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The onetime major league prospect still hangs out with his friends, goes to parties and unleashes his charm on coeds. Mostly using his thumbs, he texts, e-mails and tweets. Cone spent a few weeks on campus this year before he had to leave for spring ball. He and Taylor still went for dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings. Taylor still kicked Cone's ass at Xbox. "Really, in most ways, I'm just a normal kid enjoying college," Taylor says.
Veazey has his own variation of this theme: "The only difference between me and you? You're walking. I'm rolling. And I'm probably going to get there before you will! I'm still blessed with a wonderful life."
Both Veazey and Taylor are on pace to graduate in 2013. Veazey has designs on entering the insurance business. Taylor is considering a career as a financial manager for athletes. Dillon, who reckons that over the past year he's spent more time around Taylor than around his own kids, has a different idea. "I'm trying to get J.T. to consider graduate school and then do a rotation with an athletic department," he says. "Because of J.T.'s personality, his drive, his smarts, he would bring a lot to the table. I want J.T. to buy a house in Athens, have a master's degree and work here at the University of Georgia. I'd die a happy man."
Perno has asked both Veazey and Taylor to spend more time around the team. "I want their impact and their personalities," the coach says. "I don't think either one of them was quite ready the last couple of years, but I think they're in much better places, mentally. They can be out there, and it won't just frustrate the hell out of them that they can't play."
Veazey goes by the athletic facilities periodically to use an electric bicycle that stimulates blood flow and helps keep his legs in shape, but Taylor spends innumerable hours in the training room. He doesn't sweat—another consequence of a spinal cord injury—even though he pushes through brutal workouts dressed head-to-toe in Georgia apparel. There isn't a Bulldogs athlete who doesn't know Taylor or at least the basics of his story. Dillon tells of a Georgia basketball player who had ACL surgery, blew out her knee again and was facing six months of rehab. "That's tough," says Dillon. "Then in the training room she looks over at J.T., and we're transferring him out of his chair and onto a mat, and it takes 20 minutes, and [she says], 'You know what? My knee's all right.'"
THE SAN DIEGO Chicken, now doing business as the Famous Chicken, is making an appearance this July night at a minor league ballpark in New Jersey. The game pits the Lakewood BlueClaws against the visiting Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads, both teams in the Class A South Atlantic League. But the man in the yellow feathers is the star attraction. In air so thick it feels like the atmosphere has a fever, the Chicken does a familiar routine—handing the ump an eye chart, allowing players to pelt him with water balloons. Meanwhile, the BlueClaws' radio announcers are broadcasting while reclining on a king-size bed on the concourse behind home plate.
It's a typical minor league tableau, one that Zach Cone, batting cleanup for the Crawdads, doesn't mind a bit. The team will play 140 games in 152 nights this season, in various backwaters of the Eastern seaboard. When not sleeping in motels, Cone is based in Hickory, a town of 40,000 in the foothills of the Smokies. The modest circumstances are "no problem," he says. His teammates are "great." He might wish he were hitting a few points higher, but overall he figures his career is on the right trajectory.
The Crawdads' manager, Bill Richardson, is glowing in his praise of Cone. "He has this thirst for knowledge, this willingness to learn, that's always important but especially at this level," says Richardson. Though only 22, Cone is something of an elder statesman in the Crawdads' clubhouse.
"He's definitely one of those guys you look up to," says Matthews, the pitcher from near Savannah, now 19. "He gets along with everyone."
Which, we learn this night, includes opposing fans. Before the game in Lakewood, Cone presents the lineup card to the umpire accompanied by nine-year-old Tommy Mortland, an avid Zach Cone fan. Wait—how exactly does a minor leaguer in North Carolina have a fan base near the Jersey Shore? Cone sheepishly explains, "I gave him a ball last time we came through. He wrote me a thank-you note and sent me one of his baseball cards. So I wrote him back and sent him one of my cards. And a signed shirt. And a ball. [The BlueClaws] thought it would be cool if we got to meet. But it's no big deal. You don't even have to put it in the story."