Bryant's Return

4/20/2014

Less than four months after brain injury, Bryant throws ceremonial first pitch.

Less than four months after brain injury, Bryant throws ceremonial first pitch.

By J. LEVI BURNFIN

lburnfin@gctelegram.com

Strike.

Garrett Bryant threw the finest pitch of his life on Saturday before the Broncbusters' doubleheader against the visiting Dodge City Conquistadors.

The sophomore starting pitcher, wearing his No. 25 Broncbusters jersey, confidently strolled to the mound as he had done hundreds of times in his playing career, seemingly ready to throw heaters past any oncomers.

He reared back and threw a dart to his best friend, teammate and roommate, Nolan Barrientos. But this time, it wasn't with a hitter in the box, and there was no umpire to declare, "Strike!"

Bryant, who signed a Letter of Intent to pitch at Louisiana Tech University in 2014-15, was throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in front of scores of friends and family after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI) just a little less than four months earlier, leaving Bryant in intensive care with his life in doubt, let alone any potential baseball career.

It was 1:38 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26, when the telephone rang.

Something had to be wrong for the phone to ring that late.

And especially so when John and Sandie Bryant's caller I.D. displayed Broncbuster baseball assistant coach Eric Gilliland's name.

Gilliland was calling to tell the Bryants, who were home in Fort Collins, Colo., that Garrett had fallen down a flight of stairs and was at St. Catherine Hospital to undergo some tests.

Garrett had a fractured skull, and he needed emergency surgery.

He was flown out of Garden City to St. Anthony Hospital in Denver, about an hour away from Fort Collins.

John and Sandie quickly got dressed and left for Denver, where they would await Garrett's arrival.

"The wait seemed like it took days," John said in an interview on Saturday before Garrett's first pitch.

Finally, Garrett arrived just past 4 a.m. in a medically induced coma.

"When we got to St. Anthony and the chapelin brought John and I back to the ER and you see your son laying there, with no response..." Sandie said, trailing off to fight back tears.

The doctors told John and Sandie that Garrett would need bolts surgically inserted into his skull to monitor pressure and his brain's swelling.

The entire top of Garrett's skull had completely separated from the base, and he had a tear in his brain.

The next 72 hours were the most important of the Bryants' lives.

"Friends and family started pouring into the Intensive Care Unit," Sandie said.

By the hundreds, they began to pray for Garrett.

The surgery was successful, and Bryant was kept in the coma.

Early the following morning, the Bryants learned that Garrett had developed pneumonia, and he needed to be put on a ventilator to help fight the infection, but that he was stable.

The calls, notes and messages of support kept pouring in for the family, and the young man who already had touched so many lives in his young life.

At that point, doctors told John and Sandie that Garrett would go through a series of "peaks and valleys," where he would progress and then perhaps take a step back.

It is normal for young men to become severely agitated during recovery from a TBI. It took four nurses, one respiratory therapist and Sandie to hold Garrett down during one instance when he began to thrash around.

John and Sandie took it as a good sign. He was fighting.

Four days after the accident, on Jan. 30, Garrett woke up in a calm state for the first time, and was able to respond with slight movements of his body to commands. It was another step forward.

The next day, his Garden City teammates went in to visit him. Garrett was able to respond to them, and kept his breathing regulated enough to leave him off the ventilator.

Garrett was even able to joke around with his baseball family, flashing the infectious personality that penetrates everyone he meets.

"We were so excited to know that, 'Okay, he's there,'" Sandie said. "And I truly feel that Garrett had a conversation with God.

"'God, I need to heal my teammates right now, so please let me wake up and be with them for a bit and then I'll go back to sleep.' And that's just how he treated it. He was awake to let his teammates know he was okay."

Over the next week, the peaks and valleys hit hard at the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital, where Garrett was transferred for his recovery.

Garrett developed pneumonia in both lungs, and one collapsed. He had to be fed through a feeding tube, and he developed blood clots.

But he was also still able to be woken up and follow commands. And an MRI showed that his brain sheer had begun to heal.

On Feb. 10, Garrett celebrated his 20th birthday at of the hospital.

The peaks and valleys continued well into the depths of February.

But the pivotal moment came when Garrett learned what had happened.

Before then, he had a hard time discerning reality and his dreams, leaving him unsure of time or place or why he was in the hospital.

Garrett asked to call Gilliland, or "Gilly."

So Sandie called him with no answer.

The Busters had begun their season and were playing a doubleheader.

Later that night, Gilliland called back and told Garrett that the Busters had played for him and won.

"(Garrett) looked at us like 'What?'" Sandie said.

"Gilly spilling the beans," she joked.

Sandie explained to Garrett exactly what had happened, how long it had been and that Garrett would not be able to play with his team this season.

He might not ever be able to play again.

It took several hours to detail everything that was going on, but Sandie said it had to happen.

"(Gilliland) feels horrible that he was the one that broke it," Garrett said.

But Sandie explained it probably came a little bit easier from Gilliland because Garrett would have thought John and Sandie were lying to him.

"Coach wouldn't lie to me," Sandie joked about what her son would have said.

But that's when the hardest part for Garrett hit.

It "was being away from my team," he said. "But that's also what got me through it. I had something to strive for."

The doctors told John and Sandie that the recovery would be a marathon and not a sprint.

Someone forgot to tell Garrett. He was sprinting.

There were very few valleys and very many peaks.

Every day was a progression for Garrett. He would begin to walk with a walker, go through rehab with strength and drive and eventually begin walking on his own, despite losing 50 pounds during his hospitalization.

Garrett worked hard and never asked, "why me?" Instead, he focused on getting better.

"I didn't want to jinx it because I was like 'Hell, if I never play baseball again, I'm walking, I'm talking,'" Garrett said. "So many things could have been a lot worse off. If I never play baseball again, I mean it would have sucked, but at least I'm living."

Everything came down to the one moment where Garrett asked his doctor if he would be able to play again.

"'Do I think it's going to be tougher than it was, yeah. But do I think you can do it? Yeah,'" Garrett remembered his doctor saying.

"I would say that that day was probably the happiest day since this all happened," Garrett said, "because then I had something to strive towards, not that I didn't before. But now it's like 'Oh, my God.' Still, to this day, it's one of the best days of my life to find out that I could still (play)."

Garrett began playing catch with old teammates and coaches soon after. And the trip to Garden City to throw out the first pitch was planned, as well.

By the time he took the field, Garrett was in almost 100 percent health.

He only needs to take a probiotic once a day for the next few weeks, and then he will be off any medications.

He already has begun to lift weights to regain strength, and hopes to begin a throwing program soon.

His scholarship at Louisiana Tech is still waiting for him, and he is planning to enroll in either the fall or at the end of the fall semester, depending on if he can get a NCAA waiver of the incomplete 14 units of classes he missed during the spring semester.

He's also already enrolled in a summer Introduction to Business course at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colo.

"It was always my goal (to play at a Division I school), but it's magnified by 10 now," Garrett said. "I mean, it's like nothing's going to hold me back."

If the last three months are any indication, he'll be back on that hill for a live game sooner than anyone can imagine.

And he'll be throwing strikes.

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