In the fall of 2017, N.C. Central junior Mitchell McCrary was back in the batter’s box.
McCrary had played baseball since he was 4, taking thousands of swings and seeing just as many pitches since then. But McCrary was shaken.
It was his first week back on the Eagles’ baseball team and a fastball sped behind him. No big deal, wild pitches are part of the game. But it was a wild pitch seven months earlier that put McCrary in a hospital bed, his mouth wired shut. It was a wild pitch that took McCrary away from the game — and left him disliking the person he was becoming, contemplating quitting school and questioning his faith.
So McCrary was back in the batter’s box, but the trauma of all of that what he had gone through months ago left McCrary shaking when another ball got away from a pitcher and wildly came at him.
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“I was trembling, my whole body was literally shaking with fear,” McCrary said. “I tried to gather myself, my heart was racing outside the box. I took a couple of deep breaths, told myself I was fine. Stepped back in the box and my body was still shaking, just because it was so striking.”
‘Coach, I think my jaw is broken’
On April 1, 2017, the Eagles were hosting Florida A&M at the Durham Athletic Park. N.C. Central led 2-0 when McCrary, an outfielder from Henderson High in Mills Creek, was up for his second at-bat. With a man on second and no outs, Eagles’ head coach Jim Koerner gave McCrary the bunt sign. McCrary squared his body and choked up on his bat, waiting for the delivery from Rattlers’ pitcher JoJo Durden.
The game was in the bottom of the third inning, but Durden had already hit three batters. McCrary would be the fourth, and it would be life changing.
Durden threw a fastball, and from what he recalled, McCrary says Durden had hit 90 miles per hour on the radar gun with at least one pitch that day. McCrary doesn’t know how fast the pitch was that hit him, but it landed square on his jaw, on the right side of his face. McCrary couldn’t get out of the way and dropped “like a sack of potatoes” when he was hit.
Koerner rushed on the field and started yelling for athletic trainer Caroline Marion. Koerner’s yells signaled to Marion that the situation was severe.
“Honestly, Coach Koerner doesn’t really freak out about a lot of stuff, but when I got on the field he was yelling, so that’s when I figured this was going to be an issue,” Marion said. “Plus the amount of blood.”
McCrary couldn’t open his mouth all the way and knew he was in bad shape. “Coach, I think my jaw is broken,” he mumbled to Koerner.
McCrary tried to spit out his gum he’d been chewing, and that’s when the blood came. Followed by chips from broken teeth.
Other than going into the tunnel and trying to clean out his mouth with water and seeing more blood, McCrary, who says the scene was “gruesome,” doesn’t remember much.
The impact from the baseball cracked the right side of McCrary’s jaw. The jawbone is like glass, so the initial crack on the right spread to the left side of the jaw, causing trauma there, too.
Marion didn’t see the play, but she heard it. She described the sound of the ball hitting McCrary’s face as a loud pop, similar to the sound of a baseball hitting a helmet.
Despite the impact, McCary showed no signs of a concussion, the trainer said, and he was not diagnosed with one afterward.
Marion had one of her student interns call for an ambulance. Sitting in the tunnel, spitting blood, McCrary could hear the sirens.
‘Oh my God I have to go’
Almost four hours away, McCrary’s mom, Laurie, was listening to the game, and was suddenly left in the dark.
Laurie McCrary remembers the day well. It was beautiful outside, so she was on her deck, listening to the live broadcast of the game. She can recall the announcer reeling off some of Mitch’s stats, then announcing that McCrary got the bunt signal from Koerner.
The next thing Laurie heard was that Mitch was hit and down at home plate. Then the broadcast went to commercial.
“I was thinking ‘please don’t go to commercial. You’re my only link,’” she remembered shouting. “And my mother-in-law was listening and she immediately started blowing up my phone. I told her to let me think and I could call someone down there. The only thing I was thinking of was calling his roommates, but they are ballplayers and they don’t have their phones.”
Mitch is the second of Laurie’s two sons, and they both grew up playing baseball. Both had pitched and she constantly worried about her sons hitting a batter.
When Mitch was about 6 or 7, she said, a coach instructed him to hit a batter on purpose.
“I went off on that coach,” Laurie said.
But now her son was down after taking a fastball to the face, and there was nothing she could do. Eventually she got in contact with another parent, who assured her they would find out what happened as soon as they got to the park. Secure in the ambulance, Mitch, at this time past the shock, but heavy on meds, sent her a text.
“I knew she was freaking out,” Mitch said. “I told her I was in good hands, but it was pretty scary.”
After talking to Mitch and hearing from Marion, Laurie decided to wait until the following morning to make the four-hour drive to Durham. The family arrived the next morning, before Mitch went in for surgery.
When he came out from his procedure, the reality of the situation struck McCrary. The night before, he had X-Rays and figured he was done for a while, but hopeful he could return to the lineup in time for the MEAC tournament. McCrary had chipped three teeth and a fourth tooth was jammed into his jaw. During surgery he had four screws drilled into the back of his mouth and his mouth was wired shut for the next four weeks.
The doctors had to hardware his mouth in a horseshoe to make sure the break would properly heal.
That’s when McCrary started what he called his own personal pity party. He had bounced back from bilateral shoulder surgery the summer after his freshman year. At the time of the wild pitch, McCrary was batting .350 and finally back into a groove, but knowing he was done for the year took a lot out of him.
“My first thought was, really, why me?” McCrary said. “Why has this gotta be me? Why me? Why?”
Laurie stayed in Durham for a couple of days and went grocery shopping for Mitch. His diet consisted of a healthy dose of soup broth and protein shakes, which he couldn’t enjoy because he had to place the straw awkwardly in his mouth, wherever he could find space between all the metal.
At first he would go to games, just to be around the guys. Eventually that stopped because everyone was scared of another freak accident happening when he was around; a foul ball to the face as he sat in the stands, or a ball getting away from a teammate during a routine toss. So he stayed at his Durham apartment. When the Eagles played on the road Mitch was alone, since all of his roommates were on the baseball team.
“Yawning was the worst part, honestly,” McCrary said. “I couldn’t open my mouth to yawn so I couldn’t get the actual pleasure you would think you would get from a yawn. I couldn’t even yawn properly and I was just thinking ‘what else do I have to face?’ “
McCrary was getting angry at himself. He would try to sleep, but could only stay down for 2-3 hours at a time. Talking as an outlet wasn’t an option.
“My mind kept racing on and on, like, what can I do to give me something new to enjoy?” he wondered. “Where can I bring life to myself?”
His lowest point
By the end of May, it had been more than a month since McCrary ‘s surgery. The Eagles didn’t make the MEAC tournament, so McCrary didn’t have a reason to be around the game. He was bothered by the thought that had he been in the lineup to help, NCCU might have made it to the postseason.
He wasn’t himself. Everyone around him knew it. Marion was one of the first to notice.
“We’re around these guys all day and you start to get a feel for who they are as individuals,” Marion said. “It’s just like any friendship, work relationship, where you get to know a coworker and you can just tell when something is not right. It doesn’t take a lot for me to recognize when things are wrong with these guys.”
McCrary said he had sunk into a dark place.
“I was to the point where … I wouldn’t say I wanted to kill myself, I’ve never had thoughts of trying to kill myself,” McCrary said. “But I was to the point where I didn’t want to keep waking up. I had nothing to look forward to. My day was the same over and over. I would wake up and couldn’t even brush my teeth. So it was like, at what point is this going to end so I can get back to being able to be Mitchell. I just never felt like I was going to be able to do that.”
McCrary wears a cross on a gold chain around his neck. He has a tattoo of a Jesus fish on the inside of his bicep, shaped with what looks like red stitches of a baseball. McCrary has his faith on full display, but at his lowest moments, even that was in question.
“I kept asking myself why would God put me through this?” McCrary said. “I had already been through so much and I kept questioning why He would bring this in my life. I had just gotten back from surgery, so I felt this wasn’t supposed to happen to me, so I kept questioning my friends, my family, my beliefs. I just wasn’t me. I didn’t feel like I was myself. I was lost, really.”
McCrary went to have a talk with Koerner and told him he was thinking about giving up baseball. Koerner wasn’t ready to let McCrary walk away from the game.
Koerner told McCrary to think about it, then come back in exactly one month and they would talk about it again. When McCrary left his office that day Koerner didn’t know which way McCrary was leaning. Koerner tried to put himself in Mitch’s shoes, but in his mind, there was a 50-50 shot that McCrary would not play again. In his heart, he felt like McCrary was about to make a mistake.
“I knew he loved the game so much,” Koerner said. “You watch him play and he plays with so much passion. I’ve seen that kind of player and it’s hard to step away from the game. I was hoping maybe something will trigger that.”
Reaching out for help
Koerner realized McCrary was going through some things that were “beyond my pay grade.” Marion noticed it too, realizing she could only say so much. Sometimes, she said, in situations like this it’s hard for male student-athletes to come out and say they need some help. So she recommended McCrary go see a sports psychologist.
Dr. Bradley Hack of Carolina Strategies sees 120-plus student athletes a month. Based out of Chapel Hill, with an office in Cary, Hack said he has seen an increase of student-athletes who seek out help from a professional psychologist, adding that around 10-20 percent of them experience depression at a clinical level, a slightly higher rate than other college students.
“To be honest, it’s mostly anxiety, that’s the most common issue going on,” Hack said. “Sometimes it is anxiety about having an injury and if they are going to be able to get back. Some depression, and I don’t see this as often as I did 20 years ago, but it’s still fairly prevalent.”
After he returned to Durham from summer break, McCrary, on a recommendation from Marion, decided to go see Dr. Hack. The two met three times, and McCrary went because he knew he wasn’t “on track.”
Once he sat down in those sessions, Hack laid out a guideline for McCrary, putting it all on the table for his future. McCrary had a second procedure in August of 2017, just so the doctors could clean up some bacteria in his mouth. But just the thought of seeing another surgeon upset McCrary, who at this point had thought about not only quitting baseball, but school as well.
“He hit it home,” McCrary said. “He gave me all my options and really discussed with me why I love baseball and why I’m here today and at this point. It made me realize I’ve come so far since the initial break, why back down from it now? I came to realize that I wouldn’t be able to finish my life, honestly. I would have been really upset knowing I walked away (from baseball), letting someone else get the best of me and I couldn’t go out on my own.”
Back to baseball
Between his surgery in April of 2017 and August 2017, McCrary guesses he might have picked up a baseball bat once. He hit off a tee, but didn’t get back to the game until September. That’s when he went back to Koerner and his mom to announce he would play again.
Laurie said she never thought Mitch would give up on the game he loved so much, but he was torn all summer. However, once he made the decision to return, he had the support of everyone. Laurie, though, said she was mortified.
McCrary got his swing back by taking numerous swings in the batting cage and continuing to hit off the tee. Eventually he had to step in front of live pitches. When that day came, he thought he was ready, but the fastball that sped behind him that fall gave him a quick flashback. It came from Koerner of all people.
“The very first day, he is taking batting practice and ... I hit him (in the back) with the first pitch,” Koerner said. “I knew the situation so in my head the wheels were saying ‘don’t hit him’ and I hit him right in the back and I thought ‘oh great he’s going to quit.’ I tell you what, he was probably the best hitter that day, it was like riding a bike. I told our coaches he was our best hitter that day.”
McCrary appeared in 43 games this season (38 starts) with 15 RBIs and four home runs. More important than stats, McCrary was just happy to be around his guys again. His teammates were thrilled to have McCrary back, but even he was questioning if he had made the right choice by returning to baseball. But after a couple of weeks of being back in the routine, McCrary knew he’d made the right decision.
Suddenly he didn’t dread those weight room workouts or field drills. As long as he was around his teammates, McCrary was OK.
“The baseball atmosphere, it’s just truly joyful,” McCrary said. “It made me happy that I could step back out there. It was nice that I could get back on the field and share the same uniform as my team again.”
‘I’m more complete now’
The tattoo was something McCrary decided to get once he fully recovered and was back on the team.
At the tail of the Jesus fish is an abbreviation for the bible verse Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.”
“It (the tattoo) was really just something that kind of made me whole again,” McCrary said. “I’m truly blessed that He brought it in my life. I’m a better person just by going through this. I try and treat other people with more respect. I just feel like I’m more complete now.”
Koerner said having McCrary back to being himself, not just back on the baseball field, is what matters the most. He didn’t want to see his player live with the demons, and is glad to see him grow, and learn from, the situation. As traumatic as the injury was, Koerner feels McCrary learned something about himself that he wouldn’t have otherwise.
“When you look at it from that perspective it’s almost a blessing,” Koerner said. “I think he found some inner strength that he didn’t even know he had.”
Now when McCrary goes to bat, his ritual includes drawing a cross in the dirt, taking two swings, then saying a quick prayer. It’s his chance to give thanks for being back to playing the game he loves.
“I thank Him for giving me the opportunity to be back on this field again because just like that I was gone,” McCrary said. “I’m just really blessed that I can get back on the field once again.”