Still, Cone was traumatized. Only after Taylor demanded that the team continue the season did the Bulldogs leave for a road trip. Cone could barely dislodge the bat from his shoulder. Perno gave his star outfielder a few games off, but that just allowed him more time to think dark thoughts. "It was hard," Cone says. "I'd get in a mood of, I don't want to do anything."
The school offered counseling, but he says his real therapy came from visiting Taylor. Not exactly as he'd envisioned it earlier in the semester, Taylor celebrated his 21st birthday on March 21 by transferring from the ICU to a regular room at the hospital. Soon after that he was sent as an inpatient to Shepherd. Cone visited every few days. Never mind that it was the middle of his season—one that would determine how high he'd be drafted by a major league team. Never mind that it was the middle of the academic semester. In a matter of days, Cone says, Taylor had charmed all the nurses. So although visiting hours were supposed to end at 9 p.m., it was usually closer to 11 when Cone was ushered out.
While they never discussed it, Cone and Taylor marveled at how much had changed, yet how little. Cone arrived at Shepherd one day to find Taylor jabbing his phone with a pen. Though he had lost his ability to grip, he had limited use of some fingers. "What are you doing?" Cone asked.
"Texting," said Taylor. Then he smiled a mischievous smile. "Texting girls."
That weekend Cone went to a party on campus, whipped out his iPhone and later showed the photos of the scene to his buddy. "I didn't want him to feel left out," Cone says.
Plenty of other visitors came by. Ronny Cone would visit Shepherd almost daily, heading to or from work at Kraft. Janet Cone would come too. Much as she adored J.T.—"He's like my third son," she says—she was really there for his mom. She and Tandra would go to dinner or go shopping and have some "girl time" away from Shepherd.
Chance Veazey was another regular. By now he had a special driver's license and a customized car—a Camaro SS—and could transport himself. Was it weird to be back at Shepherd? "I had to relive some things," he says, "but at that point it wasn't about me." If Taylor usually tried to keep the mood light, Veazey was someone who had been there and could talk specifics, no matter how unpleasant: the so-called "bowel program," the annoyance of catheters, the possibility of becoming a father. There was also a lot of talk about outlook. "I wanted to explain that there was still a lot to look forward to in life," says Veazey, "and that we were going to be there for him."
Independently they also reached the conclusion that there wasn't much to be gained from focusing on the coincidence of their injuries. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, the annual incidence of spinal injuries is 40 for every million Americans. Statistically, that two players on the same college baseball team would suffer SCIs within less than 18 months was beyond freakish. But it had happened. So why ask why?
For Veazey, the result of his accident was, sadly, unambiguous. He would never walk again. In Taylor's case, the prognosis was—and remains—more uncertain. Says Mike Dillon, Georgia's associate director of sports medicine, "They don't know. We don't know. We have the attitude, Never say always, never say never. What do we do with his rehab and our goals? We set them upon what he has today. Right now that's what we work with. What he has tomorrow may be different. If it is, we'll adjust. That's all."
Taylor has from the start been diligent about his rehab. The same way he once tried to improve his bench press incrementally, he now tries to get from the bed to a chair, doing it with a little more ease each time. The overarching goal: total independence, the ability to function alone. "Being an athlete, knowing you can push yourself but also knowing the limitations," he says, "that's been important."