Romero wants to spread Wilhite's story

Romero wants to spread Wilhite's story

OAKLAND -- Ricky Romero read the text message a few times, going over every word in disbelief. It was April 9, and the Blue Jays rookie was going through the many notes left on his phone after he earned the first win of his Major League career.

This one stood out and it made his heart stop.

"Congratulations, and Jonny's doing all right. They think he'll be able to walk again."

Romero soon learned that his good friend, Jon Wilhite, was in the car accident that claimed the lives of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two others. Suddenly, the excitement of winning his first game with Toronto faded. Romero needed to find out more.

"The first thing that comes up to your mind is, 'No way this is happening,'" Romero said.

Nearly four months later, after making it through an incredible surgical procedure, Wilhite -- a college teammate of Romero's at Cal State Fullerton -- has miraculously defied the odds and is indeed walking again. Now Romero is on a personal quest to try to find a way to hopefully get Wilhite to Toronto.

Romero, who did not know Adenhart, wants to raise awareness about the dangers of driving drunk and he believes more people to need to hear Wilhite's story. One way to do that would be to have the fans in Toronto witness what Romero watched on July 18.

On that day in Oakland, Wilhite walked slowly onto the field at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum before a game between the A's and Angels. He then threw out the ceremonial first pitch, tossing the baseball to A's catcher Kurt Suzuki -- a college teammate of Wilhite and Romero.

"It was great," Suzuki said. "To see where he is now, after such a horrific accident happened, to see he's out there on a baseball field throwing a pitch, you can't help but have a lot of emotions. He's fortunate to still be able to do that."

Romero was watching everything online, and it was a scene that he'll never forget.

"It was unbelievable," Romero said. "It's something that makes you really happy and kind of emotional at the same time when you see something like that. Jonny was always known as a strong guy. To see how far he's come along, knowing where he could have been, a lot of thoughts go through your head."

Wilhite's tale of survival gave Romero a new perspective on life and the game of baseball.

"People sometimes take life for granted, and he's definitely not one of those people," Romero said. "He lives life to the fullest. This job that we do -- that's why I cherish it so much and have so much fun with it and try to not have so much pressure on myself. I know there are tougher things in life that people could be going through. I'm just really happy for Jonny."

On that fateful night in April, a drunk driver ran a red light and crashed his minivan into the side of Adenhart's car. Wilhite suffered "internal decapitation," meaning his skull had been severed from his spine -- only skin and muscle held his head in place. Wilhite was rushed to the University of California Medical Center, where a 30-person team performed a five-hour operation.

Wilhite's injury has a survival rate of only 5 percent, and part of the medical procedure included carefully inserting four tiny screws. With even the slightest of errors in the operating room, Wilhite might have been paralyzed. That he's walking and talking again is nothing short of a miracle -- not that anyone who knows Wilhite is surprised.

"If you ask anybody who's known Jon or played with Jon, they'll tell you the same thing," Suzuki said. "He's a fighter. He's a battler. When it first happened, the first thing that went through my mind was, 'He's going to pull through.' If you know him, you knew that he was going to battle."

Romero echoed that sentiment.

"I'm very amazed, but it doesn't surprise me one bit," Romero said. "That's the way Jon Wilhite has always been. He's that type of fighter. On and off the field, he always had something to prove, and I feel like right now he's working really, really hard to get back to where he used to be.

"That's just him. He was always that hard worker. He had a never-give-up-type attitude."

Romero and Wilhite have kept in contact since their days at Cal State Fullerton. At the end of Spring Training, when the Blue Jays announced that Romero had made the Opening Day roster, Wilhite was one of the first people to contact the pitcher to offer his congratulations.

"When he found out that I made the team," Romero said, "he sent me a message saying, 'The Wilhites are really happy for you. Never a doubt in my mind that you were going to get there.' That was realy nice."

Romero has no doubt that Wilhite will continue to improve, and he wants to do what he can to pitch in.

While in Oakland this past weekend, Romero planned on meeting with Suzuki to talk about Wilhite and the steps the Jays pitcher can take to raise more awareness, as well as money to aid his friend. Wilhite's medical bills are an estimated $1 million, and Romero plans on donating to help out.

Wilhite's story hasn't only inspired his friends and former teammates, either. After hearing Wilhite's story, he has received letters and donations from soldiers in Iraq. That's something that surprised Suzuki and brought a wide smile to his face.

"I had no idea that happened until I found out when he came up here," Suzuki said. "That's unbelievable. Guys like that, guys fighting for your country, to hear about this -- that they get inspired -- I mean, it's usually us talking about them, how they inspire us."

Romero isn't sure if he'll be able to get Wilhite to Toronto this season to have him throw a pitch to another one of his old college friends. If such an event is not possible at the moment, Romero said he definitely plans on meeting up with Wilhite in the offseason.

"He's on the list of important things for me," Romero said.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.