He had already rolled across the stage to accept his degree, the graduation ceremony halted to create a safe path for his wheelchair, wild cheering everywhere.
But Cory Hahn had to take one more test. The former Southland baseball star, who graduated from Arizona State with a business degree just three years after a head-first slide turned him into a quadriplegic, was presented with one more seemingly insurmountable challenge.
For his final act as a member of the Sun Devils baseball team, in the final game at historic Packard Stadium his week, Hahn was asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
He had not thrown a baseball since the accident at second base in the third game of his freshman season. He wasn't even sure throwing a baseball was possible. His left arm had gained some strength, but his fingers still had no ability to grip. How was he going to hold it? How was he going to propel it forward? How far could it really go?
The day before the pitch, Cory and his father, Dale, visited an empty bullpen, found a bucket of balls, and started practicing. The father had played catch with the son for years, but never like this. The actions were awkward. The memories were painful. Yet they kept working at it, throw, drop, throw, drop. Cory finally realized he needed to put pine tar on his hand to keep the ball from falling out, leading to the joke he could be the first ceremonial first-ball pitcher to be ejected from a game.
The following evening, before the Sun Devils hosted Abilene Christian, Hahn was wheeled out to the field. His chair was placed directly in front of home plate. Nearly 8,000 fans in the packed stadium began standing and cheering with an ovation that lasted more than a minute. Hahn took a deep breath and tried to focus. In the stands, his mother, Chris, fought back tears. In front of the dugout, his coach Tim Esmay felt weak in the knees.
Behind the plate was pitcher and longtime friend Josh McAlister. As he crouched to catch Hahn's attempt, McAlister found himself staring out beyond the wheelchair to the dusty spot around second base where Hahn's life changed forever.
"I looked out there to where Cory was once laying, and I thought, 'Wow, look how far he's come,' '' said McAlister.
How far exactly? Nine feet. Cory Hahn slung the pitch from his left hand and watched it travel nine feet, cross home plate, and bounce into McAlister's glove. Nine lousy feet? Nine wonderful feet.
"It was nine feet farther than I could throw before,'' said Hahn with a grin.
Of all the commencement addresses swirling around during this time of year, surely none can match the power of the one Hahn just gave, a 10-word message about appreciating the simple joy of growth.
It was nine feet farther than I could throw before.
The journey through hell has ended in a hallelujah. Cory Hahn finished college in four years, and is now preparing for a job as a scout with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and who can believe it?
I didn't believe it. I initially met Hahn in February of 2012, about a month after he returned to Arizona State following his accident a year earlier. I wrote a story of hope, but after encountering the seemingly impossible challenges of his situation, I didn't feel much hope.
Hahn had been an Orange County high school baseball legend, a former California Mr. Baseball who led Mater Dei to a 2010 CIF championship with his arm (five perfect innings), his bat (long home run) and his glove (over-the-shoulder catch). He was such an energetic and gifted outfielder, he was in the Sun Devils starting lineup the opening game of his freshman season. But in the first inning of his third game, on the back end of a double steal, he slid head-first into second base and broke his neck so brutally that he actually heard it snap.
He became a C5 quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down, with limited use of his arms and little use of his hands. After his initial hospitalization and rehabilitation, some thought he would transfer to a school closer to his Corona home and live with his parents. But he was insistent on returning to college, and returning to his baseball team, so his father, Dale, quit his sales job and returned with him as his caretaker.
Together, they journeyed into what seemed to an impassable storm. Dale would awaken every morning in a hotel room and drive to the house that Cory shared with teammates. Dale would then spend 90 minutes preparing Cory for the day, and then drive him to classes and rehabilitation before returning him home. By the time Dale had finally helped Cory back into bed, it was often late, and both men were physically and emotionally exhausted. It was inspiring, but also unsettling, and I wrote this:
How much longer can Dale do it? They are reluctant to hire a caretaker while Cory is still adjusting to his college environment, so Dale will stay there at least for this semester. They are surviving financially with help from a couple of recent fundraisers and an ongoing Cory Hahn fund that can be accessed from the Mater Dei website. But what next? They have no idea. Nobody has any idea. At this point, the only thing certain is the devotion in their weary eyes as they look at each other from across a table, Cory Hahn stuck in a chair, Dale Hahn trying like hell to give him wings.
Three years later, guess what? Yep, wings.