Let me correct myself.
My favorite sports team to cheer for used to be the New York Yankees.
A slow-pitch softball team, appropriately enough called Warriors, changed all that for me in a short time Saturday night.
I had the privilege to spend three hours watching up close from their dugout the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, which stopped in Elkhart County Saturday to play a pair of exhibition games.
I’ve “covered” a lot of teams and too many athletes to count in my 24 years as a sportswriter. Never have I walked away from an event as inspired as I did Saturday night.
Want your kids to have athletes as role models?
You should have been at Elkhart Central High School Saturday night to watch true, passionate, courageous American heroes in action on the softball diamond. These young men, all of whom have lost limbs during tours in either the Army or Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan, are a true inspiration and one hell of a softball team.Take shortstop Matt Kinsey for instance.
The 27-year old, former junior college baseball player from Rockville, Indiana, is as intense, competitive and driven as any athlete I’ve run across in a long, long time.
You’d love to have the talented Kinsey, who boasts a rocket for a throwing arm, as a teammate, but would hate to have to compete against him.
“You won’t find a better group of guys then we have here,” said Kinsey prior to the game at Central. “I’m honored every time I take the field with them. I just love it. We have the best fans in the nation.
“You get an opportunity like this and you just work harder. A lot of people lose hope when something bad happens and to see us hopefully motivates them. The message is to never give up and always keep working. The thing to remember is that it always could be worse.”
Kinsey, who had a strong show of support from his family including his father who drove as fast as he could from St. Louis to make the game Saturday night, lost his foot after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan in June of 2010.
You would never know watching the slick-fielding Kinsey play as he charged a slow hit grounder on the first at-bat by the Elkhart Firefighters team Saturday night and fired a laser to first for the out.
These proud and ultra-competitive men, who love to laugh and joke with each other as much as they to play the game, are not athletes with disabilities, but abilities.
They are not your ordinary “Weekend Warriors” on the diamond, but truly extraordinary men with a mission.Kyle Earl, who grew up in nearby Kalamazoo, joined the team last November.
The 26-year old had to have his right arm amputated following an Iraqi roadside bomb incident in October 2006. That came after 18 months of therapy, braces and nerve transplants failed.
“I’m living a dream,” said Earl of traveling all over the country with his team. “This has meant everything to me and it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.
“It’s been amazing to be a part of. The country’s been behind us at every stop and the fans have been awesome. I cherish every trip. This is the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything. I’ll play softball for the rest of my life.
“The thing is that if you lose a limb it’s not the end. There’s a lot of life to live. I’m thankful for every day. It could have been way worse.”
The team was founded in 2011 by David Van Sleet, who retired last December after more than three decades working with wounded veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The squad had over 200 veterans try out initially and has 14 members on its roster (11 of which played in the games in Goshen and Elkhart on Saturday against local firefighters). They have over two million dollars worth of prosthetic devices.“This gives these guys a second chance at being athletes and the camaraderie of being with guys that are in the same situation they are in,” said Van Sleet, the team’s general manager/head coach and himself an Army veteran. “It’s pretty intense when we step on the field. By about the second inning, people forget they are amputees. It’s remarkable the improvement this team has made. I want to see them get better and they have.
“This is the 32nd city we’ve been in and the response from people has been absolutely overwhelming. We’ve played in front of big crowds, small crowds, but everywhere the fans have just been great. Bob Salisbury (from Goshen) did an amazing job pulling all this together for us to come here.”
“The big picture is that this lets the public know that these guys are okay. And they can see how much fun they have as athletes again. I just love it.”
For the record, the Wounded Warrior squad won 18-17 Saturday night as Matias Ferreira hit a walk-off, two-run, game winning home run in the final inning.It didn’t matter at all what the scoreboard said though after nine innings of some very entertaining and competitive softball.
The Wounded Warrior team, whose motto is “Life Without A Limb Is Limitless”, are all winners and a truly inspirational group of great men.
Thanks guys for giving me a new favorite team to cheer for.