John Russell: Back in the lineup |

John Russell: Back in the lineup

I learned a lot when I returned to the softball field this season after a two-year hiatus.

I learned that I’m a little slower. I learned the value of pain relievers and that I should never take the little things in life, like playing adult recreational softball, for granted.

The final lesson came courtesy of Chris Stillwell, who also returned to the softball field this season. Chris wasn’t on my team, but all you have to do is play a few innings against him to gain an appreciation of his return to the game.

There was a time in Chris’s life when he was one of the best softball players in town. He made the game look easy, playing in an era in which local softball teams not only played in, but also contended for, Triple Crown championships.

He could drive a ball to the fence in deep center field, get to those hard hit groundballs in the hole and turn double plays faster than a short-order cook at Johnny B. Good’s Diner can flip hamburgers.

But in 2003, he learned he had a rare heart condition called Cardiomyopathy that caused him to blackout without warning. The condition changed Chris’s life late one night when he blacked out while climbing a set of stairs. The resulting fall left him with a brain injury that affects the entire right side of his body.

It was a week before he opened his eyes again and months before he recognized friends and loved ones.

Forget softball; doctors told Chris he would need months of rehabilitation just to master everyday tasks like getting dressed, eating and walking.

His recovery, which began at the Craig Hospital in Denver, continues today.

“The first day I arrived I wanted to know the fastest way to get out of that hospital,” Chris said. “One of the therapists told me that if I could get my clothes and get dressed he would be glad to walk out of there with me. That’s when it hit me – I couldn’t do any of those things.”

It was a sobering moment for a man who thrived on the softball field and lived for sports.

After his stay at the Craig Hospital, he headed to Bakersfield, Calif., where he continued his recovery by completing a six-month program in just four months. He returned to Steamboat and is making the most of life.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to recover from such a devastating injury. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to have to learn the basic things in life for a second time.

I hope I never end up in that situation, but if I do I can only hope to approach it with the same determination and attitude that Chris has.

These days, it’s hard to tell that Chris suffered a closed-head injury. He shuffles a little when he walks and pauses when he talks, but he has a firm grasp on most situations.

He has worked as an umpire and is involved with the Rotary Club and Little League baseball. Last winter he ran the adult basketball league and is already looking forward to playing hoops again someday.

Chris isn’t happy sitting on the sidelines. He proved it this summer when he decided to join a men’s softball team despite the fact that his injuries would be magnified on the playing field.

Chris doesn’t care, and he proved to his teammates and the rest of the league that he could be a productive member of the team.

For most of us, softball is a game that allows us to hang out with friends and build our egos. But for Chris Stillwell, playing the game is a chance to regain a part of his life that was taken away from him way too soon.

Every time he steps onto a field, swings a bat or gets a base hit, he wins. And he teaches all of us a lesson or two along the way.

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