Monday, May 10, 2010

Lake it Easy

Submitted by Ben Houser
May 10, 2010

When I first saw the tattoo on Nate Winters’ left shoulder, I thought it read “Lake it Easy.” It was unique, and had the date “8-05-08” underneath it.

“Cool Tattoo,” I said to Nate as he was riding in to his dock on his jet ski at his Winter Park, Florida home.

“Thanks,” he responded. “On my 17th birthday, my friend and I got tattoos of our favorite sayings on our arms, his saying, ‘How are you doing?’ and mine being, ‘Take it Easy.’ I just got ‘Take it Easy’ because I’m an easy going guy. It’s just something that I like to live by and I got the date under my leg,” Nate continued. “I don’t know, now people kind of see mine as, oh, that’s cool, that’s something meaningful. They see Adam’s tattoo and think ‘you are an idiot’. Why did you get a tattoo of “How are you doing?” on your arm?”

It was just a couple weeks ago that I learned about Nate’s story when a colleague, Matt Mccormick, read a story on him and passed it along through our E:60 management staff. Upon reading Nate’s story, it was a no brainer for E:60.

I flew to Orlando on Friday April 23rd and was ready to see the local celebrity pitch. Around 4 pm, Nate pulled into the baseball field parking lot in his SUV.

“You must be Ben,” he said to me through the window. I had spoken with his father, Dr. Tom Winters on multiple occasions before I arrived in Florida with E:60 cameras.

It was the beginning of multiple meetings between the two of us that has blossomed into a deep respect and friendship. Over the next couple weeks, myself and our cameras would follow Nate to school, wake him up at sunrise, and take him back to the helipad at the hospital where his life was saved.

Nate stepped out of the car, jersey in hand, focused on the game that night against Lake Howell.

I asked him if we could film him putting on his pitching leg and Nate agreed. It is an interesting process. I have never seen someone pick up a leg, take one leg off and put another leg on. This has become Nate Winters’ routine. He holds up his walking leg and explains the difference of why he has two legs with distinct purposes.

“This leg right here is a hydraulic leg and I can throw on it but it will give out on me and that’s what I was using for awhile and it gave out on me like two or three times,” said Nate. “I ended up hurting my ankle and I couldn’t throw. The leg I have right here is called an XT-9 and it’s made for wakeboarding and skiing and sports like that. It has a built in spring so when I bend it doesn’t give out it, actually like pushes back on me and throws me up the other way which is great for pitching.”

The pitching leg, as he calls it, has been crucial to his success. Nate threw in the seventy mile per hour range before a tragic boating accident cut off his left leg and much of his right ankle and achilles in August of 2008. If you can believe it, now he can throw a fastball in the eighties..

It’s now three hours to game time. Nate gets ready and heads out to stretch and work out his arms. I have planned comprehensive coverage of Nate’s second varsity start since his accident. His miraculous return to the mound a few weeks earlier was a success, but Nate didn’t get the victory. He was still looking for win number one on one leg.

I have a JIB camera, a large camera you see at major sporting events that can pan over a crowd that is placed down the 3rd baseline right next to the dugout. I have another photographer, Phil Iglesias, one of the best in the business, shooting all super slow motion material of Nate on the mound. I also have a third camera shooting the entire game in 24 frames, the standard for ESPN features. I didn’t know if I would get another opportunity to document Nate pitching. This was the final regular season game for Winter Park High School. It turns out they would lose their first playoff game. It was a wise decision to capture the game with multiple cameras and I was supported by E:60 management. This is the only game we film of Nate in HD.

The crowd is very large, around five hundred spectators. Virtually the entire audience is there for the same reason as me, to see Nate Winters pitch. Multiple local athletes, including former New York Yankees pitcher, Dennis Rasmussen, who won 91 major league games, is in attendance.

“It’s why all of us were here,” said Rasmussen. “We all knew he was going to be pitching tonight and why all of you are here and all of the support he’s gotten. To see Nate before the accident he had outstanding ability and was looked at by many colleges and was kind of on their radar. Now, all of sudden to have that accident and to set him back, but knowing his determination he was not going to be denied he was going to get back, get back on the mound and here he is and that’s incredibly inspiring for all of us.”

I thought that our E:60 cameras would make the seventeen year old junior nervous. Well, I was almost correct. It was his Winter Park teammates who were nervous. They committed three errors in the first few innings of the game. Before I knew it, Nate and his Winter Park team were down 4-0.

“I was just like how is this happening, like you’ve got to pick it up. Then all of my team mates were like, come on man, you’ve got to pick it up, you’ve got it, you’ve got it,” Nate told me after the game.

His team rallied, and exploded with eleven runs the rest of the way. In the 6th inning, when Nate was pitching to his final batter of the game, (Head Coach Bob King, made us aware he had one more batter). I spoke to the umpire at home plate. I wanted to make sure he was alright with us moving our JIB in a different better position to capture Nate walking off the field. The umpire obliged and allowed us to put our camera down the third baseline.

Nate got his final batter to ground out to second base. Head coach Bob King jogged out to the mound.

“Everybody congratulated him, and then when he walked off,” said King. “I still have a vision of him tipping his cap once again, and everybody out of the dugout meeting him to a standing ovation and I just think – Nate’s back.”

As Nate is walking off the field, he says he was concentrating on walking so he wouldn’t fall. “That would be embarrassing!” Nate didn’t fall, and all three of our cameras shot him as he walked into the dugout.

Nate got the win. He talked to us after the game saying, “My first win with one leg, it’s a pretty big accomplishment to me.” I have had the pleasure of witnessing in person Adrian Peterson’s 296 yard rushing game and Mets outfielder Endy Chavez’s epic catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Nate Winters’ moment is in the same class and in some ways more powerful.

On one of our cameras Nate can be heard saying, “I want to go take my leg off.”

It’s not a typical phrase you hear after a pitcher leaves the game, but then again Nate Winters isn’t your typical pitcher.

He is much more.

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for E:60. Matt McCormick edited the video feature that will air on Tuesday night at 7 eastern on ESPN’s E:60.

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