HERON LAKE, Minnesota -- Trying to hit a nasty curveball can be a challenge for Benjamin Cunningham. Tracking the arc of a high fly ball and getting in the spot to make the catch is much easier now than it was a few weeks ago. Standing on the mound, the 18-year-old throws serious stuff.
Ben, who graduated last week from Round Lake-Brewster, is wrapping up his high school athletic career on the baseball field this spring. None of this is headline-grabbing stuff. But when you consider where Ben has been and where he is now … well, it’s no stretch to use the word “miracle.”
Let’s start with a skull that was turned into fragments of bone. And a broken neck. And facial injuries so crushing that Ben has no vision in his right eye. There were bloodclots, there was a tracheotomy. After his pickup truck went off a road in Nobles County last August and sailed into a guardrail on a bridge over Lake Ocheda, Ben began a lengthy journey that included a week-long coma, seven surgeries and countless prayers. Back then, back when no one knew for sure if Ben would even survive, the last thing anyone thought about was baseball.
But here was Ben on Tuesday, playing the outfield, pitching and swinging the bat for the Southwestern United Wildcats, which is a cooperative team between Round Lake-Brewster and Southwest Star Concept. He throws and bats righthanded, and everyone is amazed at what he can do.
“He’s a walking miracle,” said his mother, Miriam. “His determination is what got him through. There’s no stopping him.”
The right side of Ben’s face droops, but further surgery this summer will help in that area. A titanium plate covers the part of his skull that was crushed in the accident.
Sitting in the dugout before Tuesday’s game against Windom, Ben used a finger to trace the cranial scars that are now covered by hair. “I was cut from here to back here and kind of around here,” he said, drawing a half circle on his head. Then he pointed to the right side of his face, saying, “I don’t have vision in this eye and won’t ever until science comes up with something, which is possible with the things they come up nowadays.”
His smile, however, remains fully intact. Just like his positive attitude.
“His philosophy on life is really kind of amazing for being 18 years old,” said Southwestern United coach Tim Owen. “He’s been to the brink and nothing bothers him.”
BEN WAS DRIVING HOME from the Nobles County Fair in Worthington when the accident happened. He had been showing livestock at the fair, which meant long days, short nights and hard work. He was saying goodbye to friends when his mom left the fairgrounds to head home and begin preparing pork chops for dinner. Miriam was cooking when a sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door.
Ben said, “I remember going through town and out of town. Right after that I don’t remember anything until I woke up about a week later. Nobody knows what happened. They said I could have fallen asleep but nobody knows.”
Ben was alone in the pickup, wearing his seatbelt. When his family and friends saw him in the hospital, it was a jarring sight.
“I had just talked to him about 20 minutes before it happened,” said fellow senior and baseball teammate Tim Kennedy. “I went to the races (in Worthington) that night and I got a text and it was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I didn’t know what to think.”
Ben is a big, strong kid; 6 feet, 3 ½ inches and no stranger to working out and lifting weights. His physical condition surely was a factor in his survival. But as Ben began the recovery process, doctors told him to be patient about a possible return to athletics. They said he would be in the hospital until Thanksgiving and maybe until Christmas. But he was home by late September, a little more than a month after the accident. He was out of school through Christmas break, but was cleared to play basketball in late December.
“In November the neurosurgeon said I probably wouldn’t be able to play basketball for six months,” Ben said, smiling. “I only missed a few games.
“Ever since I was 3 or 4 I was shooting baskets with my older brother. It was hard not to be able to play when he said I couldn’t. And then when he said I could, I got right in there.”
SINCE THE CUNNINGHAMS LIVE across the street from the school, Ben was able to visit while he recovered at home. He returned to school full-time after the holidays. Once basketball ended, the focus turned to baseball.
Owen admits to being concerned about the dangers of Ben playing baseball.
“There was some fear early in the spring when we were practicing indoors and baseballs were flying around,” Owen said. “But I talked to him and he said he wanted to give it a try, and I said ‘Whatever you can do for us, we’ll take.’ Because he is a great kid. As it turned out, we kind of moved slowly with him. At about the middle of April we gave him a couple innings here and there on the mound and he was fine. He does very well.
“We were obviously concerned with his hitting. With his eye gone, that’s a tough position. Again, he’s battled. He’s had a few strikeouts and he struggles a little bit with the curveball, but he really doesn’t have any trouble.”
Ben said, “It was really different and hard to get used to. It wasn’t just the reaction time, it was the depth perception, too. It’s been getting way better.”
One of Southwest United’s biggest victories came three weeks ago against Adrian. After losing to Adrian 10-0 in their first meeting, the Wildcats won the rematch against the Red Rock Conference co-champs 8-3, with Ben belting a two-run single in the fifth inning to put them in front.
“When you see him playing with one eye, it really gives our whole team the thought that we really have no excuses for anything,” said Wildcats senior Alex Meyer. “To see him progress from day one, when he couldn’t catch a ball on his left side, to now when he’s starting and pitching, he’s come a long ways. “
As Ben fought his way back to health, he talked about what he wanted to do. His mother recalls him saying, “If I can have one thing back, I want it to be sports.”
Ben is the youngest of Paul and Miriam’s three kids; Thomas is 28 and Sarah is 27. Ben celebrated his 18th birthday on May 19. Miriam is a little agitated at her youngest child for not following his doctor’s instructions to wear protective eyewear when he pitches, but other than that everyone is overjoyed at how far Ben has come.
In the fall he will attend Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington, studying animal science and agronomy. The future is bright.
“I made some fast progress,” he said. “I’m doing everything I did before.”
--To see a photo gallery of Ben and a short video clip, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 657
*Miles John has driven: 10,233
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn