THE RUNNING joke went like this: The 2011 Georgia baseball team should've played five infielders and let Zach Cone and Johnathan Taylor patrol the entire outfield. The two juniors were that good. Otherwise, though, they cut different figures. Cone, the son of an NFL player and younger brother of another, was built like a vending machine, 6'2" and 202 pounds, and was pegged as a solid major league prospect. Taylor, a 5'8" lefty, was strong but more sinewy and blessed with a talent for making plays and getting on base when it was crucial. The two were among the fastest players in the SEC, if not all of college baseball, stealing bases in bulk and depriving batters of what would otherwise be hits.
This is an article from the Aug. 20, 2012 issue
So when a Florida State hitter sent a pitch whistling into the gap between left and centerfield, a liner that seemed to pick up speed as it cleared the shortstop, there was no guarantee it would drop for a hit. It was the top of the third inning of an afternoon game on March 6, 2011. Georgia was hosting the Seminoles, one of the country's best teams. The stands were dotted with major league scouts, a fact that—who knows?—might have given Cone and Taylor even more incentive to chase that damn ball. With singular focus they took off as if propelled by jets, blazing a trail toward each other.
Cone was in left, Taylor in center. Neither had time for an "I got it!" or a "Mine!" As Cone lay out to make a diving catch, so did Taylor. They were two vectors intersecting. Taylor's head smashed into Cone's left hip. Cone caught the ball and held on to it. On the ground neither player moved. In the stands there was silence, partly because no one was sure what had just happened.
ZACH CONE and Johnathan Taylor had been in the same recruiting class in the fall of 2008, and as freshman competed for a starting spot in the Bulldogs' outfield. If that wasn't enough to put some space between them, their backgrounds didn't promise much of a connection. Cone grew up in suburban comfort in Stone Mountain, Ga. His father, Ronny, once a football star at Georgia Tech and briefly a running back for the Jets, worked as a manager at Kraft Foods in Atlanta, while mom Janet taught preschool. Zach's brother Kevin was a wide receiver at Tech and is in camp with the Falcons this summer. Zach arrived in Athens with a quiet self-confidence.
Taylor was more eager to ingratiate himself—"I've always wanted to be the guy everyone likes," he says flatly. A smile and a joke were his default mode as he walked campus. He came from working-class Acworth, Ga., outside Atlanta, the oldest of three brothers raised by an indomitable single mom, Tandra, who worked as a bookkeeper and held a second job cleaning offices after hours. While J.T., as he's always been known, never wanted for anything, there weren't a lot of luxuries. During one of Taylor's first weeks at Georgia, baseball coach David Perno noticed that the freshman was walking funny. The players had been given new cleats, and Taylor's were two sizes too small. Simply grateful for the shoes, "J.T. didn't want to complain," says Perno. "So he kept wearing them."
Almost immediately, though, Cone and Taylor became bracketed together, their similarities far surpassing their differences. Living in the same residence hall on East Campus, they hung out in each other's rooms playing video games (Taylor invariably winning) and talking about girls, and they went to parties together. "The usual college things," says Taylor. "Lots of fun but nothing too crazy."
Beyond the overlapping interests, they had similar dispositions. Both took school seriously. Both were social but could also be low-key. They identified as baseball players but had plenty of friends who were on other UGA teams or didn't play sports at all.
As freshmen Cone and Taylor won starting jobs, alternating between leftfield and centerfield, neither preferring one position to the other. They warmed each other up before games and played catch between innings. On road trips they always roomed together. The summer after his freshman year, Cone played for the Cotuit Kettleers in the famed Cape Cod League. The next summer he took his buddy with him. They both played on the Kettleers and stayed with the same host family.
Even their moms became fast friends. Janet Cone and Tandra Taylor would gravitate toward each other at baseball functions and games. Soon that wasn't enough. They talked and texted and met up for lunch in and around Atlanta and made plans to visit Cape Cod in the summer so they could go to the beach and watch their boys play together.
NOW, THOUGH, on this Sunday afternoon in early March, their boys were both sprawled on the outfield grass of Foley Field. From the dugout it looked as if Cone, whose hip Taylor had slammed into, had gotten the worst of it. He got up slowly and teetered like a zombie. He had cuts behind his ear and would be found to have a concussion.
"You O.K.?" asked Taylor.
"Yeah," Cone replied. "You?"
"Yeah," Taylor said. "Think I just got the wind knocked out of me."
He was fully conscious. But when he tried to get up, it was as if his wires had shorted and his muscles were unable to receive signals from his brain. The team's trainer ran to the outfield. "I'm ready to get up," Taylor said.
"Can you feel me touching you?" the trainer asked.
"Where are you touching me?" Taylor said.
As Perno arrived, he, too, felt numb but in a different way. Surveying the scene, he was stabbed by panic. "I'm like, You've got to be kidding me," he says. "Not again. No, no, no, not again."
WHEN CHANCE VEAZEY arrived at Georgia in the fall of 2009—a year after Cone and Taylor—he was a relentlessly social and vocal freshman who, under penalty of perjury, might admit to a cocky streak. A scrappy lefthanded hitter who seldom walked off the field with a clean jersey, Veazey required less than a month to become the Bulldogs' starting second baseman. His dexterity in the field was matched by his skill at the plate. On the last day of the fall season, the Bulldogs held an intrasquad game. Some players might waltz through nine innings against their own teammates. Veazey went 3 for 4 and crushed a home run off the Foley Field scoreboard in his final at bat. It would be the last swing he'd ever take.
At about 10:30 the following night, Oct. 28, 2009, Veazey rode his Yamaha scooter back to his dorm after staying late at one of the big academic buildings on campus to study for a psychology test. As he came upon Lumpkin Street, a main artery, he had to swerve to avoid a Honda Civic driven by another student. Veazey's scooter slid and crashed into the side of the car, leaving a large indentation where his helmet hit the door. Though he never lost consciousness, his spinal cord was severed at the 10th thoracic vertebra, in his lower-middle back—a T-9 to T-10 injury in medical parlance. Veazey was paralyzed from the waist down. One moment he had no greater worry than an upcoming test; the next he was pondering a future that wouldn't include walking.
The next morning Perno gathered the players, struggling to explain what had happened. The 40 or so who were there listened in stunned silence. "We couldn't really believe it," recalls Taylor. Often when parents, clergy and coaches had mouthed carpe diem bromides—"appreciate every day," "take nothing for granted"—it had felt abstract, hypothetical. No more. Some players cried. Some punched walls. Shortstop Kyle Farmer, Veazey's roommate, went out and had the words SECOND CHANCE tattooed on his right arm.
Within a week Veazey was transferred from the hospital near campus to the Shepherd Center, a facility in Atlanta that specializes in rehabilitation from spinal cord injuries. "When I got there I had some resentment," says Veazey. "I was seeing these people in [motorized] wheelchairs, and I had a tough time with it. I felt out of place. Like, I don't belong here. Why am I here?"
He also struggled with dependence. He'd just experienced two months of college life, living with friends and enjoying the autonomy. Suddenly he was surrounded by well-meaning adults—therapists, nurses, his parents. "I felt like a child," he says. "My goal was to get back to college, continue with the life I had led and be my own man again."
That fall, a steady stream of baseball players made the 90-minute drive from Athens to buoy his spirits. At Thanksgiving the Veazeys kept their tradition of eating fried quail and grits. The family was touched when two of Chance's teammates stopped by that day, pitcher Michael Palzone—and Johnathan Taylor.
Veazey gradually grew comfortable with his reality, fixing his gaze on the present and future, not the past. The same sensibilities he brought to bear on the baseball diamond helped immeasurably. "Every time I stepped on the field, I gave baseball everything I had: If I didn't play the game like that, I'd have regrets eating away at me," he says. "Now I had to do the same thing with my life."
By the following fall, Veazey was back on campus, maneuvering a manual wheelchair, "basically doing everything I always did, [other than] playing baseball." He lived in a modified house with his original set of roommates and continued his major in insurance and risk management. Still part of the baseball team, he rarely missed a home game and sometimes joined the team on the road. In fact, Veazey had been there for the 2010 home opener, only four months after his accident. The Red and Black, the student newspaper, ran a color photo of Veazey smiling and leaning forward in his wheelchair on the infield grass. He was slapping five with the starting centerfielder, Zach Cone.
CHANCE VEAZEY was sitting in the Bulldogs' dugout when Cone and Taylor collided. When he saw Taylor motionless on the ground, he had "a bad gut feeling," he recalls. He kept it to himself, but he was right. Taylor was taken by ambulance to St. Mary's Hospital in Athens. Late in the game, Perno got a call telling him that Taylor's neck was broken. The diagnosis was ugly: a C-5 to C-6 complete SCI (spinal cord injury). Though the cord hadn't been severed, Taylor had no feeling below his waist.
Perno, with his tanned leathery skin and straight-shooter demeanor, is a real Baseball Man. He's not ordinarily given to crying. But by the time the game had ended, the coach was in tears. At the moment of impact, Perno had worried about losing the services of two star players. Now he was feeling something else entirely. This was J.T., the kid you couldn't help liking. One story Perno likes to tell: "J.T. came in, and, academically, they were against him because he was a bad test-scorer. I begged the [admissions] committee. I said, 'Give him a chance.' By his second year he was a 3.2 student, and he was telling freshmen, 'You better go to class' and 'You better see your tutors,' policing the academic side." The coach pauses and collects himself. "You just want to be around him."
Most of the team headed to the hospital that night, including Cone, concussion be damned. Taylor's breathing tube had just been removed. He was still drugged up from the surgery to stabilize his spine. But when he saw Cone, he was determined to speak.
"Well, at least I'm not dead," Taylor said.
Cone didn't laugh. Then Taylor too turned serious. He knew how his buddy thought. "This wasn't your fault, Zach," he said. "You just need to keep doing what you're doing. Don't worry about me; I'll be fine. You need to know: You didn't do anything wrong. This is not your issue."
Still, Cone was traumatized. Only after Taylor demanded that the team continue the season did the Bulldogs leave for a road trip. Cone could barely dislodge the bat from his shoulder. Perno gave his star outfielder a few games off, but that just allowed him more time to think dark thoughts. "It was hard," Cone says. "I'd get in a mood of, I don't want to do anything."
The school offered counseling, but he says his real therapy came from visiting Taylor. Not exactly as he'd envisioned it earlier in the semester, Taylor celebrated his 21st birthday on March 21 by transferring from the ICU to a regular room at the hospital. Soon after that he was sent as an inpatient to Shepherd. Cone visited every few days. Never mind that it was the middle of his season—one that would determine how high he'd be drafted by a major league team. Never mind that it was the middle of the academic semester. In a matter of days, Cone says, Taylor had charmed all the nurses. So although visiting hours were supposed to end at 9 p.m., it was usually closer to 11 when Cone was ushered out.
While they never discussed it, Cone and Taylor marveled at how much had changed, yet how little. Cone arrived at Shepherd one day to find Taylor jabbing his phone with a pen. Though he had lost his ability to grip, he had limited use of some fingers. "What are you doing?" Cone asked.
"Texting," said Taylor. Then he smiled a mischievous smile. "Texting girls."
That weekend Cone went to a party on campus, whipped out his iPhone and later showed the photos of the scene to his buddy. "I didn't want him to feel left out," Cone says.
Plenty of other visitors came by. Ronny Cone would visit Shepherd almost daily, heading to or from work at Kraft. Janet Cone would come too. Much as she adored J.T.—"He's like my third son," she says—she was really there for his mom. She and Tandra would go to dinner or go shopping and have some "girl time" away from Shepherd.
Chance Veazey was another regular. By now he had a special driver's license and a customized car—a Camaro SS—and could transport himself. Was it weird to be back at Shepherd? "I had to relive some things," he says, "but at that point it wasn't about me." If Taylor usually tried to keep the mood light, Veazey was someone who had been there and could talk specifics, no matter how unpleasant: the so-called "bowel program," the annoyance of catheters, the possibility of becoming a father. There was also a lot of talk about outlook. "I wanted to explain that there was still a lot to look forward to in life," says Veazey, "and that we were going to be there for him."
Independently they also reached the conclusion that there wasn't much to be gained from focusing on the coincidence of their injuries. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, the annual incidence of spinal injuries is 40 for every million Americans. Statistically, that two players on the same college baseball team would suffer SCIs within less than 18 months was beyond freakish. But it had happened. So why ask why?
For Veazey, the result of his accident was, sadly, unambiguous. He would never walk again. In Taylor's case, the prognosis was—and remains—more uncertain. Says Mike Dillon, Georgia's associate director of sports medicine, "They don't know. We don't know. We have the attitude, Never say always, never say never. What do we do with his rehab and our goals? We set them upon what he has today. Right now that's what we work with. What he has tomorrow may be different. If it is, we'll adjust. That's all."
Taylor has from the start been diligent about his rehab. The same way he once tried to improve his bench press incrementally, he now tries to get from the bed to a chair, doing it with a little more ease each time. The overarching goal: total independence, the ability to function alone. "Being an athlete, knowing you can push yourself but also knowing the limitations," he says, "that's been important."
And he's done it without a trace of unhappiness. From the staff at Shepherd to teammates to neutral observers, everyone mentions Taylor's demeanor. That sounds trite until you visit a facility and see how many patients are far from upbeat. "He's put a hell of an attitude on it," says Veazey.
Says Dillon, "I'm sure he's had dark moments in the privacy of his own bed. But J.T. has never had a bad day around me.... He's so mentally tough, it's phenomenal."
Told of this scouting report, Taylor shrugs. "I'm a man of the people," he says, smiling.
No, really. What's behind this optimism?
"How is being bitter going to help me achieve my goals?" he says. "There are days I want to be sad, but I can't. Have to keep moving."
THANKS IN no small part to the salutary effect of hanging around Taylor, Cone got out of his funk—and his batting slump—last season. He ended up hitting .275 and stealing 13 bases. In addition to being called the "fastest base runner in the SEC" by Baseball America, he was named to the conference's academic honor roll.
After helping Georgia reach the NCAA regional finals, Cone got a call from the Texas Rangers. They were going to take him with the 37th pick of the 2011 draft. As a "sandwich" pick between the first and second rounds, he would be considered a first-rounder—a deal too good to pass up. Cone would leave UGA but finish his degree requirements during breaks from baseball. His reported signing bonus: $873,000.
Then he got another call from Ryan Coe, the Rangers area scout who signed him. "Let me ask you this," said Coe. "What do you think of the idea of the Rangers drafting J.T.?"
Sure, Taylor had once been a major league prospect, drawing comparisons to another Atlanta native, Ben Revere of the Twins. But Coe must know that Taylor had....
"I mean," Coe continued, "I want to be sure it wouldn't hurt his feelings."
Cone had to suppress laughter. "Trust me, that won't be a problem," he said. "Go for it."
Coe got immediate approval when he raised the idea of drafting Taylor with his bosses, Texas owner Nolan Ryan and G.M. Jon Daniels. "This wasn't done out of pity," he says. "As a baseball player, he deserved to be drafted. We did it to help him, but I think the whole experience helped us more. The positivity of that kid is amazing."
Keeping the secret meant that for the rest of the day Cone couldn't respond to a backlog of Taylor's texts and messages. But finally it flashed on the crawl on Cone's computer: In the 33rd round of the 2011 draft, the Rangers selected Johnathan Taylor, junior outfielder, University of Georgia.
With that, Cone headed to Shepherd. Taylor's room was already filled with celebrating relatives and friends. Someone had found Rangers caps for Cone and Taylor, which they both propped on their heads. The circumstances were, of course, different from what they'd imagined. But the two friends were taken in the same draft by the same team.
A few nights later Janet Cone took Tandra Taylor out to dinner to celebrate. "We were laughing like schoolgirls, just enjoying the moment," says Janet. "Someone came over and said, 'You ladies sure are happy!' Tandra said, 'Yeah, our babies just got drafted, and they get to play baseball together again.'"
As it turned out the Rangers were coming through Atlanta a few days later for an interleague series against the Braves. The team's other first-round pick, Kevin Matthews, was a hard-throwing lefty from outside Savannah, and the Rangers got the three Georgia kids together at Turner Field. Matthews remembers meeting stars he'd seen on TV. But he also has vivid recollections of the way Cone and Taylor interacted. "It was me and these two great guys who were like brothers," he says.
Two days later Cone headed to Spokane for rookie ball. Taylor headed back to Shepherd. He never did sign with the Rangers. Though the selection was a gesture of compassion—"A class act by a class organization," says Perno—if Taylor had put his name on the document, it might have rankled the NCAA, compromised his amateur standing and jeopardized his status as a Georgia student.
It's right about now that we roll our eyes and declare the NCAA a heartless, inflexible bureaucracy. But know this: It's the generous NCAA insurance policy that is paying most of Taylor's medical bills. He also benefits from a separate policy provided by Georgia, as well as from fund-raising undertaken on his behalf. (The home page of the Georgia Baseball website contains a link to donate to the Johnathan Taylor Fund.)
By early 2012, Taylor was back on campus, taking classes toward his major in consumer economics and spending hours nearly every day in one therapy or another. A designated note taker follows him to classes. On an iPad, Taylor can access video of all lectures. He lives in an accessible dorm room on East Campus; his roommate is Ryan Payne, a grad assistant athletic trainer. While Taylor just passed a special driving test, for now a customized van shuttles him to classes and appointments.
The onetime major league prospect still hangs out with his friends, goes to parties and unleashes his charm on coeds. Mostly using his thumbs, he texts, e-mails and tweets. Cone spent a few weeks on campus this year before he had to leave for spring ball. He and Taylor still went for dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings. Taylor still kicked Cone's ass at Xbox. "Really, in most ways, I'm just a normal kid enjoying college," Taylor says.
Veazey has his own variation of this theme: "The only difference between me and you? You're walking. I'm rolling. And I'm probably going to get there before you will! I'm still blessed with a wonderful life."
Both Veazey and Taylor are on pace to graduate in 2013. Veazey has designs on entering the insurance business. Taylor is considering a career as a financial manager for athletes. Dillon, who reckons that over the past year he's spent more time around Taylor than around his own kids, has a different idea. "I'm trying to get J.T. to consider graduate school and then do a rotation with an athletic department," he says. "Because of J.T.'s personality, his drive, his smarts, he would bring a lot to the table. I want J.T. to buy a house in Athens, have a master's degree and work here at the University of Georgia. I'd die a happy man."
Perno has asked both Veazey and Taylor to spend more time around the team. "I want their impact and their personalities," the coach says. "I don't think either one of them was quite ready the last couple of years, but I think they're in much better places, mentally. They can be out there, and it won't just frustrate the hell out of them that they can't play."
Veazey goes by the athletic facilities periodically to use an electric bicycle that stimulates blood flow and helps keep his legs in shape, but Taylor spends innumerable hours in the training room. He doesn't sweat—another consequence of a spinal cord injury—even though he pushes through brutal workouts dressed head-to-toe in Georgia apparel. There isn't a Bulldogs athlete who doesn't know Taylor or at least the basics of his story. Dillon tells of a Georgia basketball player who had ACL surgery, blew out her knee again and was facing six months of rehab. "That's tough," says Dillon. "Then in the training room she looks over at J.T., and we're transferring him out of his chair and onto a mat, and it takes 20 minutes, and [she says], 'You know what? My knee's all right.'"
THE SAN DIEGO Chicken, now doing business as the Famous Chicken, is making an appearance this July night at a minor league ballpark in New Jersey. The game pits the Lakewood BlueClaws against the visiting Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads, both teams in the Class A South Atlantic League. But the man in the yellow feathers is the star attraction. In air so thick it feels like the atmosphere has a fever, the Chicken does a familiar routine—handing the ump an eye chart, allowing players to pelt him with water balloons. Meanwhile, the BlueClaws' radio announcers are broadcasting while reclining on a king-size bed on the concourse behind home plate.
It's a typical minor league tableau, one that Zach Cone, batting cleanup for the Crawdads, doesn't mind a bit. The team will play 140 games in 152 nights this season, in various backwaters of the Eastern seaboard. When not sleeping in motels, Cone is based in Hickory, a town of 40,000 in the foothills of the Smokies. The modest circumstances are "no problem," he says. His teammates are "great." He might wish he were hitting a few points higher, but overall he figures his career is on the right trajectory.
The Crawdads' manager, Bill Richardson, is glowing in his praise of Cone. "He has this thirst for knowledge, this willingness to learn, that's always important but especially at this level," says Richardson. Though only 22, Cone is something of an elder statesman in the Crawdads' clubhouse.
"He's definitely one of those guys you look up to," says Matthews, the pitcher from near Savannah, now 19. "He gets along with everyone."
Which, we learn this night, includes opposing fans. Before the game in Lakewood, Cone presents the lineup card to the umpire accompanied by nine-year-old Tommy Mortland, an avid Zach Cone fan. Wait—how exactly does a minor leaguer in North Carolina have a fan base near the Jersey Shore? Cone sheepishly explains, "I gave him a ball last time we came through. He wrote me a thank-you note and sent me one of his baseball cards. So I wrote him back and sent him one of my cards. And a signed shirt. And a ball. [The BlueClaws] thought it would be cool if we got to meet. But it's no big deal. You don't even have to put it in the story."
Back in Athens, Taylor follows the Crawdads closely. If Cone strikes outs a few times, he can expect a text from his old pal giving him grief but then encouraging him. Taylor keeps his buddy up-to-date on his progress. (Got some feeling in my butt cheek.) Cone also knows that if a few days elapse between texts or calls, Taylor will get on him for that too. "He'll be like, 'Hey, don't be forgetting about me!'" Cone says. "But I won't."
THE DYNAMIC between Taylor and Veazey is more complex. They are clearly friends, each known to sneak up behind the other's wheelchair and ram it NASCAR-style. But they have their own social circles, their own sets of able-bodied friends. Says one member of the Georgia baseball program, "It's almost like they don't want to become too close, it's important that they [not] separate themselves off as the two guys who use wheelchairs."
And yet they have an undeniable bond. It expresses itself in all sorts of ways. Veazey is quick to note that it helped his mental rehabilitation to feel he could be of use to a teammate in a similar situation. Each has someone to talk to about new models of wheelchairs or insurance paperwork. Even the shared vocabulary they use to describe their predicaments—"I'm content," "I'm blessed," "I don't have a choice, so I can't get upset"—suggests that they have been influencing each other.
In part from watching Veazey comport himself, Taylor has shed all inhibition about his disability. At the same time, a bottle of his urine sits in plain sight, pressed against his left shin, connected by a tube to his groin. As a ballplayer might put it: It is what it is.
Like Veazey, Taylor will talk about his injury and "the incident"—never, pointedly, "the accident"—with bracing candor. Someone recently asked him if he had any interest in seeing a video of his collision with Cone. Not really, he said. Not because it would be unbearable or would trigger flashbacks. It's because, well, he already knows what happened.
"We hit each other," he says. "We both went down hard. Unfortunately, I didn't get up." Then he smiles. "But we did hang on to that ball, you know?"