Archbishop Spalding junior first baseman Nick Freeberger sits on a dugout bench. The evening sun is shining on his boyish face, and he smiles. It has been a good day. He helped his No. 2 Cavaliers to victory with a three-run home run.
That would be enough to make most high school baseball players grin, but there is more behind this display of happiness than a single game.
To look at him now, no one would suspect that a little more than a month ago, screws were ground into his head for a halo to support a broken neck, and that the chances of his playing baseball this season or perhaps ever were in doubt.
Freeberger, an All-Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference catcher as a sophomore at the now-closed Cardinal Gibbons before transferring to Spalding, is back on the field, playing top-quality ball for the first time since breaking his C2 vertebra four months ago.
"A lot of people doubted I'd be back this year," Freeberger said. "But I never did. When I asked if I'd ever play baseball again, the doctors said they didn't know. But I'm here today, and I feel like I'm here for a reason."
He was driving to school the morning of Jan. 3 on Route 100 at Oakwood Road when his car hit something and he felt the vehicle go out of control. A witness told him he swerved across the median and hit a bus head-on. He doesn't remember any of it. Not long after, his mom, Becky, who was running a little late trying to get out the door for work from their home in Pasadena, got the call from Shock Trauma at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
"If I'd been on time, I might have witnessed the accident," she said. "As it was, I got the call from a shock trauma nurse, and they said the injury was not serious. A head injury and a concussion, and they waited until I got there to do the CAT scan."
Becky Freeberger pauses, remembering what happened next.
"They discovered he had broken the C2 bone in his neck," she said. "They equated it to Christopher Reeve [the late actor who broke his neck in a fall from a horse], and then they said he had a hematoma on the brain and equated that to Natasha Richardson [the actress who died from a head injury suffered while skiing]. Both of them are dead. I was freaking out. They said if he hadn't been in such good shape as an athlete or crashed a bit harder or faster, he would have been paralyzed. They said he was a hair from a spinal fracture."
The spinal cord is surrounded by vertebrae, rings of bone that protect it. Fracturing one of the eight vertebrae in the neck usually causes the loss of use of the arms and legs.
Freeberger was lucky. His spinal cord remained intact. But that didn't mean his recovery would be easy or assured.
The recovery was so frightening that for weeks, no one but Freeberger's mother and girlfriend were willing to be alone with him, fearful of something going wrong. His grandmother, Dee Freeberger, took on the job of getting his younger brother, Perry, to school and basketball and baseball games. Janine Fratantuono organized former Gibbons parents to bring meals, and Lisa Neary, the mother of Freeberger's Spalding teammate, Austin Neary, did the same with the Cavaliers baseball moms so Becky Freeberger would be free to care for her son for the first six weeks after the injury.
"And my teammates, at least one of them, came to see me every day," Freeberger said. "They'd come over and say they couldn't wait until I was back."
As he sits on the dusty dugout bench, he calmly talks about how he had to have 16 holes drilled into his head and 64 needles inserted into his skull in less than three months. He doesn't cringe, but those who love him do as they recall the four times hospital personnel had to replace the halo that supported his neck.
"The halo was torture," he said, turning his head to show the scars on his forehead and the indented hole in the back of his scalp. "They put it on the first time and it was wrong, so they had to take it off and put it on again. A month later, there was an infection at the back pin and they had to move it. And then they stripped the screw and had to replace that one."
He had to be awake for all of it.
"His girlfriend, Allison Connell, and I were there with him every time he went through one of those procedures," Becky Freeberger said. "It was tragic for a 15-year-old girl to go through, but she and I became close to best friends while enduring it. It was heartbreaking for me to watch. It seemed so Stone Aged, screwing holes into his skull, shooting [pain medication] with huge needles that hurt. I think after the first time, the anxiety overtook him because he'd start shouting before they started to do anything."
Connell, a student at Seton Keough who had been dating Freeberger for about six months before the accident, sat through it all holding his hand.
"They didn't even use numbing medication the first few times," she said. "I felt so bad for him. No one wants to see someone they love hurting like that. His mom and I were crying. When they told him they were going to have to put it on a second time, you could see he was more scared. And then the third and fourth time — he was very brave to go through that."
Perhaps harder for Freeberger, Connell said, was that he couldn't play baseball at the start of the season.
"Baseball is his main talent; it's what he's good at," she said. "All he did was talk about baseball and look up stats online. He was, like, obsessed with it. He did arm lifts and leg lifts even with his halo on. It's a miracle he's back on the field already and doing so well."
Or maybe it's not a miracle. Maybe it is just a triumph of Freeberger's will. Freeberger has a noticeably strong upper body, and before his accident, he would also squat-lift 485 pounds. He hasn't done a squat since coming back, but there were no limits put on what he could do with his upper body.
The team's strength coach, Rob McBride, asked whether he would be comfortable working out at school with the athletic trainers. Freeberger said yes and cleared it with his doctor.
"They definitely got me back for this season," Freeberger said. "There's no way I'd be back if they hadn't helped me rebuild my muscles."
Trainer Zach Ruble said Freeberger has a "tremendous" work ethic. "He worked harder than any kid I've ever worked with," Ruble said. "He has such a desire to play. It's his drive and determination that has him out here playing as well as he is."
The halo came off March 22, and the next day Freeberger was begging coach Jeff Palumbo to put him into a game.
"He had been in a halo since Jan. 3, and when it came off, he was very stiff," Palumbo said. "I told him I was going to have to oil him up like the Tin Man [in "The Wizard of Oz"]. But he was bugging me to play, and it wasn't long after he was back that we had a close game and I made a mistake. He was bugging me, bugging me so bad, that I put him in as a pinch hitter. He wasn't quite ready. He struck out looking at strikes two and three. But he was back at practice the next day and every day since, and every day, he has given everyone a lift."
That first game was just six days after the halo came off. A week later, he was inserted into the lineup as the designated hitter against Loyola, and he hit three doubles. The next week, he started at first base against John Carroll and went on an 8-for-11 tear, including two three-run homers, and was named The Baltimore Sun's Athlete of the Week. For the season, Freeberger is batting .419 with four home runs, seven doubles, 21 RBIs, 20 runs and 11 walks for the Cavaliers (15-4, 11-3 MIAA A Conference). He has a .860 slugging percentage and a .561 on-base percentage.
His only concession to his injury has been to move from the more physically demanding catcher position to first base.
In the dugout, about to gather his equipment, Freeberger said he has set some lofty goals for the season — he wants his team to win the MIAA championship, and he wants to earn a spot on the All-Metro team.
"Mostly, I want us to be champions," he said. "As for myself, I'm thankful to God every day I'm here. I don't take anything for granted."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun