One year later: Bluffton still healing

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 3, 2008

The Associated Press

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — Bluffton University played its season-opening baseball game Sunday afternoon on a suburban high school diamond, with the bleachers behind the backstop filled mostly with families and friends of the players.

But the enormity of the event was lost on no one.

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On the same day last year, a horrific crash of the team’s charter bus in Atlanta killed five Bluffton players and two others and forever changed everyone from the small Ohio college who survived it.

Bluffton was scheduled to play the same team, Eastern Mennonite University, on the same high school field later on the day of the crash. So Sunday’s game was about moving forward while reflecting on the past.

‘‘Personally, it’s ever present,’’ said fifth-year coach James Grandey, who broke every bone in his face and fractured a leg in the crash. ‘‘I think about it all the time. And I think playing on March 2 is the appropriate way to go about the first year anniversary.’’

The bus driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a regular highway lane, crashing into a concrete barrier at a T-intersection at the top. Then it flipped off the overpass and fell 30 feet back onto Interstate 75. Besides the five players, the bus driver and his wife died. Twenty-eight others were injured.

The crash rocked the campus of 1,150 students tucked amid the farm fields of northwestern Ohio, an hour south of Toledo. But the baseball team was eager to get back to work. Starting a month late, the Beavers struggled to a 5-19 record.

‘‘We played the whole season with very heavy hearts and wandering minds,’’ Grandey said. ‘‘It was very hard to focus on what we were trying to do. In some sense, just being out there was a victory.’’

Tom and Gwynne Freytag of Wapakoneta, Ohio, have seen the changes in their son Brandon, a pitcher who walked away from last year’s crash with bad cuts and bruises.

‘‘He’s much attuned to other people than what he ever was,’’ the player’s father said Sunday, watching the game from a lawn chair near the team’s dugout. ‘‘He doesn’t miss a day without saying, ’I love you.’ Before it wasn’t cool. He’s much more attentive that way, and concerned about our feelings and our concerns.’’

The team flew to Florida for the spring trip this year, arriving Saturday night. Twenty players who were on the bus a year ago were in the dugout at Sarasota Christian School on Sunday for the first game of the team’s annual southern swing. With snow on the ground back in northern Ohio, the Beavers played in sunny, 80-degree weather.

‘‘They need to come back and return to the field in a normal way,’’ Bluffton University president James Harder said just before a brief pregame ceremony. ‘‘And certainly coming back to Sarasota to this location that they wanted to be in last year and they didn’t make it, I can’t think of a better way to start the 2008 season.’’

Jameson Jarvis, Eastern Mennonite’s senior captain, recalled being on his own team’s bus en route to Florida when the cell phone calls started coming about Bluffton’s crash in Atlanta. He called the remainder of the trip ‘‘surreal.’’

‘‘What better way to honor those who have passed but to do what they would have done,’’ Jarvis said Sunday. ‘‘They would have come out here and they would have given everything they had. I think that’s what the point is today, for us to come out here and play as hard we can, have as much fun as we can and remember those who are unable to do this.’’