Back in play


Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 12:14 a.m.

SEFFNER - Jeff Corsaletti's first instinct was to run, to use his athleticism to catch the guy who had just cold-cocked his friend. He started chasing, running faster than he ever had from first base to second, when he heard a voice from behind.

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With his Labrador retriever Rawlings, University of Florida freshman baseball player Brandon McArthur has been piecing together his life at his parents' home in Seffner.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun

The voice said stop. The voice said we've got a problem. Somebody called 9-1-1. It was the first time someone saved Brandon McArthur's life.

Today, McArthur knows what happened, but he remembers nothing. His last memory before the incident is Florida's final fall baseball scrimmage. The next memory is the the third-to-last day of rehabilitation.

In between, so much happened. Friends and family have filled in his memory lapse. The 8-inch, half-moon scar on his head tells him they are telling the truth.

He is lucky to be alive, lucky to be sitting on his favorite couch at home watching football and playing with his blond Labrador retriever Rawlings, lucky to be doing something on Sunday that nobody thought possible two months ago.

Heading back to Gainesville.

Going back to school.

Playing college baseball.

"There's something planned out for me in my life," McArthur said, "because I was so close to passing away and I made it. All I can see is doing the right things, playing for the Gators and making it a long way."

McArthur will return to Gainesville and is expected to be on the practice field Tuesday with his teammates. He knows they'll all have questions. They'll want to know what he remembers, why it happened, whether his hair will grow in.

He doesn't mind. He's been getting questions daily as he enjoys a life that was almost taken away from him after only 19 years. Whether he's out with his friends, taking swings in a batting cage or even at a restaurant recently when a stranger at the next table asked about the scar.

What happened to you?

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "I'm trying to grow my hair long enough to cover it. But since I didn't have anything to do with it, it doesn't bother me."

Everything changes

He was your typical college freshman athlete on the night of Oct. 29, doing well in school and adjusting to a bigger and faster game but making progress. He was especially proud that he had bulked up to almost 190 pounds and his body fat had been reduced to 5 percent. He had made friends quickly, especially with Corsaletti, a junior on the Florida baseball team.

That night, they went out together, ran into friends and had witnessed a fight at the Grog House between two co-eds. McArthur laughs about it now, but only because Corsaletti told him later about the fight.

They left the University Avenue bar and were standing on the sidewalk when McArthur looked at his cell phone. He has no idea why today, whether someone was calling or he was looking for a number.

It was 1:55 in the morning.

A lot of lives were about to change.

According to police records, McArthur was punched in the head, knocked unconscious and hit his head on the wall, then the sidewalk. McArthur said Corsaletti only remembers his head hitting the sidewalk.

McArthur suffered a subdural hematoma (a blood clot) to his brain. He was rushed to Shands Hospital.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 30, calls went out to McArthur's mother Valerie and stepfather Earl Bullock in Seffner, to his father Steve in Michigan and to Florida coach Pat McMahon.

UF baseball trainer Dave Werner called McMahon.

"When the phone rings at 3 in the morning," McMahon said, "it's typically a very disturbing call."

Earl and Valerie started making the drive to Gainesville, the place they had encouraged their son to go rather than take fifth-round money from the Minnesota Twins. They wanted him to get an education.

Suddenly, they were about to be educated themselves about the intricacies of brain surgery.

"I was panicked to get there," Valerie said.

"We didn't realize it was that bad," said Earl, "until the surgeon called on my cell phone. The cell started cutting out, and I told him I'd call back in 10 or 15 minutes. He said, 'You don't have 10 or 15 minutes.' "

Dr. Kelly Foote had to go in to save McArthur's life. He removed part of the young man's skull to take out the blood clot, then returned the portion of the skull where it used to be whole.

Fixing the shell

A day later, another angel came into McArthur's life.

Her name is Christiana, a nurse at Shands. When McArthur was returned to his room from a CAT-scan, she was supposed to check his pupils in an hour. Instead, she went in after only 20 minutes to check.

His pupils were bulging. The brain was swelling, putting pressure on the brain stem. If she had waited much longer, Brandon would not be sitting on the couch, talking to a reporter and sipping iced tea.

After a second operation on his brain, he was placed in a drug-induced coma so that his brain could recover. He could not be touched for fear that it would stimulate the swollen brain.

Imagine his mother, sitting in intensive care, unable to hold her son's hand and squeeze it to assure him he would be all right.

But she knew he would.

"I wasn't scared. I kept telling myself that Brandon's shell was injured and we'll get that fixed," she said. "But his heart and soul are going to be fine."

He developed pneumonia while in intensive care, but two weeks after the two surgeries he was finally awake and ready for rehab. At first, he had trouble putting words together. Gradually, things started to make sense. He was down to 153 pounds. The shell had withered.

"People tell me all kinds of things about what was going on during that time," he said. "It's hard to look at it realistically."

It wasn't until he was into rehab for lost memory and motor skills, getting stronger every day, that reality hit him. A case worker named Michael Johnson took McArthur back to the room where his life had hung in the balance.

"That shocked me," he said. "To see someone lying there in intensive care wounded kind of brought it home as to how serious it all was, to see how close I came to passing away."

His parents stayed in a Gainesville hotel so they could be there as much as possible. The UF baseball staff visited often. So did teammates. They weren't concerned for Brandon McArthur the shortstop but for Brandon McArthur the person.

"I kept thinking I'd wake up from this bad dream," McMahon said. "I remember wishing it would have been me. It was a very trying time for everyone. But what has happened is miraculous."

Dr. Foote thought it might be the end of the year before McArthur would be able to return home. Instead, he was able to leave the hospital the day before Thanksgiving, just as his mom hoped and predicted he would.

On the same day McArthur finally saw his bedroom back in Seffner again, Jonathan Aaron Head was seeking a reduction of his bail in a Gainesville courtroom. Head was arrested six days after McArthur was punched outside the Grog House and charged with felony battery with great bodily harm.

Several UF baseball coaches and McArthur's stepfather attended the hearing to speak against the reduction, which was denied. A case management hearing is set for February.

Head had been in trouble before. He was charged with offenses ranging from passing bad checks to burglary and battery in 1999 in Manatee County and was sentenced to two years probation.

McArthur, of course, has no idea who hit him. He only knows who is charged with the crime.

"I don't have very good thoughts (about the attacker)," he said. "I've heard different stories about why it happened. He didn't like the baseball team or some girl said something to him about me. I have no idea.

"I can't imagine myself seeing him, what he put us all through. I don't see me seeing him."

Scared, but strong

The muscle is coming back for McArthur, now up to his old high school weight of 170 thanks to a diet that includes protein shakes. The endurance is taking longer to return. Small chores in rehab still leave him winded.

Ironically, one of the reasons he is alive today is because he was in shape, strong and athletic, ready to conquer the next level of his life.

Now, he's striving to get back there. It isn't easy. He started working out in batting cages and taking ground balls last week. The most difficult part was regaining his sense of balance, and he's not anywhere near 100 percent of the baseball player who signed with Florida.

Still, his doctors in Gainesville are amazed with his recovery.

"Dr. Foote said he's never seen anything like it," Valerie said.

He's ready to come back, to answer questions about the scar, to take batting practice, to walk to class, even to make up for the schoolwork he missed while he fought for his life.

"I can't wait to get back," he said. "The schoolwork, a little bit of that scares me. There's still a small bit of memory loss, words that I don't use a lot that I can't remember. My teachers will help me.

"And I want to play baseball again. There's not a doubt in my mind."

He has been cleared to play the game that he loves, the one that brought him to Gainesville. Doctors are not concerned that a fastball at his head will be any more dangerous than it is for any other player, perhaps less so because his newly shaped skull on the left side includes titanium.

"His expectations are very high and our expectations for him are very high," said McMahon. "He has a tremendous work ethic. But he still has a long way to go."

Practice starts Tuesday.

Brandon McArthur will be there.

"I look at life totally different now," he said.

It has never looked better.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley at dooleyp@ gvillesun.com or 374-5053. You can hear Pat weekdays from 4-5 p.m. on WGGG 1230-AM in Gainesville and WMOP 900-AM in Ocala.

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