Tuesday, July 05, 2011

SPORTS >> Exemplifying the spirit of American Legion

Leader sports editor

Adversity in sports is usually a game-time occurrence. In baseball, it’s a pitcher struggling through a jam, or a team facing deficits and trying to overcome.

Sometimes, though, adversity is a lifelong endeavor, and more is needed than talent, timely hitting, a big out or even some good fortune.

That kind of adversity calls for a positive attitude, a great work ethic, plenty of support and of course, some good fortune. For Pangburn High School’s Chase Hopkins, the right formula is in place for success in the face of lifelong adversity.

Hopkins suffered a major elbow injury in a trampoline accident at three-and-a-half years old. A surgical error resulted in a pin being inserted through an artery and a nerve. Gangrene set in.

Now, 12 years and 19 reconstructive surgeries later, Hopkins plays baseball for Pangburn High and the Rose Bud Razorbacks American Legion team as a pitcher and starting first baseman, all with very limited use of his underdeveloped left arm and hand.

“The injury and all that came from it caused his arm to stop growing,” Hopkins’ mother Holly Hopkins said. “He lost feeling in it and was told he couldn’t play unless he had feeling in it.”

One of the surgeries was a nerve taken from his leg, and inserted into his arm in order to restore the feeling in the arm. It worked, and Hopkins has played as much as he could since then.

His parents, father Flynn and Holly, as well as a host of other relatives and friends have created an atmosphere conducive for success for Chase.

Hopkins’ positive attitude shines through in conversation with the sophomore-to-be. The understated, blonde-haired youth is usually smiling. The work ethic is obvious, and even Hopkins, who found it difficult to describe in detail how things might be more difficult for him than other kids, did confess that perhaps he has to work a little harder to stay on par with teammates and competitors. The family and friends who surround Hopkins have made a wonderful support group, and therein lies his good fortune.

“No one ever said I couldn’t go and do anything I wanted,” Hopkins said.

“He never acted like there’s anything he couldn’t do,” said his mother.

Hopkins was likely going to be a lefty before the accident. His father is a southpaw, and early signs show Chase using his left hand for many things as he grew. But he never remembers being a lefty.

“It was just a natural progression towards the right hand after that,” Chase said. “Circumstances just made it that way.”

Hopkins is also a great shot on the basketball court, and a certain incident there helps define his attitude. While practicing for a shooting contest, someone told Hopkins he could compete in the Special Olympics and win gold. Hopkins thought it unfair. “I’m not handicapped,” he said.

Still, he has to take measures on the baseball diamond that other players do not. He exemplified how brilliantly in the Razorbacks’ first-round loss to Sylvan Hills.

While on the mound, a shot came back to him. Unable to field the ball himself, he slapped it towards the second baseman, who made the stop and threw the runner out.

He also has to field and throw with the same hand, and has become surprisingly adept at it. In one motion, Hopkins catches the ball, tosses it up with the glove, slips the glove off, catches the ball and makes the throw. It all takes about a second.

“It’s just something I had to learn to do,” Hopkins said. “It didn’t really seem that hard.”

At the plate, he is able to make solid contact. His season batting average is unknown, but he has his share of base hits.

He can’t break the left wrist over like other right-handed batters, so he simply lets go with the left hand at the point of the swing that the wrist breaks. Again, to him it feels natural.

“That’s just the way I’ve always done it.”

The Arkansas commissioner for American Legion baseball, Jeral Howard, was most impressed with Hopkins when he saw him in the Sylvan Hills game.

“Lots of kids have some talent and get some breaks,” Howard said. “Chase here made his own breaks. We’re very proud of him and very proud that he’s part of American Legion baseball. He exemplifies what we’re all about.”