DUNEDIN, Fla. — T.J. House remembers it all. He remembers the pitch, remembers the thud on the back of his head, remembers the blood streaming down his face. He remembers trying to stand and not feeling his legs beneath him. He remembers the throbbing; remembers the eternity it took for the ambulance to arrive. He remembers the hands on his back, and the dirt beneath him, and the voices all around telling him over and over again, “it’s going to be okay, T.J., everything’s going to be okay.”
It was 3:45 p.m. Friday afternoon when House, a 27-year-old left-hander trying to make a team, took a John Hicks comebacker directly off his skull. It was the ninth inning of a spring training game between House’s Toronto Blue Jays and Hicks’ Detroit Tigers that would end right there. The ball hit House so hard it caromed straight up in the air (Tigers manager Brad Ausmus estimated the height at 30 feet), high enough that Blue Jays catcher Mike Ohlman could camp under it and make a catch.
House dropped. For a moment, he tried to get up. He dropped again. Players rushed over and trainers from both teams sprinted onto the field. House can’t tell you who got to him first, but he does remember someone asking him if he could roll over. Nope. Right there on his stomach seemed like a good place to stay.
“I didn’t want to move,” House says. “I could feel the pain in the back of my head. It was really bad. I didn’t know what else was wrong. There’s so many possibilities. So, I just stayed on my stomach. That was the thought process.”
House buried his face in his glove, unable to open his eyes because there was so much blood. He was calm. Breathing heavily, but not yet fearing the worst. His head hurt something fierce and he could sense an awful vibe from those around him who were looking at a thick gash cratering the back on his head. Still, he was keeping it together.
“I don’t have names or faces—my eyes were closed the entire time. They kept talking to me, giving me assurance,” House says. “I didn’t know how bad it was. But I knew they knew, you know? And then I started to wonder if they were just trying to do their best to keep me in a good spot. There’s so many different things going through your mind in that moment.”
That’s when things turned. That’s when House started going to a bad place. His pulse rose; the pain was getting worse; throbbing and throbbing and throbbing. He stopped providing feedback to the trainers and medics attending to him and started making demands. He asked someone—anyone—to get his mom on the phone. He had her number memorized. He started saying it out loud.
“I was calm, but in my mind I’m really starting to freak out. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, they’re giving me this false hope.’ This, everything’s going to be okay—when they really don’t know,” House says. “I was thinking a lot about my mom. I was like, please get her on the phone. Please talk to her. Please tell her this. Please let her know that I said… I just wanted to say something to her.”
No one needs to know what House said. Only that his mom, Darlene, who was listening to the radio broadcast of the game while she was at work in Picayune, Miss., heard it. She stayed on the phone with whoever it was that called her the entire time House was on the ground. Mother and son spoke to one another through that intermediary. It helped. It made House feel better. It brought him back to a better place.
“I was just scared,” House says. “I’m thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to be all right?’ As crazy as it sounds, I’m thinking, ‘Am I going to live through this?’ I’m thinking, ‘Is this it? Am I going to wake up ever again and have another day? Am I going to be able to talk to anybody before it happens?’ ”
The 15 minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive didn’t help. It felt like an eternity. House wanted to move but nobody would let him. They kept him talking to make sure he was maintaining consciousness; they prepared him for everything that would happen when he got to the hospital. Once emergency services reached the scene, House’s head was bandaged, his neck was stabilized in a brace, and his arm was wrapped with a medical monitor. Tubes ran over his chest as he was strapped to a backboard, then loaded onto a stretcher. They picked him up and carried him away.
At the hospital—Lakeland Regional Medical Center—House was rushed in as a trauma patient. His uniform was cut off. His limbs were manipulated. Blood was drawn. Flashlights shone in his eyes. An IV was inserted into his veins, carrying a strong dose of painkillers.
“It was like a scene out of a movie,” House says. “It’s all happening so fast at that time. It was scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. You don’t know if you’re going to be okay or if you’re going to survive this.”
Six staples went into the back of his head to close the gash before House was wheeled in for a CT scan to assess the damage. The painkillers were doing their job, which was a relief, because the throbbing was something else. Eventually, House was put in a hospital room, another reprieve, because he could sit there and collect his thoughts. He begged the nurses for his phone. No one would give it to him.
Half an hour passed before the doctor walked in the room. Good news. Somehow, by some unbelievable fluke, House had avoided severe damage to his skull.
“They were shocked—they were thinking there would at least be something,” House says. “The doctor’s telling me how all the energy from the ball went into my skull. He’s like, ‘You absorbed that whole blow. And there’s no fractures. You have no damage.’ I still don’t believe it myself.”
That’s when he got his phone, and called Darlene to tell her everything. There were hundreds of texts—family, friends, teammates present and past—all sending well wishes. House left them unanswered, reaching out instead to a friend in the game who gave him Hicks’ number. He started composing a text.
“I just told him, ‘Don’t let this affect your game. This was an accident. Don’t let this hurt you. Go play baseball. I’ll be back out there,’ ” House says. “I just wanted him to know that I was OK. Look, it’s difficult for him, too. I’m not the only one affected by this. He’s affected, too. I wanted to make sure he was OK.
“It’s not his fault. It wasn’t intentional. It’s not like he said, ‘Let me hit this right back at your head.’ It just happens. Things like this happen. I know the risk out there.”
Blue Jays trainers George Poulis and Jeff Stevenson stayed with House through the evening. House was adamant that they didn’t need to stay overnight. Poulis had to go back to Dunedin, but Stevenson booked himself a Lakeland hotel room so he could pick House up in the morning. But first, a question: “Did I get the out?”
A pitcher’s pitcher, House wanted to know. So, they pulled it up on a phone and, sure enough, Ohlman caught that ball.
“It says lineout, pitcher to catcher,” House says. “I’m like, ‘What? Oh my goodness. How high did that ball go?’”
Stevenson left for his hotel and House laid awake all night long, alone, unable to sleep. Occasionally nurses entered the room to check his vitals, draw blood and perform neurological tests to make sure his condition wasn’t deteriorating. He FaceTimed with friends and old teammates to pass the hours. They started cracking a few jokes about the whole ordeal, because, of course they did.
In the morning, Stevenson returned, and House tried walking without assistance. Once he got his legs under him he took a shower, cleaned himself up and was cleared to leave the hospital. He got out around noon and was driven straight back to the Blue Jays’ Dunedin facility.
“I’m still a little bit shocked that I’m here,” House says, leaning against a wall in the Blue Jays clubhouse almost exactly 24 hours after the incident. “You don’t think you’re ever going to find yourself in that position. I’ve seen this so many times in movies. I’ve watched teammates go through it. But, me? This is happening to me?
“But, look, I got hit—I don’t know how hard it was going, but at least 100 m.p.h.—right on the head. And I walked out of the hospital today smiling. So, I can’t be too upset at anything. Obviously, I wish it never happened. But I’m doing well.”
House will take a few days now and not do anything. They won’t even let him drive. He’ll continue to be monitored for head injuries, and he’ll have to pass concussion protocol tests before he’s cleared to return to baseball activities. He’d like that to be sooner rather than later, but good luck getting that by Toronto’s medical staff.
And that’s okay. House could use some sleep. He could use some time to think. There are still a couple hundred unanswered messages. But after all that, as far as he’s concerned, there’s also still a team to try and make.
“I’m hoping to have a quick recovery. I want to get back out there as soon as possible,” House says. “I’m going to go back out there knowing that this can happen again. That’s not going to stop me. You’ve got to face your fears. It may sound a little crazy. But I love what I do.”