LIBERAL, Mo. – While she caught hundreds of pitches during the previous three softball seasons, Brooke Bearden will always cherish the pitch she caught on Monday afternoon.
Before Liberal’s game against Diamond, Bearden caught the ceremonial first pitch from Mallory Gazaway, her best friend.
‘Mallory, good, yeah,” Bearden said. “Yeah.”
“For her to be actually able to walk out on the field and catch a pitch was just unbelievable,” said Kendra Buzzard, Bearden’s mother. “This far exceeds any expectation or any dream either one of us would have had. It was a moment of celebration, a moment of thankfulness.”
Then, in the bottom of the third inning, Gazaway reached base and advanced to third base. At that point Bearden was inserted as a pinch runner, and moments later — with her bad right leg and foot — she limped home with fans and players from both teams cheering to score the Bulldogs’ third run.
“Getting ‘Mal’ to third and letting her come in for ‘Mal” is what you hoped for, and it worked out,” Liberal coach B.J. Goodell said. “I told ‘Mal’ if she could get a triple, that would be perfect. But she got on, and she was pretty determined to steal some bases.
“We’re all excited for her to be in uniform tonight. There isn’t a person on our team who wouldn’t say come take my spot just to get her on the field.”
After Diamond’s 17-5 victory, the Bulldogs honored first the Diamond seniors and then their three seniors – Jessica Roby, Gazaway and Bearden. That provided one more opportunity for tears to be shed.
“It has been a very emotional day but a good one,” Goodell said. “I know it’s not how she ideally scripted her senior night, but for the circumstances, I hope she felt something out of it. It was a great day.”
Circumstances that are truly beyond belief – a stroke that led to three surgeries in two days and early prognosis that she might not survive or might not walk or speak again.
Last fall Bearden was a football homecoming queen candidate, and four days later, she had a stroke at home.
“I leave very early for work in the morning,” Buzzard said. “It was always her responsibility to get her 14-year-old brother (Zander) up from bed and drive him to school.
“That morning, I know it was the Lord who woke Zander up, and he went in there and checked on her … and she was laying in bed. They’re not real sure at what time she began to have the stroke, but they thought she was probably going through the stroke throughout the night.
“She had had open heart surgery just a couple months before that because they found a hole in her heart during a normal sports physical. Before that, life is normal, a normal teen-age girl, 4.0, very academically and athletically blessed.”
Bearden was taken to Cox South in Springfield, and in the first two days, she had surgeries to remove blood clots from the brain, a large clot from the main artery in her neck and then more brain surgery.
“One thing after another, miracle after miracle,” Buzzard said. “We had one neurologist tell me she had never seen scans this bad. It was we’re not going to tell you she’ll ever be able to walk, talk. She had a massive stroke that would be fatal to most people.”
“The surgeons were in shock. They dubbed her the miracle girl. They said she should not be doing what she’s doing. She actually started talking before she left the hospital in Springfield.”
On Nov. 1 last year, Bearden and her mother left for the Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. The hospital specializes in spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury rehabilitation.
“The hardest part was knowing she was alive and was going to make it but not knowing what the future held,” Buzzard said. “She kept excelling and getting better every day.”
One good sign was Bearden’s smile returned.
“Her whole right side was droopy and they said that she might not ever get that back,” Buzzard said. “She has a full smile now, which speaks volumes. She’s always been very witty, very sarcastic, very social.
“That was the one thing I prayed for: Lord, please, please, please, of everything just give us back her personality, give us back her smile. He did. That was the first thing He gave us back.”
In mid-January Bearden returned home in time for the Bulldogs’ Tony Dubray basketball tournament.
“When she walked in the door at school, the halls just filled,” Buzzard said. “And the Tony Dubray, what better place to be embraced by the community that has stood behind you since Day 1.”
After a short home visit, Bearden returned to Englewood for more rehab, and at the end of February she came back to Liberal to finish her senior year.
DEFYING THE ODDS
The softball senior day was just part of what has been an eventful end to her school year.
Earlier this month she went to prom and then joined her classmates on the senior trip to Pensacola, Florida.
On the trip Bearden went parasailing and climbed approximately 140 steps in a lighthouse.
“I’m telling you: There is nothing this kid can’t or won’t do,” Goodell said.
“Yep,” Bearden said.
The senior trip was also the first time she had not slept in the same room as her mother since the stroke.
“Oh, good,” Bearden said while laughing.
“I was a little taken back,” Buzzard said. I was excited for her. She was excited to get away from me I think. There was really no medical reason (that she couldn’t go).They had said that I could go along, and Brooke was like ‘No, just let me go. So, I (decided) to step back and let this happen, and she had a great time. It made my heart happy knowing she was having a great time and got the opportunity because I sure didn’t think she’d be able to do that (back in October). I thought her senior year was over.”
Next on the docket is graduation. This summer she will continue rehab at Cox Barton County in Lamar and then go back to Englewood in the fall.
“No,” Beard said when asked if she thought this would be possible a few months ago.
The hardest part for her: “Leg, arm, struggle,” she said.
“Being able to graduate and walk across the stage is just amazing,” Buzzard said. “And it’s not because she didn’t earn it. She set herself up to where all she needed was two credits to graduate her senior year.
“We have to give all credit to the Lord because He’s the reason why she is still here. I will forever give all credit to Him and the praying community. … The community turns into your family, and we couldn’t have made it through this without our family, school, our community, church. It took a community of prayer warriors, that’s for sure, to get her where she is.”