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Tony Granieri looks back on near-fatal baseball injury that changed his life forever

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher There is a patch of grass in left field on what is now the junior varsity baseball field at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood. It’s a patch of grass that players run on, shag fly balls during batting practice, do some pregame stretching and throwing. It’s also a patch of grass that holds a story. A story the current Mustangs players likely never heard of. It’s a story of young love, sort of, and of a ballplayer eager to make his mark. But most importantly, it’s a story of survival. And how life can change in an instant. Sudden impact April 27, 1996. It was a Saturday, and 16-year-old Mainland sophomore Tony Granieri was on cloud nine. The day before, he had asked a beautiful senior girl if she would come watch him play. He figured he had all his bases covered. If she said no, he’d have the entire weekend to get past the embarrassment of being rejected by the apple of his eye. As the game was starting, he realized she was in the stands. She had shown up! “I had designs to date this girl. She was really pretty. I was in love, basically,” Granieri said. Then, in his first at-bat, Granieri laced a triple, sliding into third in a cloud of dust. He got up, dusted himself off, and looked over to see the girl cheering him on. As far as being a 16-year-old boy goes, well, that’s about as good as life can get. Granieri was about to get a lesson in how bad life can get. The following inning, a batter ripped a shot into the gap in left-center field. Granieri, playing left field, made a bee-line for it, laying out in a full-extension dive. A triple and a diving catch in the span of one inning? Man, that was sure to impress the pretty girl in the stands. Only, he didn’t hang onto the ball. Former Mainland Regional baseball player Tony Granieri returns to the field every year on April 27, the anniversary of a brutal outfield collision during a game that nearly ended his life. Granieri said being able to survive such a head injury gave him a new perspective on athletics, life, and how fortunate he is to be able to tell his story today. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O'Sullivan) Former Mainland Regional baseball player Tony Granieri returns to the field every year on April 27, the anniversary of a brutal outfield collision during a game that nearly ended his life. Granieri said being able to survive such a head injury gave him a new perspective on athletics, life, and how fortunate he is to be able to tell his story today. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan) At the same instant he caught the ball, Mainland’s center fielder was in mid-dive. Their heads struck in a horrific mid-air collision that crushed the left side of Granieri’s face as well as his collarbone. Granieri said he blacked out, and when he came to he felt incredible pain. Kneeling, elbows on the ground, he saw a pool of blood in his ball cap and knew something was very wrong. In the confusion of the moment and what happened, Granieri had no way to know that his life would be forever changed. “We impacted as we both chased that ball, fully parallel, both of us. When I came to, my hat was in front of me, I was on my knees. Everything was just completely black. There was blood just pooling in my hat. All kind of thoughts were racing through my head, I didn’t know what happened. I was terrified. Everybody who was there said that the impact sounded like a car crash,” Granieri said. “I could hear my father’s voice above everyone else’s just saying, you know, don’t alarm Tony, he’s already hurt. Don’t make it worse. He was trying to calm people down.” Granieri was rushed to the hospital and later transported to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he underwent a massive surgery to reconstruct the left side of his face. His eye orbital had collapsed, and part of his cheek and forehead were crushed. Eye muscles were severed. He had to endure a 13-hour surgery during which titanium plates and screws were used to reconstruct his face. He ended up spending more than a month in the hospital and several more months recovering. “I woke up (in the hospital) and I was having seizures really bad. My grandmother was there holding my hand and I was shaking horribly in the bed. They didn’t have the right titanium pieces here at this hospital to properly fix me, so my dad got me out and we took an ambulance ride up to CHOP,” Granieri said. “Right away Dr. Scott Bartlett came in and explained the whole procedure and what was wrong with me. The people up at CHOP were amazing. Dr. Bartlett was unbelievable.” A new perspective But as those next few weeks began to crawl by, Granieri learned something. Well, he learned many things, really. He learned how quickly life can turn on a dime. He also learned what a great community Linwood is. Teammates, classmates, coaches, family members, teachers, they all showed up in support. Grade schoolers even wrote him “get well” cards. And the girl showed up at the hospital and gave him a kiss, even though he felt as though his whole head was deformed. The Horners, Gillinghams, Fussners, Laws, Levinsons, Eisslers, Amodeos, Thomas’, the Kozmors. They all showed up, usually with food in tow. Granieri said his family’s refrigerator was stocked for weeks. He also learned he had a new hero. It wasn’t some major-leaguer who had heard the story and sent a signed baseball. It was his father. Most boys idolize their fathers, simply because they usually are the most prominent male figure in a boy’s life. “He was my hero by default as a little kid, but he really earned that title during this stretch of time. I love ya, Pop.” This is a line from a letter Granieri posted on Facebook a few weeks ago as he marked the 18th anniversary since the incident. “My father, he couldn’t have been better through this whole thing. He stayed with me every night at CHOP. He slept on a little window sill with a little cushion. I wasn’t alone. Even though everybody came to me and my community was here to help, and everybody was amazing, my dad didn’t leave my side for a second,” Granieri said. “That was unbelievable.” Lasting impact Despite his quick recovery, Granieri said he couldn’t bear continuing his high school career at Mainland. The event was just too traumatic, so he decided to transfer to Holy Spirit, where, surprisingly, he continued to play football. He eventually went on to play quarterback at Bryant University. Although he went on to have a very successful athletic career, and an even more successful professional career in television production with ESPN, Granieri said he still has some regret that he wasn’t able to heal emotionally enough to finish out his career at Mainland. Not that he didn’t enjoy his time at Holy Spirit, just that he feels perhaps some of that high school innocence was lost after the injury. “I lived with it for a long time as like a black mark that robbed me of my ability to stay here and have kind of a normal high school baseball and football career. But now, when I look back, it could have been so much worse. In time you gain perspective on the luck side of it,” Granieri said. “It has definitely impacted me in terms of I live with it every day. I have metal in my head every day and I have these scars every day. I get headaches from it, but you learn to live with it. As far as my life turned out, I wouldn’t change it though, because it gave me strength and a different perspective on how fragile everything is. I’m where I’m at now because of all the stuff that’s happened.” Silver lining Granieri returns to Mainland High School’s baseball field every year on April 27. Not to re-live the nightmare of what happened, but more as a reminder. A reminder of how quickly life can change, and also to remind himself of how lucky he is. He now is the father of a 2-year-old boy and has a great career. “It’s emotional, because that little patch of grass impacted me horribly. I drive by it all the time and I can’t help but have all those thoughts rush in,” Granieri said. “I come here a lot and just think about things, if I’m having a tough day. I think, as bad as whatever it is I’m facing today is, it’s not as bad as this was. It’s like a little place to collect my thoughts and remember how bad it was for me at that time.” He said that was the reason he wrote the lengthy Facebook post. To remind himself of the emotional cleansing process he goes through every year at the end of April, and also because it has now been more years he has lived after the injury than before it. He figured after 18 years perhaps it was time to share the whole story with everyone, and maybe it was more of an emotional boost for him, knowing that he was finally able to talk about it publicly. “The idea of having this a part of me for longer than before. I lived for 16 years as a normal kid. Now I have it longer than it actually was without it,” Granieri said. “So, it was just emotional, it was the anniversary and I said, you know, I’ll share the story and see what people remember and how they felt about it.” And maybe the biggest silver lining of all was he got to enjoy a special moment with the girl he had tried so valiantly to impress on the ball field that day. “A few weeks into my recovery, she showed up in the hospital. Everybody left the room and we just sat for a little while, and then she gave me a kiss. After she left I was like, ‘this is the best I could possibly feel,'” Granieri said. “But she graduated and I transferred. I’ve seen her a couple times since then. She was kind of the sole bright spot during that time. It was a good thing that she was there.” Life, as they say, goes on. And for Tony Granieri, that’s a great thing. Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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