Nate Winters has progressed light years since Aug. 5, 2008 when – fearing he was going to be put into a body bag - he told Orlando, Fla., paramedics, “I’m not dead yet.”
His father, Dr. Tom Winters, quickly assured him, “If God got you this far, you’re not going to die.”
Despite a tragic boating accident which cost him his left leg and severely damaged his right foot, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior has made an incredible comeback and returned to his first love – pitching for the Winter Park (Winter Park, Fla.) baseball team.
Counting two short JV stints and then a sterling four-inning varsity effort, Nate has pitched seven innings this spring. His numbers are amazing: two unearned runs, two hits and no walks.
He will get his second start Friday against city rival Lake Howell.
Baseball has been in Nate’s blood since age four and he has been a standout at every level, first as a third baseman, then as a pitcher. He also has caught and played first base. He has been tutored by such former Major League players as Frank Viola, Dante Bichette and Mike Stanley.
Freshmen rarely make the Winter Park varsity, but coach Bob King gave him a shot as a middle relief pitcher and he wound up with the third-most innings pitched that year: 30 2/3. He also batted .500 in 10 trips to the plate.
“I was very impressed with him,” King said. “What a nice kid and he played everywhere. He worked so hard; it was obvious he loved the game. He was a little more mature than the normal ninth grader and very confident.”
That summer Nate was enjoying a boat ride on Lake Maitland with some friends. His brother, Zach, a student at Cornell University, was driving. Zach made a sharp turn and Nate was thrown overboard. While coming back to pick him up, however, the boat propeller hit him, causing severe damage to both legs.
“Nobody thought he was going to make it,” Tom Winters recalled.
A miraculous sequence of events took place to save Nate’s life. First of all, a fear of alligators spurred him to swim quickly to the boat because he already had lost 80 percent of his blood in the water. Secondly, Zach used a ski rope to tie a tourniquet and stop any more blood flow. Zach’s quick thinking ultimately saved Nate’s life, according to their father.
Thirdly, one of their friends, Ty Knight, gave his lake address for the emergency helicopter. It landed in the only open field near the lake – right across from Ty’s house.
“It took 4 1/2 minutes by helicopter,” Tom Winters noted. “It was 35 total minutes from water to operating room. It was absolutely miraculous. His blood was so thin, it looked like lemonade. His hemoglobin was 3.1; normal is 14 or 15.”
Word traveled so fast that more than 100 people showed up at the hospital.
After amputating Nate’s left leg above the knee, doctors seriously considered taking his left foot and putting it on his right leg because he had lost a toe and badly damaged the Achilles tendon on his right foot. They elected not to make the transplant, but he did lose a valuable inch of his Achilles. He had nine more surgeries over the next two weeks.
The fall of his sophomore year, Nate took school courses at home (he has a 3.3 grade point average) and began working with physical therapist Melissa Brown. He started in a wheelchair, progressed to crutches and finally was able to stand and throw a light medicine ball.
“There was a lot of painful stretching,” Brown pointed out. “His attitude always was great. He always gave 100 percent. (His progress) definitely was unbelievable. He’s such a strong kid physically and mentally. He was an inspiration to a lot of other patients.”
Then Stan Patterson, a prosthetic practitioner, took over to design a special leg.
“Nate’s only issue was the Achilles tendon on his sound (right) side,” Patterson explained. “His foot locked his toes down and his heels up. His sound side really was his bad side for the first three or four months of walking.
“I never, ever have seen him get down. I’m still shocked that he came back that fast.”
Since the injury, Nate has branched out into several non-sports areas. This year, for example, he was voted junior class president.
He also has joined a reggae band called Innercoastal. He plays guitar. The band already has produced a CD, “Support the Stash,” which has sold over 200 copies.
However, that old itch – baseball – surfaced again and he just had to scratch it. He started throwing in the fall with catcher Mike Boles, then went through some more intensive bullpen sessions.
In January, though, he fell flat on his face during an intrasquad game. Coming home, he told his father, “It didn’t go very well. I fell a couple times. I’m going to concentrate on my music.”
A talk with Stan Patterson followed and he solved the problem by providing Nate with a special leg used by extreme snowboarders. It has more rotation and flexibility, being made to order for pitching.
Coach King was so impressed with Nate’s progress that he agreed to let him pitch in a JV game this spring. He picked a road game to quietly avert pressure.
“When I arrived the stands were packed and a television station was there,” the shocked coach related. “Forty minutes before the start of the game, he was sweating like a dog and throwing harder than ever before. I have to admit I was scared to death for him.”
No worries, coach. Nate gave up no runs, no hits and no walks in a brisk two-inning stint. The lone runner reached on an error. The game was delayed for about 45 seconds when King used a wrench to tighten a loose screw on Nate’s prosthetic leg.
“That was just spectacular,” King exclaimed. “The crowd gave him an ovation.”
Looking back, Nate admitted, “All the fans and TV – it definitely was a surprise. I thought it would be more low key than it was.”
In his second JV outing, he pitched another effective inning.
Now Nate was ready for a varsity assignment. It came last week against Orlando First Colonial. All he did was throw 48 pitches over four-plus innings, striking out two, walking none, allowing just one hit and one unearned run. Winter Park eventually lost the game, 4-3.
King, who limited Nate to 50 pitches, noted, “I let him pitch to one batter in the fifth so he could come off to a standing ovation because he deserved it. He looked so proud and was just beaming. He tipped his hat to the crowd. He got us into the fifth in a 1-1 tie.”
“My right foot gets sore, but it’s nothing I can’t work through,” Nate said of his last performance.
The competitive teenager reasons that he is throwing harder now than ever because of normal growth and maturity. He’s always had a curveball but it’s greatly improved from his freshman year. His changeup continues to be his “out” pitch.
Eventually, Nate is going to have to face opponents who will test him on bunts. He no longer can wind up, so he always throws from the stretch. He used to have a quick pickoff move, but now he calls it “average.” The Wildcats have a catcher with a strong arm and they pull their third baseman even with the bag with Nate on the mound.
Now a media celebrity, Nate is learning how to deal with a new kind of pressure.
“I try not to focus on it (fans and cameras) until I’m done pitching,” he explained. “The last game I didn’t look at the stands. It is kind of weird to look over and see those cameras.”
As he prepares for his next start, Nate says simply, “They (Lake Howell) are a very good team, but I’m going to keep it low and throw first-pitch strikes.”
Concerning the future, King says confidently, “I really look at him next year playing a prominent role on the mound and being a leader. He’s a tough, gritty kid – a calm kid. I’m shocked, because I didn’t think it would happen this year. His big job will be to work on strength and agility. Now he knows he can do it. The bar is set even higher for next year.”
Patterson promises, “Each outing he’s going to get better and better (as he adjusts to his prosthetic leg). He should never get worse – just better and better. He’s had a great amount of notoriety and there are a lot of expectations that come with it, to pay it forward.”
Beyond the baseball diamond, Nate’s miraculous recovery has given him a huge platform – it even could be called a ministry – to help others in similar situations. Just as he was inspired by a Delta Force amputee who has returned to Iraq, Nate already has helped several young amputees who are in rehab.
“Those kids just look up to Nate and adore him,” Tom Winters said. “People come up to him in convenience stores and send emails. He may be a whole lot more positive influence with one leg than with two.”
Nate agrees that “It’s cool to really help out other people. I don’t take it as a responsibility. I just look at it as a blessing that people look up to me. I’m thinking about writing a book.”