Six years after crash, Wilhite happy to be around baseball

Lone survivor of car accident that killed Adenhart, two others is a testament to perseverance

Six years after crash, Wilhite happy to be around baseball

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The last out was made and a grueling, three-and-a-half-hour Spring Training game reached its bitter end late Tuesday afternoon. The Angels lost to the Rangers, 15-8, and now it was time to board the bus for a 40-mile drive back home through heavy rush-hour traffic.

Jon Wilhite was one of the first to burst out of the visiting dugout at Surprise Stadium, smiling ear to ear.

"This," Wilhite said, "is the best two days I've had in the last six years."

Six years ago -- five years, 11 months and 15 days ago, to be exact -- Wilhite was in the car accident that killed Angels pitching phenom Nick Adenhart and two others. Wilhite suffered internal decapitation and was expected to be the fourth fatality, but here he is now, a guest instructor at Angels camp and a living, breathing example of perseverance.

"Baseball is very much a game of being mentally tough," Angels reliever Vinnie Pestano said. "I think he exudes that."

Pestano has known Wilhite since they were 16 years old. They played together on travel-ball teams in Southern California and roomed together at Cal State Fullerton, where Wilhite was a catcher on a team that included Justin Turner and Kurt Suzuki. Then the accident happened, and Wilhite's focus turned to coping through unspeakable tragedy and sheer survival.

It was a process.

"I don't know, maybe I'm just a baseball fan right now," Wilhite constantly thought, until recently. "Maybe that's not in the cards."

Then the Angels extended Wilhite a week-long invitation to their Spring Training complex, where he would dress in full uniform, attend morning meetings, show up for games and shadow bullpen coach Steve Soliz while he worked with the catchers.

"Now," Wilhite said, "I'm starting to think I can use my baseball mind and bring something to the game."

For the past six years, the Angels have done all they could to honor Adenhart's memory. But they haven't forgotten about Courtney Stewart or Henry Pearson, the other two who lost their lives in the wee hours of April 9, 2009.

They haven't forgotten about Wilhite.

"It wasn't just Nick Adenhart that we lost," Angels vice president of communications Tim Mead said. "The community suffered in that. Jon is a survivor of a horrendous situation, and he's a walking miracle to remind us all of, really, hope, optimism, the strength of family, the strength of friends."

Pestano was with the Indians' Double-A affiliate in Akron, Ohio, the night of the accident. He awoke the next morning to frantic voicemail messages from his sister, tried his best to play a game that afternoon, then flew to California and found Wilhite in a coma.

Six days later, Wilhite underwent a five-hour procedure to reattach his skull to his spine -- and eventually developed into a miracle.

"More than 95 percent of the people who suffer atlanto-occipital dislocation, called internal decapitation, die at the scene," Dr. Nitin Bhatia, director of the Spine Center at UCI Medical Center, told the Orange County Register a couple of years ago. "Of the five percent who survive, half live their life in a wheelchair while the other half die."

Wilhite walks around on his own two feet, looking every bit like the teenager Pestano once knew.

"He's the exact same guy with the exception that he can't turn his head," Pestano said.

Wilhite lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and works with his father in the freight-shipping business. He runs in the sand, lifts weights, drives a specially modified car -- and now he coaches the game he loves, too.

"I had doubts," Wilhite said. "Now that I'm back, and now that I have a taste for it again, it's going to be very tough not to keep getting involved."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.