Nathan Holcomb homered during his first trip to the Smoky Mountain Classic five years ago. He was 18, a college baseball pitching prospect and, at 6-foot-8, an athlete of truly biblical proportions.
The Seacoast Reebok designated hitter went deep again last Saturday night, but this one would mean so much more. The blast, Holcomb’s first this season, cleared the 325-feet, left-field fencing at the Maryville College baseball stadium with ease. After reaching the Seacoast dugout, Holcomb excused himself and stepped out back.
“I felt like I was a 5-year-old,” he said. “I broke down. I had to go behind a tree because I didn’t want to cry in front of all of these people.”
Holcomb would later score the winning run from second in a 7-6 Seacoast victory over Famous Sports. As little as 10 months ago, all the Watertown High School assistant softball coach wanted to do was to walk again.
Holcomb had planned to spend Sept. 18, 2010, deer hunting with longtime friend Eddie Vaughn near Graham, N.C. Holcomb had married Watertown head coach Brandi Baird only four weeks earlier. While Vaughn and he waited, the deer stand Holcomb was resting on let go, the 25-foot drop to the ground below resulting in a broken back, a cracked wrist and five broken ribs. At impact, the former Elon University right-hander had bitten through both sides of his tongue.
“It’s just a miracle he’s here,” said Holcomb’s father, Mike, a Baptist minister.
Unable to walk or call to Vaughn for help, Holcomb crawled back to his four-wheeler on his forearms, rolling downhill on his side when he could.
“I pulled myself up on (the four-wheeler) and rode about two miles to where my buddy was,” Holcomb said.
When the pair reached a nearby home, Vaughn phoned Bavaria Holcomb, Nathan’s mother.
Bavaria Holcomb said Vaughn told her Nathan had been in an accident and that they were transporting him to a local hospital. That it wasn’t Nathan calling set off alarm bells, she said.
“I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have enough information,’” Bavaria Holcomb said. “So I dialed the number again. This time, Nathan answered. He said, ‘Mom, it’s me. I’m bad. I’m sure I broke my back.’
“The hearing his voice and knowing he’s alive was a whole new adrenaline.”
As bad as the day had begun, it began to reverse course every bit as dramatically, Holcomb said. Had he not gotten to Vaughn as quickly as he did, he said doctors told him, the paralysis he’d suffered from the fall would have been permanent, and it wasn’t just any physician making the diagnosis.
Dr. Anthony Hadden of Bend, Ore., is one of the country’s most respected neurosurgeons. When Holcomb was brought to emergency, “(Hadden) just happened to be at the hospital checking on one of his patients,” Holcomb said.
Hadden had Holcomb immediately airlifted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Medical Center, where the latter had a pair of titanium rods inserted in his lower back, held in place by eight screws, to fuse five vertebrae.
The surgery took six hours. It would be four months before Holcomb regained full use of his legs.
“Standing to make the bed was the hardest thing I did for months” he said. “The first time I tied my shoes (at five months), I thought about throwing a party.”
While at UNC, Holcomb would once again see fortune take a hand in his recovery. He needed surgery to repair the break to his wrist as well. One of the country’s top surgeons in the field, as luck would have it, just happened to be a resident.
“Again,” Holcomb said, “she was supposed to be on vacation.”
After doctors had done all they could, the most important person in his recovery became his new bride, Brandi, Holcomb said.
“My wife wouldn’t let me feel sorry for myself,” he said.
Neither would physical therapist Casey McGhee, who Holcomb said helped bring him the rest of the way back once Brandi and he returned to Lebanon, Tenn.
“He (McGhee) is the reason I am where I am,” Holcomb said.
By March, Holcomb was hitting off a tee. In April, he played in his first tournament since the accident. Last Thursday, he hit one out for the first time this season.
“I’m very big in my faith that God has been very good to me through this whole thing,” Holcomb said. “I’m just blessed to be able to walk and to talk. It’s a miracle I didn’t die. We truly believe things happen for a reason.”