Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on Aug. 4 2017 and has been selected by ESPN.com’s MLB editorial staff as one of our best stories of 2017.
Kyle Farmer took a moment to savor the scene at Dodger Stadium late Sunday night, during the brief interlude between Justin Turner crossing home plate with the winning run and the entire Los Angeles roster charging from the dugout to tear the shirt off his back and douse him in Gatorade. He raised his arms in triumph and smiled, and the sliver of black ink on the inside of his left biceps cracked open a window to his heart.
Farmer had just flashed back to his college days to summon the coolness under pressure to deliver in a tight spot. In his first major league at-bat, he stroked a 96 mph four-seamer from Albert Suarez for a two-run double in the 11th inning to give the Los Angeles Dodgers a 3-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants.
The tattoo on Farmer’s arm, which revealed the message “Second Chance” in a mix of Olde English caps and sans-serif font, is his personal tribute to Chance Veazey, a former University of Georgia teammate whose baseball career ended when he was paralyzed from the waist down in a scooter accident in 2009.
Eight years later, multiple life paths and storylines — all narrated in Southern drawls — have intersected 2,200 miles from the Athens campus in Los Angeles.
David Perno, the former Georgia baseball coach, watched Farmer’s climactic hit from a cabin in Tallulah Falls, Georgia. Within two minutes, he received a text from his wife and another from Brett DeLoach, the starting catcher on those old Georgia teams.
Did you see what Kyle just did? they asked in amazement.
“One of the things I always told Kyle was, ‘The back door is always open. When things are on the line, you’ve gotta hit the ball the other way,'” Perno says. “I saw that hit so many times in my career, I knew it was money. That son of a gun. He was born to be a big leaguer.”
Dodgers starter Alex Wood led the surge from the dugout and helped gang-tackle Farmer at second base. Wood is also a product of the Georgia baseball program and a close friend of Chance Veazey’s, and he has the same “Second Chance” tattoo on his arm.
“It was the coolest moment of my whole career,” Wood says. “I was more nervous for his first at-bat than I was for my own debut. It’s always special when great things happen to great people, and Kyle is as deserving as anyone I know.”
Veazey was watching from his Georgia living room when the ball rattled around the right-field corner and Farmer introduced himself to a national audience on ESPN. Veazey is unable to walk and spends his days in a wheelchair, but he’s getting a vicarious thrill this summer watching former Bulldogs Wood, Josh Fields and now Farmer play for a Los Angeles team laying waste to the National League West standings en route to 110-plus victories.
Veazey felt such an adrenaline surge watching the Dodgers’ victory that he stayed up until 3:30 in the morning posting a video on Snapchat and waiting to speak with Farmer and his parents by phone. On Monday, he spent several hours searching Google and combing YouTube for every smidgen of media coverage.
“I went absolutely nuts when I saw it,” he says. “I went ballistic. Yelling. Screaming. Laughing and crying. There were a whole bunch of emotions. I came into work a little late the next morning.”
He laughed when it was suggested that he might have felt more freedom to emote given that he was watching the game alone at home.
“I wouldn’t have cared if I was in a library,” he says. “I would have had the same reaction.”
“When you have a best friend who is very good in baseball, and it’s taken away from him and you get an opportunity to live out his dream — and that was your dream as well — you kind of feel like you’re playing for him.”
Kyle Farmer on his friendship with Chance Veazey
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Wood and Farmer draw inspiration from Veazey and Johnathan Taylor, another former Bulldog who is showing resilience after being paralyzed from the chest down in an outfield collision with a teammate in 2011. And Taylor and Veazey are seeing their lost baseball dreams play out through their fellow Bulldogs on Georgia’s Chavez Ravine satellite campus.
“When you have a best friend who is very good in baseball, and it’s taken away from him and you get an opportunity to live out his dream — and that was your dream as well — you kind of feel like you’re playing for him,” Farmer says.
“Chance is always calling and asking questions, like, ‘Do you think I could have played [in the big leagues]? How tough is it?’ I think about him every time I step on the field, because I know for a fact he had the ability to do this. It kind of pushes you to play better and harder for him.”
Wood derives similar motivation from his former teammates. He has sewn the initials C.V.J.T. inside the thumb of every baseball glove he’s worn since his professional debut with the Atlanta Braves organization in 2012.
“When I look at those initials, I get emotional sometimes,” Wood says. “Every time I see it, it reminds me how fortunate I am to be doing what I love and that I’m doing this for more than just me. I’m doing it for them.”
THE OLD TEAMMATES exchange regular texts as part of a chain they call “The Entourage,” in recognition of the HBO series about a fictional New York actor who’s living the dream as a movie star and took his boyhood friends along to Hollywood for the ride.
Since Wood reached the major leagues first (and makes the most money), he’s Vinny Chase, the movie star. Brett DeLoach is Johnny “Drama” Chase, Veazey is “Turtle” and Farmer is Eric “E.” Murphy, Vinny’s friend and personal assistant. Collin Davidson, a close friend of the group, is also a member of the Entourage.
After Farmer blew up on national TV Sunday night — becoming the first player since Tomas Perez of the 1995 Toronto Blue Jays to deliver a walk-off RBI in his first big league plate appearance — his homeboys couldn’t resist the temptation to bring him down a notch. They asked if he would still be able to converse with them now that he’s a national celebrity.
“He’ll be a household name,” says Veazey, who jokingly sent Farmer a text asking him, “Do we have room for two Vinnies in the Entourage now?”
That easy banter has been a staple since freshman year in Athens. Farmer is from Atlanta, and Veazey comes from Tifton, Georgia (population: 16,386), and they bonded instantly as roommates at McWhorter Hall in UGA’s East Campus Village. Farmer played shortstop in college before converting to catcher in the pros, and Veazey was a 5-foot-9 second baseman with a feisty streak, and they developed the rapport so vital to successful double-play combinations.
“When I first met Chance, it was like I had known him my entire life,” Farmer says. “We clicked like that.”
As sophomores, Farmer, Veazey, Wood, DeLoach and infielder Curt Powell lived in a gray, three-story house on Talmadge Street and took comfort in non-baseball rituals. Each Wednesday, the friends assembled in the living room to watch “Sons of Anarchy” on FX. They had three TVs (for baseball, football and playing “Call of Duty”) and four mounted deer heads on the wall as a testament to their mutual affinity for hunting. Wood proclaimed himself the resident grill master, cooking steaks and chicken on the back porch with the same tender loving care he bestows upon his low-90s fastball and wipeout curve.
“We would always play ‘Super Smash Brothers’ on Nintendo,” Veazey says. “I remember one day, Alex had ordered a spare Nintendo 64. He had just cooked a four-course meal, with chicken, green beans and everything, and he was mad because we wouldn’t stop playing. So he took the Nintendo we were using and slammed it on the floor and shattered it everywhere. It was a joke because he knew we had another one. I was so mad, I took a plate of food from him and dumped it in the trash can.”
Amid the college hijinks and the baseball, the Georgia friends would endure sadness, lots of tears and a series of setbacks that put their character to the ultimate test.
The first life-altering event came on Oct. 28, 2009, two days after Veazey homered to wrap up the final practice game of the fall. While Farmer and DeLoach went out to celebrate the end of exams, Veazey bunkered down at the student center to study for a psychology exam with friends.
Around 10 p.m., he was returning to the dorm on a motorized scooter when disaster struck. He was making a turn at a light on the corner of Baxter and South Lumpkin Streets when his scooter collided with a car. Veazey fractured the 10th vertebra in his back and suffered severe damage to his spinal cord.
David Perno was the first familiar face on the scene. It was the night of the World Series opener, and Perno saw the name flash on his phone and thought Veazey, a die-hard Chase Utley fan, was calling to gloat about Philadelphia’s Game 1 victory over the New York Yankees. But there was a policeman on the other end, and the tone of his voice reflected the sense of chaos in the air. Chance was awake and coherent, and he told the officer to call his parents, who were 3½ hours away in Tifton, and then the Georgia coach.
Upon arrival at St. Mary’s Hospital, Perno received some incomprehensibly grim news: The attending doctor relayed the gravity of the situation and wanted him to tell Veazey, but Perno couldn’t summon the nerve or the words.
“The doctor tells Chance, ‘You’re never going to be the same,'” Perno says. “And for five minutes, he’s crying so hard you couldn’t hear anything. He’s crying and he’s not making any noise. I can’t even explain what it was like to be sitting there with him. I’ll never forget it.”
Farmer and DeLoach grabbed a taxi to the hospital, only to be told to return the following morning. Upon arrival, they saw the irrepressibly upbeat side that makes Veazey so beloved by his friends.
“Chance was asleep, and when I walked in and shook his legs and he didn’t wake up, I kind of knew then,” Farmer says. “When the doctor told us, I was bawling and crying. And Chance was like, ‘Don’t cry. I’m gonna get through it. I’m going to be fine.'”
“The doctor tells Chance, ‘You’re never going to be the same. And for five minutes, he’s crying so hard you couldn’t hear anything. He’s crying and he’s not making any noise. I can’t even explain what it was like to be sitting there with him. I’ll never forget it.”
Former Georgia baseball coach David Perno
Incredibly, the once-in-a-lifetime setback that no one envisioned played out again on a baseball field less than two years later. In a March 6, 2011 game against Florida State, the Seminoles’ Devon Travis hit a fly ball that was ticketed for the gap in left-center field. Taylor and teammate Zach Cone converged at full speed from their posts in the outfield while Farmer sprinted out from shortstop, and Cone’s hip collided with Taylor’s head as both players dove for the ball.
While Cone escaped with a concussion and cuts behind his ear, Taylor suffered a broken neck in the collision. As head athletic trainer Mike Dillon and Perno ran out to survey the scene, the silence at Foley Field reflected the sense of dread radiating through the stands. Chance Veazey, who was watching the game from the Georgia dugout, felt it most acutely.
“If my injury hadn’t happened, I don’t think anybody would have thought much of it,” Veazey says. “But everybody had a bad feeling. We went into the locker room and huddled around and waited for Mike Dillon, and he told us our worst fear: Johnathan couldn’t feel anything from his neck down. You could have heard a pin drop. Everybody just gasped and broke down. They knew the obstacles he was going to be facing after already going through it with me.”
Farmer believes that Coach Perno had the toughest time getting past the cruelty of it all. Perno had recruited all these players, nurtured them and come to regard them as his surrogate sons, only to see two of them struck down in the most capricious of ways.
The emotional burden has been oppressive at times for Perno, who was fired as Georgia baseball coach in 2013 and is now coaching high school football in Athens. “It crushes me to this day to think about what might have been,” he says.
But he is also heartened by the way his old players have stuck together through each obstacle. They’ve taken a spirit-crushing chain of events and turned it into an uplifting, inspirational, brotherly baseball bond.
“It’s pretty amazing. It really is,” Perno says. “In most cases like this, especially when they’re as young as these kids were, they remain close for a while and then people go their different ways. Not this crew. It’s only grown stronger.”
FARMER IS CONVINCED that Taylor and Veazey would have been pros if not for their career-ending accidents. Veazey was undersized, but he approached the game with a Dustin Pedroia-like competitive chip and a knack for getting the bat head to the ball. Taylor logged a team-best .442 on-base percentage as a sophomore, and he could fly.
“To me, he looked and played like Kenny Lofton,” Farmer says. “He’s one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen on a baseball field.”
Both refused to allow random misfortune to defeat them. In a heartwarming gesture, the Texas Rangers selected Taylor in the 33rd round of the 2011 first-year player draft. Taylor received his bachelor’s degree in consumer economics and wants to pursue a career in financial planning. Although he’s paralyzed from the chest down and has only limited use of his hands, he works on the side as an Uber driver.
Taylor is older than the “Entourage” contingent and had his own inner circle at Georgia, but he and Farmer have grown closer since the UGA days. They meet occasionally for lunch at a barbecue joint in Athens, and the exuberance that made Taylor so popular with teammates has never faded.
“JT loves cartoons,” Farmer says. “And he always loved to dance. He would bust moves everywhere.”
Veazey, who graduated with a degree in risk management and insurance, runs a State Farm agency in Tifton. Before Farmer proposed marriage to his girlfriend, Courtney Sayer, in July, he swore Veazey to secrecy and then hit him up for an insurance policy.
From his seat in a wheelchair, Veazey is always game for adventure. His uncle Scott designs golf courses and knows Greg Norman, and several years ago Chance had the opportunity to meet the Shark. He received an invitation to go bow-hunting at Norman’s Colorado ranch, and killed an elk from a distance of 70 yards in 2014.
“It was probably one of the best days of my life,” Veazey says. The day when Veazey’s former teammates showed him those tattoos ranks high on the list. Shortly after Veazey’s accident, the contingent was bound for St. Simons Island to unwind before the big Georgia-Florida football game when outfielder Jake Montgomery conceived the “Second Chance” initiative. Everyone warmed to the idea, so Farmer, Wood, DeLoach, Montgomery and Zach Taylor trekked to an Athens tattoo establishment and got themselves adorned. It took about 20 minutes a person — almost two hours in all.
“Sometimes I forget it’s there,” Farmer says. “Then I look down and see it, and it brings back a memory or the thought of Chance. When I go through struggles in baseball, my mom calls and says, ‘There’s always a second chance.’ It’s kind of cheesy, but that’s the way it is. It brings me back down a level.”
Veazey’s former teammates joke that they defaced their bodies in his honor, and he wouldn’t even consent to getting one himself. Veazey replies that it wouldn’t make much sense for him to get a tattoo of his own first name now, would it? But that doesn’t lessen his appreciation for the gesture, or reflect the boost to his spirits when the boys dropped by the Shepherd Center in Atlanta and revealed their new body art.
“For them to put something on their body for the rest of their life, it meant a lot to me — especially when I was going through such a hard time,” Veazey says. “It kind of solidified our friendship and how deep we are.”
The selfless gestures continue, in ways big and small. In July, Veazey flew to Miami for the All-Star Game as the personal guest of Wood, who made the National League squad by virtue of his 10-0 record and 1.67 ERA. One day, Veazey was home in tiny Tifton watching the baseball season roll along. A day later, he was hanging out in the visiting clubhouse at Marlins Park with Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado and Giancarlo Stanton. He had a seat on the field for the Home Run Derby, and Joey Votto and Clayton Kershaw chatted him up like he was a close friend.
Long term, the goals are more ambitious. Farmer didn’t have much of a forum to speak out for spinal cord research when he was toiling away in the minors, but that could change if he sticks in the big leagues. And Wood would like to do more work on behalf of the Shepherd Center, the spinal cord injury treatment facility that played such an important role in the rehabs of Veazey and Taylor.
“That place was a game-changer,” Wood says. “It was a godsend for Chance and JT.” Veazey knows there’s a 99 percent chance he’ll never walk again. The doctors have made that eminently clear. But his time in rehab brought him in touch with other spinal cord injury victims in far more dire straits. He has his family and friends, and every night that Wood takes the mound or Farmer steps to the plate is another opportunity to celebrate.
“We’ve forged a friendship that’s unforgettable, and you can never drive a wedge in it,” Veazey says. “The guys in our group were fortunate to find each other when we did and still be as close as we are today.
“When Kyle and Wood were in the minors, I would talk to them every night. Sometimes we’d talk about baseball, and sometimes we’d talk about other things. I really feel like we’ve all been a part of their journey.”