Back on the mound, pitcher Jude Hiley stands tall
On a late February evening cold around the edges, Jude Hiley walked to the loneliest spot on earth. He made the trip quickly, despite the hitch in his gait.
Jude stood under the lights on a slightly elevated spot on the infield of Medlock Park’s field No. 6 in Decatur. When you are 12, no place on the planet is more remote than the pitcher’s mound.
Jude wound up, threw. The ump didn’t hesitate.
The crowd — and, really, it was a crowd, 100 people or more standing in the dark to watch No. 9 make his triumphant return to the game — roared with delight.
Young Mr. Hiley would go on to throw 46 more pitches that night. Thirty were strikes. He left the mound to raucous applause. He had been to the loneliest place on earth, survived it and returned.
Last year, Jude’s life changed, irrevocably. How he handled that change — with wit and grit, with limitless levels of optimism — brought him back to the sport he loves. Heroes sometimes do walk with a limp.
Jude’s trip to the mound that February evening capped a journey that started with a halting run on a base path, a worried text message and the word no parent wants to hear.
His parents, Gretchen and Pat, remember Jude running and suddenly favoring his right leg as he rounded first and tore toward second. That was in February 2017.
One of his teammates noticed, too. Go Jude, the boy yelled. Run faster!
And he tried. But something was wrong. Maybe he slid wrong and bruised his knee? Jude shrugged it off.
But the pain didn’t go away. When he headed to centerfield, sort of hobbling, his parents exchanged a look. Maybe it was time to call in the professionals?
A few days later, Gretchen packed the youngest of her three children in the family hauler and took him to Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center for a closer look. There, specialists X-rayed his knee. The image showed something over his joint. It resembled a thunder cloud, ominous and hovering.
Pat recalls the text. He was watching Joseph, his oldest son, play baseball for Druid Hills High. He kept a close watch on his cellphone, too. Gretchen would be in touch.
The text signal pinged: Something’s wrong! his wife wrote.
Moments later, another ping. Can you please come home.
Later that day, Pat and Gretchen sat in an upstairs bedroom, their phone set on speaker mode. The voice on the other end told the Hileys Jude had osteosarcoma — “cancer,” the caller said.
Cancer. Cancer. That ominous something over Jude’s knee would not go away. It was a tumor and would have to be cut out.
His parents were speechless and horrified. Jude was their perpetual-motion machine, the youngster who’d worn base paths in the backyard of their old home, the kid who’d thrown a perfect spiral the first time he tossed a football.
“I was just stunned,” said Gretchen.
“Cancer,” said Pat, “is a pretty big word.”
When he learned about the cancer, Jude hardly blinked.
OK, he said, what’s next?
There would be chemotherapy. He’d lose his hair. For Jude, that was acceptable. The bigger concern was his knee. He’d lose it, too. That raised the question: What could he do to get back on the field?
Physicians reviewed the patient’s history — young, athletic, a supportive family. Perhaps rotationplasty would be best?
It’s the sort of surgery that is the stuff of science fiction. Emory physicians would remove his knee, the site of that cancerous tumor. They would take out part of his femur, or upper leg bone, too. But they would save the ankle joint and foot. In an operation that would stretch over hours, they would reattach the foot where his knee had been.
And this: They would put it on backward. By turning it around, the foot and ankle joint would become a knee.
To walk, Jude would clip his real foot into a collar atop a prosthetic device. It would be made of shiny steel and end with an artificial foot made of the same material as a helicopter rotor, strong but flexible. By bending his ankle, he would be able to amble on his way with a slight limp.
It’s not new; a doctor performed the first foot-rotation operation in 1927. For the right candidates, rotationplasty has profound implications.
And Jude, say the people who have worked with him, is the sort of person for whom rotationplasty was invented. It allows a patient to remain active, even as he or she grows. A traditional replacement, without the pivoting foot, wouldn’t grant someone that sort of freedom.
“My initial reaction was, ‘No way you’re going to do that to my kid,’” said Pat.
His brother, Joseph, worried kids would make fun of him.
But Jude didn’t hesitate.
“It was the best way for me to play baseball again,” he said.
Chemotherapy began in mid-March. As predicted, Jude’s thick, dark hair fell out. In June, he underwent surgery at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta — worried parents waiting, friends crossing fingers, a boy breathing regularly under anesthesia. Jude’s physicians wielded saw and knife. It took eight hours.
“It was one of the longer days of my life,” Pat said.
Two hours after orderlies rolled him out of surgery, a groggy Jude lay in bed — and wiggled his toes. That’s when he knew he would return to the mound.
Within weeks, the onetime centerfielder was hobbling about, gaining confidence and balance.
“In retrospect, it was the perfect option,” said Pat.
“A boy like Jude, he wants to be active,” said Dr. Thomas Olson, an oncologist who oversaw Jude’s chemotherapy. “He chose this (procedure). He’s very special. We can kill the tumor, but how you move on (after surgery) is important, and Jude is exceptional on that point.”
In December, six months after his parents rolled him out of CHOA, Jude announced: He was ready to try out for the Red Devils.
‘He brings us up’
Jude has a lively face. His blue eyes are topped by eyebrows darker than dirt smudges. Freckles dust his cheeks. His hair, which has come back as thick and shaggy as ever, shows hints of gold when the sun hits it right. If there was a casting call for Puck, Shakespeare’s mischievous sprite in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” No. 9 would get the part.
Coach Steve Hogan recognized that face the moment Jude walked up for tryouts. It was mid-January, rainy and cold. A handful of hopefuls had gathered in a drafty building adjacent to the middle school hoping for the chance to be Red Devils, playing in the Druid Hills Youth Sports League.
Like Jude, Hogan played at Medlock and never strayed too far from the DeKalb park. Watching the youngsters play, he was reminded that he, too, had endured baseball’s cruelties and enjoyed its glories.
If he was surprised to see Jude, Hogan didn’t show it. He scribbled down the boy’s name. Over the years, Hogan had watched Jude steadily grow, moving from a T-ball field to progressively larger sites.
“As soon as he came in for tryouts? As soon as I saw him?” Hogan smiled, recalling the moment while overseeing a team practice. Jude, he knew, would be a part of the team.
“I’ve always wanted to coach him,” he said.
Nearby, Jude swung a bat. He wore an Iron Man T-shirt.
“He’s one of our pitchers,” Hogan said. “He’s a weapon on the mound.”
Granted, the prosthetic has slowed the kid. “He’s not as versatile,” Hogan said. “But he still hits.”
He brings something else to the dugout, too.
“He’s a hard kid not to enjoy being around,” Hogan said
Ask Blake Shelton. He’s 12, in the sixth grade and a Red Devil. When he’s grown, he plans to play in the NFL. If that doesn’t work out, “I’ll have baseball as a backup.”
“He can play with that leg, you know?” Blake said. “And he plays better with that leg than some other kids. He makes it look easy.”
It cannot be as easy as Jude makes it look, thinks Jari Williams, 14. He’s in the eighth grade, a utility player for the Red Devils. One day, sports gods willing, he will be a professional athlete.
“He brings a lot of energy,” said Jari. “And when we’re down? He brings us up.”
In a recent game, he said, the Red Devils faltered as the runs against them piled up. Jude didn’t quit. “He kept saying, ‘Don’t give up! Don’t give up!’” Jari recalled.
The Red Devils didn’t. They tied, 13-13.
Room full of memories
Jude’s room is like most kids’ rooms, filled with a jumble of stuff that marks the steady march from toddler to teen. Jude has stuffed animals. He has Star Wars toys — “Rogue I,” he thinks, was probably the best film in the bunch, but he’s also partial to the classic titles, especially “The Empire Strikes Back.”
He shares the room with Joseph, 17, a senior at Druid Hills High. Joseph is pretty good-humored about it. The older brother has quietly surrendered most of the space to his younger sibling. Big brother has some books and a few other reminders of his younger years, but you get the feeling they’re getting pushed into an increasingly smaller space.
Trophies? Jude has plenty, though only a few are on display. They’re gleaming reminders of cool nights and hot afternoons, of dust and mud and newly mown grass, the joy of rounding first at a full gallop.
Game balls? At least 20. They are mementos of well-turned plays, of clutch hits. There’s that home-run ball, too.
“That really wasn’t a home run,” he said.
He won the ball two years ago when he smacked a deep shot to center. It rose fat and fine in the air and — bam! — it landed atop the outfield fence. The ball could have headed one of two ways — back onto the field or into the weeds behind the fence. It chose the latter, plop! landing on the fence’s home run side. Everyone cheered — then stopped: The ump ruled the hit a double because it had hit the fence.
Jude’s coach fumed. After the game, he grabbed a Sharpie. HOME RUN, he scrawled, and handed the ball to his ace centerfielder/pitcher/first baseman.
Jude has reminders of other moments in the sun — footballs and lacrosse sticks, a baseball bat he used so much that it cracked. Yes, cracked: Try doing that to a piece of aluminum designed for thousands of hits.
There’s also tangible proof that youngsters with cancer touch a soft spot in the hearts of grown men paid to play kids’ games. Brian McCann learned about the boy who’d returned to the game wearing a prosthesis. The former Braves and current Astros catcher sent him a pair of his cleats — Under Armors, size 13.
While visiting Jude after his surgery at CHOA, Brave Brian Kemp wore the jersey he’d worn the night before when he banged a three-run homer against the Diamondbacks. Without pausing Kemp slipped it off, signed the jersey, and handed it over. Jude grinned. “The Braves’ equipment guy wasn’t too happy about that,” he said.
Smoltz and Glavine, those former Braves giants, signed balls, too.
There is one other prize Jude treasures. He keeps it in a wooden box about the size of two bars of soap. It contains a plastic bag holding a fistful of ashes — the cremains of his knee and part of his femur. Not long out of surgery, Jude asked for it. Perplexed physicians saw no reason to refuse. The box rests on a shelf above his bed.
On a recent evening, he carefully removed the top, touched the bag with a single index finger.
“This was mine,” he said, “my leg.”
A winner, either way
Baseball mounds may be haunted. Ask anyone who has stood on one and felt the spirits of past exploits hovering. They include ghosts of heroes and failures, those who’ve heard the roar of fans or felt their eyes on the long walk back to the dugout. Baseball hands out glory and cruelty in equal amounts. Jude knows that.
And yet he showed no fear one day last month as he walked to the mound at field No. 6. The kids in the home dugout, from Paideia School, watched. They took in his slight hitch, the way he stepped off the mound to give his pitch more oomph.
In a series of pitches, augmented by superb fielding, Jude allowed one run. At the end of the first inning, he walked back to applause nearly as thunderous as that which greeted him two months earlier.
A guy leaning against a light pole: Way to go, Jude!
A mom cuddling a younger sibling: Way to pitch!
His mother, sitting in a folding chair and trying to ignore the wind: a smile.
The Red Devils romped in that first inning. The boys in red walked, hit and stole their way into six runs.
By the time Jude took the mound in the second inning, night had come — with it, too, the fates.
No. 9 struggled with control. He walked the first batter. Things looked better with batter No. 2 — but only for a moment. Ping! The metal bat sang. A hard grounder, straight back to the pitcher.
He fielded the hit, pivoting to throw to catch the runner advancing to second. But his balance was off; a prosthetic’s just not as flexible as a real human leg. Jude settled for the easy play — a quick throw to first. Runner out.
It was a quiet reminder of baseball’s inequities — as well as life’s. Neither is always fair. A little more than a year ago, the kid could have turned that play, easy.
Paideia battled back with a series of quick grounders and line drives. When the Pythons cut the lead to 1, the Red Devils’ coaches conferred, and agreed: It was time for another pitcher. Jude handed the ball to a teammate and turned to leave that loneliest place.
A roar rose into the cold air. It overwhelmed everything — the lights, the night beyond, even the dropping temperatures.
Jude’s replacement strode to the mound. His face had the sort of expression a soldier wears while waiting for the enemy to shoot. He found a seat on the end of the bench. He plopped down. He was as lively as a cinder block.
“He won’t say a word,” Gretchen said. “And then something will happen and he’ll be standing up and cheering again.”
A couple of plays later a Red Devils outfielder caught a towering fly, ending the inning with the score tied 6-6. The Red Devils hopped and cheered.
Among them a kid with a slight hitch in his stride. No. 9.
Maybe he wasn’t in such a lonely place. Perhaps he never had been.
ABOUT THE STORY
A cancer diagnosis is traumatic, any way you look at it. And it seems especially tragic in a child. But thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, the outlook isn’t always as bleak as it once was. Jude Hiley is an example of how medical and technological advances, along with a can-do spirit, can sometimes make a difficult situation better. This is a story about powering through challenging circumstances and embracing the new normal.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Mark Davis of Atlanta is a former writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He’s also a baseball dad, with two sons active in the game. When he heard earlier this year about a boy who had returned to baseball after losing part of a leg to cancer, he knew it was a story that should be shared. “Heroes come in all sizes and ages,” he said. “Jude Hiley is proof.”
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. He graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a BS in advertising photography and Ohio University with an MA in photojournalism. He also served as a military photographer for nearly two years in South Korea. Past assignments include Super Bowl LI, the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the Brian Nichols trial.