ST. LOUIS — Brock Peterson knows what it’s like to have the odds stacked against him.
Rising from being selected in the 49th round, the 1,450th player picked in the 2002 draft out of a small town in Washington, to reach the major leagues with the Cardinals 11 years later was not easy.
That challenge, however, seems easy compared to the battle that Peterson now faces every day of his life.
It’s been nearly two years since Peterson, happily living and working in Virginia after his baseball career ended, was enjoying a day at the beach with friends. It was July 3, 2021, a day that will forever be etched in Peterson’s memory.
It’s the day his world, as he had known it, ended. A diving accident left Peterson paralyzed from the chest down.
“I’ve pretty much lost everything in my life that I enjoyed,” Peterson said. “I was a very active person and I didn’t really like to sit around and be lazy. Pretty much everything I liked to do I can’t do anymore.
“I really thought I was going to recover and get better and I didn’t. Accepting that has been a real challenge.”
It’s a challenge that Peterson’s friends are trying to help him fight. One of those friends, Dan Stillman, accompanied Peterson back to St. Louis last weekend for a reunion of the 2013 Cardinals. It was a trip Peterson wanted to make, even though he knew a lot of people were not aware of the injury that had changed his life.
“I could never have dealt with what he is dealing with,” Stillman said. “I’ve never met a stronger person in my life, and I’m not just saying that. To go through what he has gone through and to be where he is and to be in the mental state that he’s in is pretty impressive and admirable.”
It was the first time Peterson had been back to Busch Stadium since he played his last major-league game in 2013. Going onto the field in his wheelchair for a pre-game ceremony was a reminder of what had been taken from him, but it also offered Peterson a chance to realize what he had accomplished – and the challenge he already overcame — as his new daily battle continues.
A long journey to the majors
Playing professional sports had been Peterson’s dream as he grew up. When the Twins gave him that chance, he took it, not realizing at the time that his road to the major leagues would be so long and winding.
From rookie ball in Elizabethon, Tenn., through stops with seven other minor-league teams, including 71 games in independent ball, Peterson persevered until that day came when he learned he was being promoted to the major leagues after playing 1,163 games in the minors.
Peterson had hit .306 with 22 home runs with Memphis at the time he was promoted, the best season of his career. Then-Triple A manager Pop Warner called Peterson into his office between games of a doubleheader to tell him to pack his bags for St. Louis. The Cardinals needed a replacement for Matt Holliday, who was going on the injured list.
“I waited a long time for this,” the 29-year-old Peterson said on his first day as a major leaguer. “For it to finally happen, it just means a lot to me.”
Said general manager John Mozeliak that day, “Very few players play 11 years in the minor leagues because usually they quit or are told to quit. For him to persevere I think is a very special story. As you can imagine, we’re pulling for him.”
Peterson made his major-league debut on July 20, 2013, as a pinch-hitter. He grounded out but drove in a runner from third on the play.
Peterson would go on to play in 22 more games for the Cardinals, his stay in the big leagues interrupted by a short trip back to Memphis, where he hit three more home runs when Holliday returned to the roster.
Peterson came back up to the Cardinals in September but didn’t have the success he wanted, finishing the year with two hits, both singles, in 26 at-bats.
“I was very thankful to the Cardinals for giving me a chance,” Peterson says now. “I’m thankful I was having a good season that year and they recognized that and at least gave me a shot. I wish I would have played better while I was there, but it made my 13 years in he minor leagues (including two more years after he played in St. Louis) worth it to get even that little bit of time up there in the big leagues. I’m very thankful for that opportunity.”
If Peterson had known the journey from rookie ball to the majors would take 11 years, would he do it again?
“Probably,” he said after pausing a moment before answering the question. “Starting out when you are 18 and get a chance to play professional sports, that’s everything you ever dreamed of. That dream is still very motivating, especially early on in your career … I think I would do it again.”
Peterson moved to Virginia Beach in 2012 and when he decided to retire at the age of 31 following the 2015 season, he enrolled at Old Dominion University, majoring in finance. After graduating, Peterson began working in medical sales.
“A lot of guys I played with or against lived in the area and we became good friends,” Peterson said.
One of those friends was Stillman, a lawyer, who grew up in Virginia Beach.
“A couple of guys I knew growing up played with Brock and when Brock moved here, we had moved back from New York,” Stillman said. “He basically became part of the family.”
Stillman’s 4-year-old daughter Sofia refers to Peterson as “Uncle Brock.”
“I will be his Boswell here,” Stillman said. “The guy put himself through school after playing. That would be like me having a baseball tryout after graduating law school. And it was crazy how fast he did it.
“He got through school, was working and starting a new life. The timing of the accident was just tragic.”
A day of fun turns into life-changing injury
It was just supposed to be a day of fun at the beach, hanging out with friends, something Peterson had done countless other times.
“I walked in the water multiple times that day where I dove and I knew it was shallow, like chest high,” Peterson recalled. “I didn’t jump off anything high; I jumped off a little floating dock that was only like a foot off the water. I got a running start and tried to do a shallow dive.
“I didn’t really even feel anything. I felt like I just kind of got a little zap through my body for a split second. Then I tried to swim and I didn’t feel like I was moving. When I opened my eyes my arms were just hanging in front of me.
“I realized what I had done. Instantly I knew that things probably weren’t ever going to be the same.”
Luckily for Peterson, one of his friends saw him in the water and rescued him before he would have drowned. Unluckily, he soon found out how seriously he was injured.
“I think about it all day every day,” Peterson said. “It’s something that I don’t think will ever go away. You realize how quickly things change when you get put in that situation. It was one decision that didn’t work out for me and changed the rest of my life.
“I had done way stupider and way crazier things in my life and not gotten hurt. I was just trying to swim back to the boat and didn’t make it. I should have known better. You hear about it happening to people all of the time but I didn’t think it would happen to me.
“I was probably just too comfortable in the water. I was a really good swimmer. For a split second, I forgot what the consequences could be.”
As he began the long rehab process, Peterson thought that maybe the paralysis would just be temporary. He soon learned that doctors did not expect that to be the case. He has partial movement of his arms, but anything from his chest down, there is no function.
“I’m kind of a unique case,” Peterson said. “I’ve got nothing new back. Basically, everything function-wise that I have now I had to some extent just after my injury. I’ve gotten stronger and better with things that I have but it’s been kind of a disappointing journey. Most people wake up one day and something new works – a leg, a finger, a hand, something. I really have had zero new recovery since the injury. I’m kind of your prototypical C5 injury where everything I should have I do and everything I shouldn’t have I don’t.”
Having been a professional athlete who was in good physical shape, Peterson thought he would have been able to regain some of the movement in his body through rehab and physical therapy.
“I definitely think I’m a little bit better off than some people with the same injury, but with these injuries, it really doesn’t matter how hard you work,” Peterson said. “I hate to say it but it’s really all about luck. Some people are lucky and get better and some people don’t. It doesn’t matter how hard you work.
“My whole life basically I’ve been able to set a goal and say I was going to be able to do something and I knew if I worked hard enough and stayed on track that there was a pretty good chance I was going to reach that goal, whether it was weightlifting or sports or whatever. Now you can set a goal but you have no control over what’s going to happen.”
Trying to cope with the mental challenges is another hurdle for Peterson, one that he has been coping with for the last several months.
“In the last six months I’ve had to kind of accept it,” Peterson said. “You want to be in denial and say you are going to beat the odds. I know a few people who have and so it gives you hope but at some point, you just kind of have to accept it.
“It’s a completely different lifestyle that no one can understand unless they are in it or have been through it. I really thought I was going to recover and get better and I didn’t. Accepting that has been a real challenge.”
Peterson has also had to deal with other medical problems that are compounded by his situation.
“There was a couple of periods where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” he said.
Having problems breathing is a severe complication because Peterson is not able to cough or sneeze because he has no abdomen muscles that work. When he gets an infection or even a small cut, it takes a long time to heal.
He also has had to deal with the mental stress of worrying about all of the medical bills, knowing there have been some pieces of equipment that could have been helpful that he chose not to get because of the cost involved.
Peterson’s mother has moved in with him to be his full-time caregiver. Friends like Stillman try to visit as often as they can, either taking him out to lunch or just hanging out at Peterson’s house. Peterson said he probably watches more baseball games on television now than he ever did before. If the weather is nice he tries to go outside for a couple of hours a day.
Peterson is still taking physical therapy at Old Dominion and also is involved in a program of handicap workout classes at Kaizen Adaptive, which helps him mentally as much as it does physically. He also is going to counseling twice a week.
Adjusting to the changes in Peterson’s life has been a difficult challenge, and Peterson is not sure that it will ever get easier.
“I was independent basically from the time I signed my first contract when I was 18 and moved away 20 years ago,” he said. “Now I have to have help pretty much 24 hours a day. I think that’s the most frustrating part, not being able to take care of myself the way I want to.
“I can do a lot of stuff on my own but there’s still things all day every day that I need help with. I want to be helping take care of somebody else and raising kids right now and instead I’m being taken care of. It’s not what I ever wanted to do.”
Hoping to go back to work
As his new reality has set in, Peterson has tried to think about the future. He would like to go back to work, maybe using his knowledge of baseball, but it would need to be a job that offered flexibility and recognized his physical limitations.
“Sitting around and collecting a disability check isn’t my idea of living,” he said. “But with some of my complications, it just has to be right fit. I think I have a lot to offer still, but it just has to be the right situation for me.”
Stillman believes the trip back to St. Louis might have been a step forward for Peterson. It wasn’t an easy decision to come and was one Peterson thought about for a couple of months since he had been invited originally through a Facebook message.
He had kept the news of his injury relatively private, with only his family and some of his close friends aware of what had happened. Going out in public would change that, but it’s now a trip Peterson is glad that he made.
“It was the first time he had flown since the accident,” Stillman said. “He was on the fence about going for a couple of months, but some of our friends really encouraged him to do it and thought it would be really good for him. I think the trip was a milestone.”
As Peterson, now 39, has tried to accept a potential reality that his physical condition likely is not going to change, Stillman is holding out hope that there will be new medical discoveries or cures sometime in the future.
“I’m still blindly optimistic,” he said. “That’s my curse. You never know what’s going to happen.”
What is reality, Stillman knows, is that this is a battle Peterson is not going to endure on his own.
“You won’t find a better support group that what he’s got here,” Stillman said. “Everybody who was friends with Brock, they are there … Everyone who has been close to him has been a big part of his life since the accident.
“It’s a testament to him and who he is, his character and his charisma.”
Stillman now includes the Cardinals as part of the support team that is surrounding Peterson with love and support.
“I had never been to a Cardinals’ game before, and it felt like a family,” he said. “It seemed like it didn’t matter if you played one game or 10 seasons. That memory will stand out in my mind the rest of my life.
“Based on what he told me it was the best thing he has done since the accident. It’s the first time I’ve seen him that happy in a long time.”
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