Paralyzed ballplayer finds a future in the game
May. 14, 2014
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Cory Hahn was too groggy the first day to have any idea what had happened. His head immobilized, tubes and wires jutting out from his body from all angles, he could only lie in his hospital bed.
Over the next few days, the things the doctors were telling him, things he didn't want to hear, didn't seem to make any sense.
Hahn's competitive instinct told him it was only temporary. He would walk again. He would play baseball again.
It was only once Hahn moved from a Phoenix intensive care unit to a hospital near his home in Southern California that he realized it. Baseball, the centerpiece of his life and his potential ticket to riches, had paralyzed him from the chest down.
"Instead of looking at it as an injury or something devastating, I looked at it more of like it's now a challenge," Hahn said. "Instead of looking at it as oh, this is the rest of my life, it was yeah, this is the rest of my life and now I have the opportunity to prove everybody wrong and make a recovery."
That attitude is how he found a path to a future that still includes the sport he loves.
Cory's father, Dale Hahn, taught his two sons to use a feet-first, pop-up slide whenever going into a base. Headfirst slides, he worried, could lead to shoulder, arm, hand and finger injuries.
Cory listened to his father's advice. But sometimes, he'd still occasionally dive into a base headfirst.
One of those times changed his life.
Playing in his third game at Arizona State on Feb. 20, 2011, he charged into second base on a steal attempt with his usual hold-nothing-back approach. Instead of gliding into the base, Hahn rammed into the second baseman's knee, jamming his head back into his spine.
His father knew it was a hard impact, even from his seat in the stands, and wondered if maybe Cory had a concussion. Then ASU's coaches motioned for him to come over.
Once he got to the hospital and went through a battery of tests, the diagnosis became clear: Cory had a burst fracture of his C5 vertebrae, which had compressed his spinal cord into the spinal column. His dreams had been shattered on the diamond.
"It was the worst days of our lives," Dale Hahn said. "Your son is laying there in bed and can't move, all kinds of thoughts go through your mind and none of them were good."
Returning to college didn't enter Hahn's mind in the first few weeks after his injury. He was more concerned with the immediate: adapting to a new life, planning for a future he hadn't anticipated, focusing on his rehabilitation.
Lying in a hospital bed for 75 days gave him time to think. And he started thinking about school again.
With help from his family and his academic adviser, Patrice Feulner, Hahn was able to finish his coursework from the semester he was injured and looked toward returning to Arizona State.
At first, not everyone was on board.
"I didn't think it was a good idea. I thought if he fails at this, it's just another blow to him mentally and I didn't want to see him go through that anymore," his father said.
Hahn convinced his family it was the right thing to do and his father quit his job to join his son in Arizona, helping him with day-to-day tasks and getting around campus and Tempe.
To make up for the time he lost, Cory jammed his schedule with 21 credits one semester, 20 another. Even when his course load lightened, the workload didn't.
When Cory went to Arizona State on scholarship, his parents, who both work in the business world, told him he was there to get an education not just play baseball, so he decided to major in business.
Cory Hahn graduated from the W.P. Carey School of Business on Wednesday, finishing off his degree in four years.
"He is the most positive, relentless, humbling student-athlete I've ever worked with," said Feulner, now an assistant athletic director at Iowa State. "He amazes me."
After his injury, Hahn could no longer play, but baseball still had a place for him.
Since childhood, Cory had always been the smallest kid on the team. He made up for it with natural ability, scrappiness and a don't-tell-me-what-I-can't-do chip on his shoulder that had him playing catch and hitting baseballs for endless hours.
He was California's Mr. Baseball at Mater Dei High School in 2010 and was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 26th round of the Major League Baseball draft later that year. He opted to play at Arizona State, where he became the starting centerfielder as a freshman — a rarity at a power program like ASU.
Once he returned to Arizona State, he was welcomed by his teammates and coaches, becoming a student coach for the Sun Devils. Though he didn't go on road trips — it was too tough for his rigorous school load — he attended every practice and home game, offering words of encouragement, helping players with fielding or hitting, keeping a watchful eye to pick up on tendencies of opposing teams.
"That they wanted me around just as much as before was an exciting time just to know that they cared about me just as much as I cared about the program," Hahn said.
Hahn has a job waiting for him after graduation — with the Arizona Diamondbacks. When Hahn was first injured, Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall visited him in the hospital and was struck by his selflessness, intelligence and positive outlook.
Hall kept tabs on Hahn and last year the Diamondbacks drafted a player who would never be able to suit up for them. Arizona picked Hahn in the 34th round because that was his number at Arizona State, but this was no symbolic selection.
"Cory to me is a hero," Hall said.
The Diamondbacks wanted him to work for them and, starting this summer, he will likely begin his career in scouting. He may also ultimately work in player development or even as a TV analyst. Either way, Hall said, he has a great future ahead of him.
Hahn and his unbending will have made sure of that.