John Anderson’s life is a Disney movie waiting to happen. If everything falls into place he’ll be able to play himself in what’s sure to be a blockbuster hit.
John is a 7th year senior on the Trevecca Nazarene University baseball team.
7th year senior.
In the first 111 years of the NCAA, there were only five documented cases of student-athlete receiving a seventh year of eligibility.
The Trevecca Trojans take the field this Thursday at 3:30 p.m. against the Quincy University Hawks in the NCAA Division II Baseball National Tournament. The no. 23 ranked Trojans (32-10), champions of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, are the no. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional being held at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO.
The fact that the 7th year, 25-year-old (he’ll turn 26 in August), left-handed hitting John Anderson is still a viable option coming off the bench for Trevecca head coach Chase Sain is a miracle in and of itself.
The road John Anderson took and the hurdles he’s overcome is the real life Rocky Balboa, Roy Hobbs from The Natural, against all odds, never give up, inspirational story this beaten up world desperately needs right now.
John Anderson was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1995. He came by his love for the game of baseball honestly. John’s dad, Bill, was drafted out of junior college at the age of 19 by the Atlanta Braves. Bill chose to continue his career at Vanderbilt instead, playing for the Commodores in 1975 and 1976 before graduating and signing with the Cincinnati Reds. Bill played one minor league season with Tampa in the Florida State League before being released.
“When John William was little, we’d get a Wiffle Ball and one of those big, red bam-bam bats and I’d throw to him,” said Bill. “We would get in the front yard of my parents’ house and he would hit bombs over the trees into the neighbor’s yard.”
John played on his first team in the Crieve Hall Baseball League when he was 7. He played third base for the Indians. The next three years John’s love for the game grew as he played on recreational teams in the West Nashville Sports League with some of his classmates from Franklin Road Academy.
For the next three and a half years, between the ages of 10 and 14, John didn’t play baseball.
He physically couldn’t.
“I was 10 years old and in the 4th grade at FRA,” John remembered. “My back was killing me. It was hurting for probably four days. I wasn’t eating anything. I lost a ton of weight. I got really pale and super weak. My mom took me to the emergency room. The nurse thought I had the flu but I didn’t have any fever so they let me go.”
The symptoms remained.
John went back to the doctor. A blood test was ordered. Later that night, on January 24, 2006, John’s mom, Sabrina, got a call from the doctor’s office. She immediately loaded John in the car. On the way to the hospital she broke the news to John.
John had leukemia.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia to be exact (A.L.L.)
“I didn’t know what that meant,” said John. “I was 10 years old. I was trying not to think about it. I got to the emergency room and they isolated me. They put a mask on me and got me up to my hospital bed. I was trying to listen in to what the doctors were telling my mom but the nurse was trying to distract me. At one point I heard the doctor tell my mom I was going to lose my hair. That’s the moment I knew I had cancer. I started crying. I knew it was bad.”
John’s parents had divorced six years earlier. Communication between the doctors and Bill and Sabina was oftentimes disjointed in those early days after diagnosis.
“My landline kept ringing,” said Bill. “I was on a work call on my mobile phone. After the third time they called I finally walked over to the phone to see who it was on the caller ID. It was Vanderbilt Hospital. The doctor in a very matter of fact said, ‘I’m calling to let you know that we just admitted your son with leukemia.’ I thought I was going to black out right then. It was the most unbelievable feeling and moment of my life.”
Bill rushed to the hospital where the nurse met him and filled him in on the story. He almost blacked out. The nurse had to sit him down and put ice on his head. Bill’s demeanor changed as he entered John’s room to see his son for the first time.
“I had this overwhelming calm in my spirit,” said Bill. “Every good and perfect gift comes from the Lord. I had this calm that everything was going to be alright. I held John for a moment. It was amazing. I can’t even tell the story 15 years later without it affecting me like it does.”
The punishing waves of cancer were not only affecting John, Bill and Sabrina. They were incredibly cruel to John’s 8-year-old little sister, Alex.
“Alex came home with me that night,” Bill remembered. “We were getting ready to leave the house for school the next morning when Alex asked me, “Daddy, is John William going to die?”
For the next three and a half years, instead of swinging a baseball bat or fielding ground balls, John took chemotherapy.
Every. Single. Day.
The first stage consisted of two weeks of daily IV chemo. There were monthly bone marrow taps with gigantic needles that actually chipped off and tested the bone. There were weekly IV chemo treatments for three years and chemo pills John had to take every single day.
John lost his hair. His appearance dramatically changed. The steroids he was taking gave him caused him to have, in Bill’s words, “pumpkin head.”
“He would get elevated fever periodically,” said Bill. “Any kind of infection created a fever. When he got to 100.5 it as an automatic admission into the hospital. I would get up in the bed and lay with him. It was precious times for me.”
“When John started his treatment I just envisioned this horrific period of time he was going to be connected to tubes, machines, in the hospital all the time and gradually showing the effects,” said Bill. “it was anything but that. The doctors and nurses at Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt were incredibly efficient, kind, supportive and encouraging. John actually loved going to the hospital. He liked being able to press a button and have people do things for him.”
“I can’t think of one time, one time, that I ever saw him discouraged, down or questioning,” said Bill. “John told me many years later he did feel sick quite often but had learned to live with it.”
Two years into his treatment, John got a serious infection. Doctors at Monroe Carell moved John to the ICU.
“I rushed to hospital and go up to intensive care,” Bill said. “Sabrina met me in the hallway. She said his chances aren’t very good and they might have to put him on a vent. I just took the mental position that he wasn’t going to have to be on the vent.”
“John was a little bit delusional,” Bill continued. “He came out of the bathroom. He was hallucinating. He saw the little black specks in the white tiles on the floor as insects or ants. We got him in the bed. Then they came in and started taking blood. They were having a hard time finding a vein. He had been stuck so many times it was starting to get to him. He was hollering out. That was hard to watch.”
After a 10-day stay in the hospital, John improved and was released. The first thing he wanted to do was watch a Vanderbilt baseball game. Bill and John pulled their car to the parking lot behind the center field fence.
Vanderbilt slugger Pedro Alvarez stepped up to the plate (Alvarez would go on to play nine years in the Major Leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles). Pedro promptly hit a home run over the right field wall. Before Bill could warn John of the risk, a barefooted John slung open the car door and ran through the grass to get the ball.
After the game, Robert Harris, one of Bill’s former Vandy teammates, introduced John to his wife Kay. Kay had battled cancer herself. John showed Kay the home run ball.
“Would you like to get that signed by Pedro?” Kay asked. Minutes later John was face to face with Pedro Alvarez. He left with a signed home run ball.
John’s treatment regimen ended three and half years after it began. No more chemo. No more IV’s. No more spinal taps. He was in full remission.
The treatment had taken its toll on John’s body. He was 106 pounds dripping wet.
John started playing baseball again. His next meaningful action came as a member of the Hillsboro High School team. Hillsboro head coach Andrew Bello took his understanding of strength and physical development and helped take John from 120 lbs. to 175 lbs. John blossomed into a better than average player and by his junior year he was a fixture in the Hillsboro outfield, hitting in the heart of the order.
“Eight games into my junior year, I hit a triple,” said John. “I tried to do a pop up slide. When my butt hit the ground, I immediately thought something was wrong. Coach asked me if I was okay. I said yes even though I could barely walk. Our next batter hit a ground ball and luckily I was able to get home. I’m sure I looked like a grandpa.”
John exited the game and went to the doctor for tests. A MRI revealed four stress fractures in his back. For the next eight weeks John had to wear a back brace on the outside of his shirts. In addition to the embarrassment he felt having to wear the brace to school there would be no more baseball that year. He missed the rest of his junior year and most of the summer, the most important months for a baseball player aspiring to play in college.
Later that year John and two of his Hillsboro teammates, Tyler and Tyson Orr, were working out at the Hillsboro field. A black SUV drove up and a big guy got out.
“You guys baseball players?,” the imposing figure asked. “You play here at Hillsboro? Stay here for a minute. I’m going to come back.”
When the man returned he was carrying 6-8 dozen baseballs and three bats. He handed them to the three boys.
“My name’s Pedro,” the man said.
John went nuts and connected the dots for Pedro to the home run ball he had hit and signed for him several years before.
As his senior year at Hillsboro approached, John was determined to do whatever he needed to do to play college baseball. He knew he was way behind when it came to recruiting. He took batting practice every day. Bill had taught him to switch hit which would make him more marketable to college coaches.
John’s senior year didn’t start out the way he envisioned.
“John wasn’t having any success batting lefty,” said Coach Bello. “I went to him and said, ‘You’ve got to bat right handed dude’. I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. As my number 3 or 4 hitter he just couldn’t be striking out every time. I was counting on him to produce.”
“The next day John came up to me and said, ‘Coach I respect your decision. I want one more chance. Let me bat left handed. I won’t let you down’. You could see the determination in his eyes.”
“By God he went 4-for-4 that day.”
COLLEGE YEAR ONE
John graduated from Hillsboro in the spring of 2014. He had just one college offer from Dyersburg State Community College. He chose instead to enroll at Georgia Highlands College in Rome, Georgia.
“It was their second year of being a school,” said John. “I got there on the first day and there were probably 70 players there. I wasn’t ready for that kind of pressure. I thought I was big at the time. I was 6’2” 170 lbs. There were a bunch of guys there that were 6’3” and 6’4” 220-230 lbs. I was in awe of how big and strong and fast they were. While I didn’t embarrass myself there, I didn’t show out the way I should have and ended up being cut at the end of the fall. I was pretty devastated.”
John came home for the spring of 2015. He was a life guard at the YMCA, mainly because it gave him the ability to work out at the gym. He went to various baseball showcases in an attempt to impress college coaches.
“It was super awkward. I was by far the oldest one there,” said John. “I went to a showcase at Western Kentucky and the coach at Western offered me a walk on spot. I was thrilled. I committed but then something happened when they were trying to get me eligible. I needed 18 credit hours to be able to transfer. I only had 12.”
COLLEGE YEAR TWO
John ended up walking on at Cleveland State Community College in the fall of 2015. He led the team in home runs in the fall with four. He made some highlight reel catches and felt good about his chances to earn significant playing time in the spring.
One week before the start of the 2016 season, John tore his hamstring. He tried to play through it but just couldn’t physically compete. He ended up playing sparingly.
COLLEGE YEAR THREE
John’s second year at Cleveland State started out very promising. He started in right field and hit a double and home run in the first series of the year. As the year progressed, John lost his starting spot and got fewer and fewer chances to play. He played in a little less than half the games.
COLLEGE YEAR FOUR
After exhausting his junior college eligibility, John was looking for a new home in the fall of 2017. Desperate to continue his career anywhere, John sent a mass email to over 100 schools.
“From there I ended up with three schools that expressed some level of genuine interest,” said John. “Lipscomb, UAB and Trevecca. I was so set on going D-1. I was really ready to do that. I didn’t see going to a D-2 school as an option at all. I was just banking on when I got there I was going to ball out.”
The opportunities at UAB and Lipscomb didn’t materialize. John was left with one option – going to D-2 Trevecca.
“Coach Brad Coon was one of the coaches at Lipscomb University I was talking with that summer,” John recalled. “I remember him telling me, ‘Dude, I went to Trevecca and I played Triple-A baseball. There’s nothing wrong going to a small school if you’re going to have a chance to play.’
“Coach Ryan Schmalz who was the head coach at Trevecca at the time invited me to come for a visit. He showed me around campus. I fell in love with Trevecca right there.”
John had a terrific fall. He was one of the stronger guys on the team. He had gotten up to 195 lbs.
“I was killing it,” said John. “I had a lot of confidence. I was hitting every day. I had a really great spring.”
One week before the first game of Trevecca’s 2018 season, John was taking fly balls near the outfield wall. It was a weakness in his game. He was determined to get better.
It was January 24, 2018, exactly 12 years to the day since he had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“I fielded the last ball and then I said I want one more,” said John. “I jumped up to catch it. I don’t know if it was the jump or landing but I hit the ground hard. I could see my leg dangling. It was obviously, very severely broken.”
Coach Schmalz had one rule: Don’t embarrass the program. That included no cussing.
“When I landed I let out the loudest set of cuss words you’ve ever heard,” John recalled. “Everyone was dead quiet looking at me. They knew it was serious.”
As the doctors gathered around John’s bed they explained to him he had broken his tibia and splintered his fibula. It was the same kind of catastrophic injury that Gordon Haywood of the Boston Celtics and Washington QB Alex Smith suffered.
John would have to have a titanium rod inserted beginning at his knee cap and have it hammered down his leg until it covered the fibula. He had four screws inserted in his ankle.
“This is career ending for most people,” said one of the doctors.
“That’s NOT going to be the case here!” Coach Schmalz emphatically, immediately interjected.
“That injury wrecked my whole season,” said John. “That was probably the hardest year including all of the years I fought cancer. I felt like I was somewhere where I was about to make a difference on a team. I had a coach that believed in me. Then it was taken away from me.”
“Not only was baseball taken away from me,” John continued. “I couldn’t get my own food from the cafeteria. I couldn’t drive places. For probably that whole year I had such bad depression. I lost a ton of weight. I was 195 when I broke my leg. At end of year I was 170. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
COLLEGE YEAR FIVE
John continued to rehab in the fall of 2018. The spring of 2019 found him learning to embrace a new role.
“It was one of the first scrimmages of the year,” John remembered. “I was starting to see some progress. I had the worst jog you’ve ever seen. In one of my first at bats I swung at a ball above my head and hit it over the center fielder’s head. I ran to first and got a single. There was a parent in the stands who had no clue what I had been through yelling, ‘RUN IT OUT! RUN IT OUT!’ I had some friends on the girls soccer team go set him straight.”
“I got a ton of pinch hitting opportunities. If I had a role on the team, that was my role. I got in about half of the games that year. I was in a ton of games and had a ton of chances. Every time I got a hit I limped to first the best I could. Every time a guy would come in and run for me. The guys on the team would go crazy when I got to the dugout.”
Later that spring, John found his name in the starting lineup as the designated hitter in a conference game against Hillsdale College. He was nervous and questioning himself as to whether or not he would be able to make it around the bases.
Sensing John’s angst, Coach Sain, who was an assistant coach at the time, approached John with a simple observation.
“You don’t have to run hard if you hit it over the fence.”
In John’s first at bat he did just that.
“I was going around the bases beating my chest,” said John. “The Make-A-Wish kid just hit a home run! The catcher was staring at me. The next at bat I hit another home run. I did the same thing.”
“We came to the field that day and saw John’s name in the starting lineup,” said shortstop Trey Vanderpool who has been a teammate of John’s at both Cleveland State and Trevecca. “I smiled at him. It was John’s time. He put his head down and he knew that he was going to have a good game. He hit that first home run and it was like everything he’d been working toward was there in that moment.”
The movie script could very well have ended right there.
But there’s more.
COLLEGE YEAR SIX
“Coming into the spring of 2020, I was moving well again,” said John. “In the first three weeks I was either second or third on the team in RBI’s. I had probably 1/3 or 1/4 of the at bats that everyone else had. I didn’t care. I was pumped.”
John got a couple of starts at designated hitter. He was having some good games and was excited about the beginning of conference season.
“We were in Wilson, North Carolina getting ready to play,” said John. “It was a beautiful day. We were fully dressed in our uniforms in the lobby of the hotel. Hour by hour the game kept getting delayed. Finally we all walked outside. Coach Schmalz was on the bus looking at us. He had a blank look on his face. He wasn’t on the phone or anything.”
The game was canceled.
The season was canceled.
“It was such a tragic event,” John continued. “I didn’t know if I would get another year of eligibility back or not. I was riding back on the bus thinking I don’t even remember my last game. I didn’t remember giving it 110%. If I had known it was going to be my last game I would have tried harder. I was wishing for a second chance.”
Soon thereafter all of the 2020 spring sports student athletes were informed they would get a COVID year of eligibility back if they wanted it. John and his Trevecca teammate Dalton Mauldin began discussing whether or not they’d be coming back. Dalton, like John, would be 25 years old, and also incredibly, another 7th year senior.
“We weren’t going pro,” said John. “I could move but I couldn’t move great. I wondered if I was even going to have chances to play. I talked to Jay Bernard, one of our senior pitchers at Trevecca. He already had a terrific job lined up. He told us he was coming back because the guy who hired him said if you don’t go back you’re going to regret it forever. He said you can work the rest of your life but you can’t play baseball forever.”
COLLEGE YEAR SEVEN
“I was excited to come back to Trevecca for a seventh year,” said John. “The whole training aspect was tough due to the COVID restrictions. I couldn’t find places to hit. I couldn’t work out. It was hard to get work in over the summer. I came back in the fall and something was different with my body. My swing felt slower. My body felt old. I wasn’t as quick and fiery as I used to be. I had a tough fall. There was no consistency. We’d go two weeks and get shut down because of COVID. We couldn’t be with the whole team. We could only be with 3-4 people at a time. That got in my head.”
“I haven’t had a lot of chances,” John said as he surveyed his contributions in 2021. Entering the NCAA Tournament, John had 26 plate appearances on the season with two hits, including a triple, and six walks.
“I’m just excited to be here and embrace the chances I do have. In the fall and early spring, I fully believed my role was to be a pinch hitter or DH. I want to say it’s the same. I still am that guy. I stay ready for when I get that chance as that guy.”
“I still show up early and hit late. I work out. I’m always talking about getting better. I want to bring an energy that’s really high and a winning attitude.”
Why continue to come back?
Why put yourself through all of the rehab?
Why don’t you move on with your life?
“The biggest thing that drives John is he loves to be with his buddies,” said Bill. “His teammates, the camaraderie and fellowship of the locker room, he is so enamored with and loves so much. He wants to be around it all of the time. He loves the brotherhood.”
As one would expect, seven years of college has allowed John the opportunity to pile up the academic credentials. He’s already completed his bachelor’s degree in business marketing. He’s almost finished with his master’s degree in education with a discipline in English. He’ll do his student teaching in the spring of 2022.
John plans to pursue a career in teaching and coaching. He may have also inadvertently discovered a promising side hustle.
“During the COVID quarantine I was bored out of my mind,” said John. “Everything was closed. I wanted to find something creative to do. I called a couple of modeling agencies, got a portfolio put together and did a couple of jobs for them this fall. I had a couple of offers this spring. That interests me. If I could get into modeling or acting that would be a blast.”
If John were also the director of his Disney movie, he knows exactly how it would end.
“Winning the World Series would be a perfect ending. But if it ended right now I’ve had a great experience.”
One can only imagine the immeasurable, positive impact that a teacher and coach like John Anderson will have on students and teams for years to come. Given the countless, seemingly insurmountable hurdles he’s faced and cleared in his first 25 years, he probably won’t have to wait very long for his next team.
Here’s hoping there’s one more magical moment in the works – an “I don’t believe what I just saw!” kind of moment where the home run ball hits the light tower causing a fireworks show.
The kind of ending you can only find in a Disney movie.
With a little bit of luck and a couple of Nashville networking introductions, John can play himself in the movie.
THE 7TH YEAR SENIOR
2015 Georgia Highlands College
2016 Cleveland State Community College
2017 Cleveland State Community College
2018 Trevecca (medical redshirt)
2020 Trevecca (COVID year)