew back in shape,” Vince said.
Every little step in the recovery process was a milestone for D’Angelo, but not a stopping point.
“As soon as I could start walking again, I would try to jog — just try to push myself to get back to 100 percent,” he said.
Eventually, those 9-to-12 months started turning into weeks. Finally, after all the rehab, after all the physical therapy and the grueling exercises, Drew D’Angelo was back.
On Aug. 7, 2012 — 4 1/2 months after breaking both bones in his lower left leg, half the time of the most optimistic prognosis — he took part in his first athletic event as an Independence Patriot. He had the team’s low score in its first golf match of the season at Pipestem.
“Golf just gave me something to do while I was (recovering),” he said. “I couldn’t run or anything, but I could walk. I knew the more I walked, the better it would get, and I started golfing just to kind of help me get back. It really helped. That and playing basketball really got me back.”
Indeed, after golf season was finished, D’Angelo showed up for the first day of basketball practice. Coach Chad Perkins admits he sometimes treated his newest player with kid gloves.
“We would do a charge drill and I would tell him not to do it because I didn’t want him to get hurt,” Perkins said. “But he would always want to do it.”
“He really gained (leg strength) through the season,” Perkins added. “I’m sure it still hurt him at different times.”
“It was good,” D’Angelo said of playing basketball. “I was good running up and down (but) my lateral movement wasn’t that great. Playing basketball helped me get back and forth. It brought me back.”
D’Angelo was also cleared to play fall baseball in September, but the moment of truth came on Feb. 25.
Drew D’Angelo is back
The first day of practice for the spring season — D’Angelo had come full circle. Not that he was surprised.
Well, maybe a little.
“I knew I would (come back), but not as quick,” he said “I am really grateful to be back. I had a great therapist and worked real hard to get back. I’m just real thankful.”
“I couldn’t believe it. When we first took the field, watching Drew do his baserunning drills and his sprints and stuff, he really looked good,” Walls said. “I couldn’t believe how good he looked on shuffle drills. I was just impressed.”
Of course, no one is as proud as Vince and Teresa.
“He has come a long way,” Vince said. “He had a lot of determination and worked hard to get where he is at. People don’t know the amount of time and hard work he put into it.”
D’Angelo, who wears a shin guard around his lower left leg every at-bat, says he is 100 percent. By his numbers, no one could argue with that.
Going into Monday’s game versus Westside, the second baseman was hitting an even .500 with 17 doubles, three triples and 12 runs batted in from the leadoff spot.
“Watching him in basketball, he seemed to struggle at times,” first-year Independence baseball coach Scott Cuthbert said. “But since he’s been with us every day in baseball, it’s been unreal, some of the things he can do. The way he runs and stuff, it’s been amazing.”
The Patriots were already talented before his arrival and that of shortstop Wyatt Adkins. Andrue Hughart is hitting .457 and catcher Jeremy McGinnis .447 with a team-high 24 RBIs.
On the mound, Brian Sexton is 3-2 with a 2.53 earned run average and Hughart is 4-3, 4.06. McGinnis 3-0 with a save in five appearances and has an ERA of just 0.78.
“They have made me feel right at home,” D’Angelo said. “As soon as I came over here, it was really great. They accepted me and Wyatt. It was almost like coming home again. It felt really good.”
Words of experience
D’Angelo was watching the NCAA Tournament when Louisville played Duke in the Elite Eight on Easter Sunday. That was the game when Kevin Ware broke his tibia and fibula trying to block a 3-pointer.
Just like D’Angelo.
Difference was, Ware’s was a ghastly compound fracture.
“I didn’t see the break. I saw it on Instagram and Twitter,” D’Angelo said. “It definitely brought chills — I try not to look at it, honestly. I try to (avoid) it. But it happens in sports. You’ve got to accept it.”
D’Angelo knows what he would say to Ware if ever given the chance.
“Just to keep working. You’ll get back,” he said. “It might seem bad now, but just put in the time and work and God will help you get back.”
Reliving the past, ready for the future
Vince and Teresa were not the only ones with a creepy case of deja vu during that game against Greenbrier West. Don’t think D’Angelo didn’t realize what was happening.
“Flashback. As soon as it was hit,” he said. “It’s always kind of in the back of my mind now, but I’ve just got to get through that and go out there and start doing it again. But it’s getting better every day. The more games we play, the better it’s starting to get.”
“My wife and I both looked at each other,” Vince said. “I broke into a little sweat. She ran to the dugout to see that he was OK. To be honest, I think it scared him to death. He had to go back to (Kostenko) and tell him he was sorry.
“It was a flashback.”
A flashback to a time that Vince and Teresa D’Angelo would probably just rather forget. But, as Vince said, you learn how many friends you have during those times.
“There are so many people to thank,” he said. “Nurse Williams and Nurse Smith. Coach Walls and his wife (Stacie). Drew was in the hospital nine days and I know they were there three or four times. People from Bluefield were sending him get well cards.”
D’Angelo will continue his career at West Virginia Wesleyan in the fall. He stands a chance to see a lot of playing time right off the bat.
“They said I’ve got a chance,” D’Angelo said. “I have to work hard to help me get in there. It just depends on how hard I work and how good everything goes.”
Is there any doubt?
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