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Published: Saturday, 1/16/2010

Bluffton ball team honored by NCAA

BY JILL RIEPENHOFF
AND MIKE WAGNER
COLUMBUS DISPATCH

ATLANTA - Amid the smoke, twisted metal, and human carnage, it seemed that Bluffton University baseball might have perished in an early morning bus crash on a freeway here three years ago.

Four athletes were dead, and a fifth died a week later.

Their coaches were seriously injured. All of their equipment was ruined. The surviving 25 players suffered not only cuts and bruises but also much harder-to-heal emotional wounds.

But they didn't quit. They couldn't. They wanted to take the field to honor their fallen teammates.

Four weeks to the day after the crash, with heavy hearts and donated mitts and bats, Bluffton's baseball team resumed play. That feat earned the 2007 squad one of the highest honors in collegiate athletics, the NCAA's Inspiration Award. The team was nominated by the NCAA itself.

Cody McPherson, 21, accepted the award last night on behalf of his teammates at a ceremony just four miles from where their bus plunged over a bridge onto southbound I-75 en route to training in Florida.

Mr. McPherson is the last of the 25 survivors still playing ball at Bluffton - 23 have graduated and one went to the minor leagues.

"I'm so proud of the 2007 team. … I'm proud of the way they've kept the memory," Bluffton President James Harder said.

For days after the crash, no one spoke of baseball. What mattered was tending to the needs of the injured and the families who lost sons - Zach Ahrend, David Betts, Scott Harmon, Cody Holp, and Taylor Williams.

But eventually, the team's head coach, James Grandey, decided to ask the players what they wanted.

"We knew what we'd like to do," Mr. McPherson recalled yesterday. But the players first wanted approval from the families of their fallen friends.

That the team finished the season with five wins and 19 losses seemed irrelevant. It only mattered that they finished.

"We're at the point now where we can talk about it," Mr. McPherson said.

John Betts, father of David Betts, who was the team's second baseman, visits his son's gravesite twice a day, once in the morning on his way to work, and once in the evening, in Bryan, about 70 miles west of Toledo near the Indiana border.

In his front shirt pocket, Mr. Betts always carries a makeshift baseball card of David. On one side is his high school senior picture; on the other is the last Betts family photo that includes David.

In the hours after the crash, Mr. Betts promised that something good would come from the tragedy.

He has kept that promise for nearly three years by pushing at the federal and state levels for safety measures on motor coaches.

En route to Sarasota on March 2, 2007, the driver of the team's bus apparently mistook an exit ramp for a regular highway lane and crashed into a concrete barrier at a T-intersection at the top of the ramp. Then the bus flipped off the overpass and fell 30 feet back onto I-75. The driver and his wife also were killed.

In 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed driver error for the crash. But it also cited poor signage along the high-occupancy-vehicle exit ramp on I-75 in Atlanta and the lack of passenger seat belts.

A motor-coach safety bill, co-authored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), was approved by a Senate committee in December. The bill would require the vehicles to be built with seat belts, stronger roofs, and safer windows. The measure could come up for a full Senate vote early next year.

Roughly 750 million passenger trips were made last year aboard U.S. motor coaches, according to the American Bus Association. The average motor coach is 50 feet long, 12 feet high, and 8 feet wide and weighs 24 tons.

Mr. Betts also has testified in Columbus to support a bill that would require Ohio colleges and universities to purchase, lease, rent, or charter buses that are equipped with seat belts when transporting students.

"David had such a huge heart and I ask him all the time to help give me and others involved in this the strength to do something good," Mr. Betts said.

Cody McPherson said Mr. Betts' work as well as the stories of other members of the team continue to inspire people every day.

And it started on a clear, crisp, spring day in 2007 when two dozen athletes stepped onto a baseball diamond without their coach, equipment, and five teammates.

Contact Jill Riepenhoff at:

jriepenhoff@dispatch.com



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