High School : : General
Friday, April 02, 2010

Incredible Story: Nate Winters is Pitching Again

Jim Ecker        
Nate Winters loves baseball and dreamed about playing in the major leagues. He played for successful travel teams when he was younger, the type of teams that routinely produce Division I players and top prospects, and he was coached by former big leaguers along the way. His father owns a minor league team in Florida, so he grew up in a baseball environment, soaking it all in. His future looked bright, a baseball career on the rise.

Then came Aug. 5, 2008, the day Nate lost his left leg in a terrible boating accident and nearly died. But in a remarkable story of spirit and determination, he’s pitching for his high school team again.

“Pretty amazing,” said Bob King, his coach at Winter Park High School in Florida. “To me, it’s miraculous.”

Nate was 15, enjoying his summer vacation when the accident occurred. He was boating with his older brother, Zach, and three others on a hot afternoon near their home in Winter Park. Zach, who was driving, saw grass ahead in the lake, so he steered the motor boat sharply to the left, going about 25 to 30 mph. It wasn’t a reckless move, but Nate got tossed into the lake and went under the water.

The power boat went over him. He got hit by the propeller, nearly cutting off his leg. It later had to be amputated at mid-thigh.

“My whole body was numb,” Nate told Perfect Game. “I looked down and my leg was all cut up.”

Somehow, he kept his senses.

“Nate saw a bunch of blood in the water,” said his father, Dr. Tom Winters. “He was afraid an alligator was going to come get him, so he started swimming himself back to the boat, and that’s what saved his life.”

Zach jumped into the water and helped pull him out. The people on the boat quickly applied a tourniquet to Nate’s leg and called 911. Nate doesn’t remember too many details.

“I kind of blacked out,” he said. “I was in some pain, but I think I went into shock.”

An emergency helicopter arrived at the scene within minutes and landed on a nearby soccer field. Nate was rushed to a trauma center, where an expert medical team went to work. They couldn’t save the leg, however. It was too far gone.

“It was hanging on by strands,” his father said.

The leg was gone, but Nate was lucky to be alive.

“Statistically, the odds of getting out of the water alive are about 1 in 100,” said Tom Winters, a medical doctor. “And when your hemoglobin goes down to where Nate’s did, your chance of surviving is about 1 in 10,000.”

Nate lost 80 percent of his blood, which is normally fatal.

“He’s a real strong kid,” Tom Winters said.

Dr. Winters rushed to the scene of the accident, not knowing what to expect. He’s witnessed a lot during his medical career, but this was his son. It was obviously a grave situation.

“I said, ‘Nate, are you OK?’ And he kind of grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, I lost my leg,’” Dr. Winters related. “And then he said, ‘Am I going to live?’ I said, ‘Nate, if God got you this far, you’re going to live.’”

Emergency medical workers at the scene put “trauma trousers” on Nate, in order to apply pressure and stem the bleeding, but Nate didn’t know what was going. In fact, he feared the worst.

“Nate thought they were putting him in a body bag,” Dr. Winters remarked. “Nate said, ‘Don’t put that on me. I’m not dead yet.’”

Nate also lost a toe on his right foot in the accident, and the Achilles’ tendon on his right leg was severely cut in several places. Family and friends gathered at the hospital, more than 100 strong, frightened, praying, distraught. It was a long, tough night, but Nate fought through it. He woke up the next morning.

“The first thing Nate did when they took the tube out (of his mouth and throat) at about 7 o’clock the next morning, he turned to Zach – my oldest son – and said, ‘Hey, thanks for saving my life,’” Dr. Winters said. “So Nate kind of made him feel good.”

The accident happened 20 months ago. Incredibly, Nate has bounced back, with a prosthetic left leg, great spirit and tremendous determination.

Remarkably, he pitched two scoreless innings for the Winter Park High School junior varsity team last week. His fastball was probably in the high 70s and might have touched 80. And having passed that test, his next assignment could be for the varsity.

He’s back.

“I have to admit, I had my doubts,” said Coach King.

Nate, now 17 and a junior, is playing again. And having fun. Even Nate is surprised.

“I was always doubting myself, if I was ever going to play again or not,” he said. “It felt pretty good.”

The junior varsity game was played at Dr. Phillips High School and drew a big crowd, unusually big for a jayvee game. They were there to see Nate, to cheer for Nate.

“When Nate got out there to pitch, the other team gave him a standing ovation,” Tom Winters said. “And after he finished, their team’s fans gave him a standing ovation again. There were a lot of goose-bumps going around the ballpark that day.”

It was a long, hard road back.

Nate spent 10 to 12 days in the hospital after the accident, then his injured Achilles’ tendon got infected. He had to go back for more surgeries and more treatments. He ended up having nine operations and spent several months in a wheelchair, but he gradually got stronger.

Tiger Woods, who lives nearby in Florida and heard about the accident, sent Nate an autographed picture and a card. It said, “Nate, be tough always.”

Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, who played for Tom Winters’ minor league team – the Brevard Manatees – sent Nate a baseball and bat. The Boston Red Sox sent a Jonathan Papelbon jersey. Jason Varitek’s parents showed up. So did Zack Greinke’s father. “The major leaguers have been great,” Tom Winters said.

This past fall – about 14 months after the accident – Nate played catch with a friend and tried some bullpen sessions. That’s when he began thinking about a comeback. He decided to go out for the team, but it was rough. He lost his balance and fell off the mound a few times until he got accustomed to landing on his prosthetic left leg.

“He got pretty disenchanted and a little embarrassed,” his father said. “He called me about 6 or 7 weeks ago and said, ‘Dad, I can’t do it.’”

As it turned out, he could.

“I love playing baseball,” Nate said. “I kept going.”

The prosthetic device allows some flexibility, and they’re making adjustments on the fly. “There are some things that are not perfect with it, but it’s pretty good,” he said.

Nate’s life has changed in many ways the last 20 months. He’s developed into a talented musician and performs in a band, playing the piano and guitar. His grades have improved, he was elected junior class president, and he’s playing ball again.

The next step will be pitching in a varsity game this year. It will happen, because Nate deserves it. He’s earned it.

“Oh, yeah. He’s going to get in a game. It’s just a matter of when,” said King. “And seeing what he’s done, I think next year he’ll be a very important part of the team.”

It’s amazing. And the story isn’t done yet.

“Who knows?,” Tom Winters said. “If he goes to the right college, maybe he’ll be a relief pitcher for somebody.”

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