Heart and soul

Exhibitions planned Saturday, July 21, in Goshen, Elkhart.
Posted on July 19, 2012 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on July 19, 2012 at 4:26 p.m.

Forgive me for believing that America is not sending its very best athletes to London for the Summer Olympics.

It's possible that our country's greatest team will be playing ball in our own backyard this weekend.

Elkhart County, please give a warm welcome to the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team. They'll compete in two exhibitions against teams of local firefighters on Saturday — one in Goshen at 12:30 at Shanklin Park and another at 7:30 at Central High School's softball complex.

Sure, the 4-H Fair is kicking off, but these are events worth taking time to enjoy and support, too.

Last summer, I shared a story about the Challenger Little League squad — an amazing team of beautiful youngsters.

The Wounded Warriors are just as remarkable — U.S. soldiers who have returned home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, though, unfortunately, not necessarily in one piece.

They play softball and they play it well, with the same kind of spirit, grit and determination they took into combat.

There's an outfielder missing an arm.

A shortstop with a prosthetic foot.

Players without both legs.

Heart, soul and a desire to play are the only requirements to suit up.

Kyle Earl, who grew up near Kalamazoo, Mich., lost an arm following a Iraqi roadside bomb incident in October 2006. The amputation of his right arm came 18 months after extensive therapy, braces and nerve transplants failed.

Once the arm became “useless,'' as Earl, 26, said, he told doctors to “cut it off and move on from there.''

Earl moved on to softball. He recalled watching an HBO special featuring the Wounded Warriors last year and decided to give coach Dave Van Sleet a call.

“Last November, they were doing a trip to Florida on Veterans Day weekend. One guy wasn't able to come down and they called me to come down,'' Earl said. “I had a tryout to see how I'd do and everything went good.

“We've been storming all over ever since.''

Storming. And learning.

Learning how to bat. Learning how to throw.

“It came pretty easy,'' said Earl, who never played on an organized team in high school. He was a runner by trade at Cedar Springs High School.

Without any real conception of throwing or hitting in mind, Earl didn't have any bad habits to try to break.

Matt Kinsey was a slightly different case.

A landmine Kinsey stepped on in Afghanistan during a routine night patrol blew off his foot June 2, 2010.

Two years later, he's chasing down line drives and scooping up ground balls at shortstop.

“I never thought I'd be playing sports again,'' said Kinsey, a Rockville, Ind., native who played plenty of baseball in high school and college.

But after re-learning how to walk and run, Kinsey found the Wounded Warriors through current teammate Josh Wege, a soldier he met and rehabbed with at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“You're always learning ... you don't ever master things,'' said Kinsey, who will have plenty of family members traveling to Elkhart and Goshen this weekend.

“I've never struggled with it. I've always been comfortable with what happened,'' Kinsey said. “The biggest thing now is that it's nice being out there competing. You have to keep going and push yourself.''

The team embodies perseverance. Passion for living remains its only agenda.

Their motto, “Life without a limb is limitless,'' says it all.

That said, both players experienced wide-eyed moments of trepidation — never fear — when they first joined the National Wounded Warriors team.

“My first weekend was like, 'Wow! What have I gotten myself into?''' Earl said. “You're watching them throw the ball around the infield, making ridiculous plays. I thinking, 'How am I going to hang out with these guys?'''

Kinsey was hit in the face the same way.

“I thought, 'We really going to do this?''' he said. “Then I saw how hard they play, how well they do with prosthetics, how well they adapt. ... I was blown away. I'm still blown away.”

These are softball players.

They're not soldiers with disabilities and missing limbs.

“We've had setbacks and what not, but nobody is sitting around and we're not feeling sorry for ourselves,'' Earl said.

The lone challenges they face today are the array of fun-loving, good-natured opponents once they step between the lines on a diamond.

They're like any other softball team you'd find at Riverview or Shanklin parks.

The Wounded Warriors share lives and heartache, they share friends and families.

In fact, Earl admits it was his wife, Krystal, who pushed him to play. Krystal played on a coed slow pitch team back home and encouraged Kyle to fill in when they became short-handed one night.

“They had an extra glove and wanted to know if I'd fill a spot,'' Kyle said. “I was just there to watch.''

This weekend in Elkhart County, Kyle's family — Aubrey, 3, and Chloe, who will be 1 on Aug. 7 — will be down from Michigan to see him play for the first time with the squad.

Our Elkhart County family will no doubt embrace the Earl and Kinsey families this weekend.

“The fans, they make you play harder,'' Kinsey said. “To see the communities in the nation showing support to vets coming home is great. We all knew what could have happened ... any one of us could have laid down and said, 'I'm done.' But I absolutely love it.”

“It's hard to put into words ... it's one of the greatest feelings,'' Earl said of the fans on tour. “To have (fans) just be in awe, inspired by what we're doing, knowing you've made a difference in someone's eyes. It means a lot.''

Long before these men — some young, some older — chose to pick up a ball and a glove, they chose to serve their country in the most honorable of ways. Now they are bringing their passionate bond to our doorsteps in a unique way.

We should cheer their exploits on the field of play.

We should remember their courage in the field of battle.

And we should revel in their zest for life.

Bill Beck is The Elkhart Truth sports editor. Contact him at bbeck@etruth.com.

Wounded WArriors Roster

No. 30, Saul Bosquez

Hometown: Adrian, Mich. Resides: Bow, N.H.

U.S. Army / Operation Iraqi Freedom

Amputation: Left leg below knee

No. 11, Tom Carlo

Hometown: Bronx, N.Y. Resides: Harrisburg, Pa.

U.S. Marines / Global War on Terrorism

Amputation: Right leg below knee

No. 21, Kyle Earl

Hometown: Kalamazoo, Mich. Resides: Mount Pleasant, Mich.

U.S. Marines / Operation Iraqi Freedom

Amputation: Right hand

No. 55, Matias Ferreira

Hometown: Atlanta. Resides: Rockville, Md.

U.S. Marines / Operatioin Enduring Freedom

Amputation: Bilateral below knee.

No. 34, Tim Horton

Hometown: Sulphur Springs, Texas. Resides: San Antonio, Texas.

U.S. Marines / Operation Iraqi Freedom

Amputation: Left leg below knee

No. 12, Matt Kinsey

Hometown: Rockville, Ind. Resides: Rockville, Ind.

U.S. Army / Operation Enduring Freedom

Amputation: Right leg

No. 5, Dan Lasko

Hometown: Easton, Pa. Resides: Bethlehem, Pa.

U.S. Marines / Operation Enduring Freedom

Amputation: Left leg below knee

No. 22, Nate Lindsey

Hometown: DeKalb, Ill. Resides: Great Lakes, Ill.

U.S. Army / Operation Iraqi Freedom

Amputation: Right arm below elbow

No. 8, Bobby McCardle

Hometown: Hales Corners, Wis. Resides: Franklin, Wis.

U.S. Marines / Operation Enduring Freedom

Amputation: Right leg below knee

No. 9, Greg Reynolds

Hometown: Dighton, Mass. Resides: Dighton, Mass.

U.S. Army / Operation Iraqi Freedom

Amputation: Left arm

No. 33, Lee Randles

Hometown: Holland, Ohio. Resides: Oceanside, Calif.

U.S. Marines

Amputation: Left leg above knee

No. 28, Todd Reed

Hometown: Newton, Mass. Resides: Phoenix, Ariz.

U.S. Army / Desert Storm

Amputation: Right leg

No. 24, Phillip Rugg II

Hometown: Monroe, La. Resides: Monroe, La.

U.S. Marines / Operation Iraqi Freedom

Amputation: Left leg below knee

No. 23, Josh Wege

Hometown: Campbellsport, Wis. Resides: Fon du Lac, Wis.

U.S. Army / Operation Enduring Freedom

Amputation: Bilateral below knee

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