Published in the Evansville Courier Press on April 30, 2017 by Chad Lindskog
Elijah Hardin got ready bright and early on a warmer-than-usual morning January 31. He went through his routine before waiting for his ride to what was supposed to be another humdrum day at school.
Even though Hardin, 17, had passed his driver’s test and received his license a few days prior, he rode to Bosse High School in his friend’s pickup truck like always.
They were cruising north on U.S. 41 when their lives drastically changed.
The truck struck a passenger-less school bus. The driver attempted to avoid the collision, but the truck’s right front end impacted the back left of the bus. The dashboard caved and was crushing Hardin’s front. The door smashed into his side.
As he waited for first responders to arrive, Hardin called his father. He said he was OK, and that message was relayed to his mother, Diana, who was at work. While she panicked at the thought of a crash, she planned to finish her shift and meet him in the hospital.
Another call came 15 minutes later. She was told first responders needed to use two different “jaws of life” machines to extract Hardin from the vehicle. Diana ran to her car in a blind terror.
“To this day, I don’t remember how I got to St. Mary’s (Hospital),” she said.
Hardin shattered his right acetabular, the surface of the pelvis that meets the femur, which he also fractured. He remained in the hospital for the next three weeks — essentially immobile.
“It sucked,” Hardin said. “Three weeks in the hospital and on medicine constantly. I didn’t really have an appetite or anything, because I wasn’t used to the food, and the meds I was taking every morning took all the energy out of me.”
By the end of the three weeks, he was able to stand with the help of a walker. It was a sign of progress that energized him and served as the start of his recovery.
Thursday, he left the walker in the dugout before strolling onto Bosse’s baseball field. It was the first day he hadn’t depended on it since the crash. He then attended prom Saturday and returns to school on Monday.
The past three months, however, have been physically, mentally and emotionally draining.
Hardin is a happy-go-lucky type of kid. He enjoys drawing. He’s quite talented, in fact. He designed a pair of tattoos that cover Diana’s forearms, painted the logo on Bosse’s concession stand and volunteers to paint faces every thanksgiving and Christmas at the Cross-Eyed Cricket restaurant.
He’s a football player at heart and a New England Patriots fan. The Patriots won the Super Bowl while he was in the hospital, but a well-medicated Hardin watched a movie instead.
“I was watching my romantic chick-flicks because I knew my team had it in the bag,” he said.
Hardin didn’t get into baseball until he was an eighth grader and Craig Shoobridge wooed him to join the cub team. It was Shoobridge’s first year with the program, and he has coached varsity the past two seasons.
“Ever since tryouts eighth-grade year, baseball has been the thing for me,” said Hardin, now a junior.
So, even though he was still recovering and wasn’t attending school, he truly wanted to be part of the team again this spring. Shoobridge, of course, created a role for him as a type of player-coach and invited him to throw the ceremonial first pitch on opening day.
When Hardin appeared with his walker before the game, all of his teammates and coaches ran toward him to celebrate his return. Fans and family later packed the bleachers for the first pitch.
“His recovery isn’t a tool we used to pump ourselves up or anything,” Shoobridge said. “It’s just good to have him back.”
Hardin has only missed three games and always wears his full uniform. He isn’t going to play this year despite how desperate he is to stand in the outfield again. He’s still making an impact, though. He keeps spirits high even when the Bulldogs aren’t playing well.
“If the boys kept their heads down the entire game, they’re losing focus on winning and aren’t having fun with baseball,” Hardin said. “That’s really all it’s about. If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?”
He says he hasn’t played football since suffering six concussions by the end of eighth grade, but he should be healthy enough to play one last season for Shoobridge next spring.
Hardin always had a sense of humor about his recovery despite how tough it was for his friends and family to see him hurting. Yet he’s walking again and is on the cusp of restarting his normal life.
Standing in the middle of the infield on his own power, he felt free again.
“Realizing how close it could’ve been and looking at him today, I couldn’t be more proud,” Diana said.