“I don’t want to lose memories.”
Those are the words of a grieving father. Dan Bryan lost his 16-year-old son, Ethan Bryan, on September 16, 2020. It was a regular day for Dan, who left work and realized he still had enough time to catch the tail end of his son’s baseball practice at West County High School in Park Hills, Missouri.
Dan got to the field in time to see Ethan hit a ball that drove in two runs, bringing the practice to a close. On his way to fetch his bat, Ethan looked up to his dad with a wave and a smile. Neither father nor son knew that would be their last encounter. Within an hour, Ethan’s life came to a sudden end.
He Was Enjoying His Life…. and Then…
His son looked at him with a smile that was out of the ordinary, for Ethan would typically offer little more than a nod when he saw his dad at his practices. “He’d never done that before,” Dan recalled to People Magazine. “That showed me he was having an absolute blast. He was just enjoying life.”
The tragedy lies in the fact that it was the last day of Ethan’s life. While Dan went home, Ethan stuck around at the field to throw a bullpen and help the younger players. Dan was making dinner when the phone rang.
A Deadly Crash on Highway 8
Less than an hour after that practice, Dan got the devastating call from his ex-wife, Jaclyn, that their son had just been in a car accident. Ethan, who was driving his car on Highway 8 in St. Francois County, swerved to avoid another oncoming car.
Ethan was in the car with his teammate and best friend, Tycen Price, who sat in the passenger seat. There was a pickup truck in front of them, which slowed to make a left-hand turn on Harmon Road. Ethan swerved left to avoid rear-ending it only to hit the rear of the truck…
A Parent’s Worst Nightmare
He then crashed head-on into a pickup truck driving in the other direction. Ethan was pronounced dead at the scene. But Tycen survived. After that one phone call from Ethan’s mother, everything became a blur.
The first thing he did was rush to the scene, where he saw a paramedic place a sheet over Ethan’s body. It was that moment that made him break down. Obviously, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. And Ethan’s parents were living it. Dan began wailing as a police officer tried to keep the father from getting too close.
Buried Behind Home Plate
On the night of Ethan’s accident, people gathered at the baseball field. By the time Dan showed up at around 9 pm, there were 200 people there. Dan managed to stand near the front of the big crowd and speak, yet he doesn’t remember a word of it.
Two nights later, a candlelight vigil was held, and on that Sunday, the funeral service took place on the Bulldogs’ baseball field at West County High School, where 500 people filled seats. Ethan’s coffin was placed behind home plate.
In a Bad State
After the funeral, Dan crawled back into bed. He was now in a state where he didn’t want to see anybody. His fiancé, Jennifer, couldn’t help but be worried. Following Ethan’s accident, Dan found it difficult to even get out of bed.
At times, he would sleep for hours, but then there were nights when he couldn’t sleep at all. Dan, who remembers the time Ethan started playing baseball at the age of five, was beside himself. “Every time he woke up,” Jennifer said, “he just wanted to go back to sleep.”
He Chose Not to Choose the Bottle
If this had happened years before, chances are Dan would have turned to the bottle. But he’s passed that now, which is something he’s proud of. But that didn’t mean that he knew what to do or how to cope. How does one recover from losing a child? Dan admittedly was never one to open up about his feelings.
He grew up in rural Missouri. He was both a jock (he played football) and a choir boy (he sang in high school). He drove an Army Humvee while in Bosnia, and then found a job at the Missouri Department of Corrections after graduating college.
A Closed-Off Person
A thoughtful employee, he later became the city administrator of Desloge, an hour south of St. Louis, which has a population of 5,000. But he wasn’t comfortable with letting others in. “I was a very closed-off person,” he admitted.
It came to a point where Jennifer suggested he get a doctor’s prescription for antidepressants, but Dan wasn’t so gung-ho on the idea. Eventually, though, he agreed. His family also encouraged him to go back to church, where he was able to find community and support. Whenever therapy was suggested, he was hesitant.
Feeling Alone in His Pain
He thought: who could really understand what he was going through? He felt alone. “I didn’t want to show up to an office somewhere and talk to someone that was educated on how to talk to me but can’t really feel what I’m feeling,” Dan said.
In his eyes, no one could truly understand what he lost; no one really knew the kind of kid Ethan was and how painful it was to lose him. Who else knew just how charming his son was with his winning smile and polite personality?
His Pride and Joy
Who else saw how Ethan bridged social borders in high school by singing in the choir (just like he had)? And no one else knew that when Ethan registered for hitting lessons with Derek Gibson (the former Cardinals minor-leaguer), it was Gibson who looked forward to each week’s session.
“I knew I was going to have a good day, because Ethan Bryan was coming to hit,” Gibson said. “He was the perfect kid.” Dan certainly agreed. He was a proud father. Only he, he felt, could see why Ethan wanted to go to West County for its fall and spring baseball, and how he really started to find himself on the field.
Even Super Dads Need Help
Dan witnessed his son’s growth spurt from a chubby adolescent boy to a thinned-out teenager. He watched as Gibson unlocked Ethan’s power stroke, saw him polish his timing, and how he locked himself in during the fall of his sophomore year.
Dan felt as though he knew his son best, but even super dads need help from time to time. He may have buried his son that day, but he consciously chose to keep his memory alive. And with that decision came a journey that he was about to embark on.
He Got by With a Little Help From His Friend
He began a journey through grief and recovery that would last 365 days. He realized that he needed to talk to someone and get some help on how to deal with his grief. One day, he called an old friend and co-worker named Al Whitehead, a psychologist from the department of corrections.
“Hi Doc, it’s Dan,” Dan said to him on the phone. “My son died.” Soon enough, they were meeting once a week. Dan shared his pain and Al offered him tools to cope, like journaling and an emotional freedom technique known as “tapping.”
The Little Victories
And so, Dan started writing his thoughts down. He continued to go to church and started finding little victories in his day-to-day life, whether it was attending a Sunday service or going out for dinner. What he poured his heart into was honoring his son.
He dedicated a stretch of highway to Ethan, started a golf tournament and a scholarship (with Ethan’s mother, Jaclyn). But as soon as baseball season returned in the spring, Dan noticed there was one place he simply couldn’t make himself go to, and that was the baseball field.
The Games Were Too Hard to Watch
Going to games was just too difficult. He would show up for a bit, watch for an inning or two, and then have to leave because he would get too overwhelmed. “Every time I’d see the guys jog out onto the field, I’m looking to see where E is at,” Dan said.
“I’d scan every face and none of them are Ethan’s face.” Then, one day in December, he recalled seeing a book in his house. It was this book that sent Dan on a journey of recovery and meaning.
A Man With the Same Name
One morning, in the week following Ethan’s accident, a local Missouri author and musician named Ethan D. Bryan found himself in a coffee shop in Springfield. He happened to be Googling his name while also looking for book reviews.
Bryan had just published a book he called “A Year of Playing Catch: What a Simple Daily Experiment Taught Me About Life.” While looking for feedback, he stumbled upon an obituary for someone who shared his name. That name belonged to 16-year-old Ethan Bryan. The author started to read about Ethan…
Compelled by Coincidence and an Urge to Help
He read about the kid’s love for baseball, singing, and Marvel movies; how he left behind an older brother and a team at West County High School. Bryan couldn’t help but feel compelled by the coincidence to do something.
So, he emailed the high school’s administrator and sent a copy of his book with a note of sympathy. That’s how the book made its way to Dan’s home and sat on his shelf for the next year – until that very December day that he chose to finally pick it up and thumb through it.
That First Pitch
A year prior, when Dan was still in a fog, he kept his promise to support Ethan’s teammates and attend their games that resumed after a respectful period of time after Ethan’s accident. But that was, for Dan, “one of the toughest things I could do.”
He just didn’t know at the time that it would also rescue him. After he was asked to throw out a first pitch in his son’s honor, Dan sat down in the bleachers. The school principal came up to him to give him a book, A Year of Playing Catch, written by someone whose name Dan couldn’t ignore.
It Was Meant to Be
Seeing Ethan D. Bryan’s name on a book about baseball “floored me,” Dan recalled. “I stared at the cover for over a year.” When he finally read the book, he loved the author’s whimsical personal account of tossing a baseball with someone new for 365 days in a row.
He picked up the phone and called the author to say thank you and tell him how inspired he was. There was something about the idea of playing catch for a year that resonated with him.
An Aha Moment
Dan explained how it was the idea of a ritual and a communal grieving: of creating a daily journal of baseball. “Tossing this ball,” he though at the time, “is going to be my vehicle to open up and talk about Ethan. It’s going to keep us close. That’s what’s going to make me heal.”
Then, Dan made a plan. “I just determined that I was going to use that leather ball and the red seams, and I was going to use that as a form of therapy,” he said. And so, Dan’s year of playing catch began.
“Baseball Seams to Heal”
Dan recruited former teachers and coaches; he posted invitations on Facebook. “I hope to meet and toss the baseball with those I currently know and future friends I have not yet met,” he wrote in his pitch.
He went out to his car and took out Ethan’s glove and a baseball and gave his new project a name: “Baseball Seams to Heal.” He started the year in the right way and on the right foot: on New Year’s Day of 2022. His first catch partner was Tycen, the last one to see Ethan alive.
Everyday on the Field
The next day, Dan was back out there with the ball and the mitt. The second day he tossed the ball with his pastor. On day three, he played catch with another father from the area who had also lost a child.
As the world moved on and the pandemic kept Major League Baseball at a standstill, Dan kept heading out to the field to play catch. He asked strangers and reconnected with old friends. “I’ll never forget him,” Dan said. “But I’ll never have new memories.” What was important for Dan was to not lose his old memories of Ethan.
The Way to Keep the Memories
“I don’t want to feel like I’m ever in a position where I’ve forgotten an important memory.” In the early days of his year-long mission, Dan pondered an idea: if he does the one thing Ethan loved the most, maybe he’ll remember another piece of his son.
If he could share his grief of losing a child, he could come to understand it. Maybe there is something to playing catch that he never considered before. “People open up,” he said. The next day, as he tossed the ball to his next catching partner, he told a story about Ethan.
Story After Story
As he tossed the ball, he began to tell a story and pointed up to a light pole near the school, where he had watched Ethan’s last baseball practice. Those who played catch with Dan got to hear a story about Ethan, like how he loved listening to Lewis Capaldi and Sam Smith.
They learned how he modeled his left-hand approach after Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals, or how he was that unlikely high school jock who also enjoyed performing Calum Scott’s cover of “Dancing on My Own.”
Rain or Shine
Dan played catch rain or shine. On a nearly freezing February day, Dan pulled into the parking lot at West County High School, where a sheet of ice was still covering the baseball field. But a promise is a promise – he grabbed his son’s glove and prepared for another game of catch.
That particular day, Dan played with John Simily, a high school coach from a different school. The two men stepped onto the slushy field. It was Dan’s 59th game of catch that year. It had been one year and 107 days since Ethan passed.
Who Knew Catch Was So Cathartic?
For Dan, telling those stories was cathartic. He never expected that an activity as classic and as simple as playing catch would help him open up. “I’m not afraid to show my emotion now,” Dan said; “I’ve become vulnerable.”
An American poet by the name of Donald Hall once wrote: “Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch,” and Dan’s journey is living proof. “There’s something about the physical act of playing catch,” said Bryan, the author, explained. “The gatekeeper in your brain that usually prevents you from sharing intimate details relaxes. You establish trust.”
Helping Other People Heal
Dan had people from California, Florida, Texas and as far away as Israel – even entire teams – who reached out to him after hearing his mission, asking him if they could join him in a toss. Dan started to realize that he was helping other people deal with their own losses.
“The thing I didn’t anticipate was being a part of someone else’s healing,” he said. “It’s become a really beautiful thing.” The first one who needed healing of his own, was Ethan’s friend Tycen, Dan’s first catch partner.
The First, Important Catch
“If anyone needed to have that game of catch, it was him,” Dan affirmed. While playing with Tycen, the painful talk slowly turned into “good, fun memories,” Dan recalled. Tycen told him about the times the two teenagers drove a golf cart around the community and picked the spots to swim in based on where the girls were.
That first, meaningful game stretched past sunset. “We threw that ball until we couldn’t see it anymore,” Dan described. Another catch partner was a man named Mike Newhouse, who lost his daughter, Katlynn, a classmate of Ethan’s…
Two Grieving Dads
His daughter was also killed in a car crash on the same two-lane highway where Ethan’s accident took place. Newhouse didn’t want to impinge on Dan’s grieving process, but he was grateful for the chance to unpack his own mourning when Dan invited him to come toss the ball.
And as the ball flew back and forth, tears ran down Newhouse’s cheek. But he soon found himself smiling when he remembered a photograph of their two kids together at a school dance. Newhouse got to share his own memories and make tiny steps in his own recovery.
When Healing Is Contagious
“The more you throw the ball, the more you start thinking of things,” Newhouse told Dan that day. “Now I’m thinking about the good things.” Then there was a man named Len Pader, who was visiting his wife’s family in Missouri (they lived in Israel).
Pader lost his mother suddenly around the same time Ethan died. He reached out to Dan after seeing his story online. “To hear from him, and then share my experiences, and see where we’re able to overlap in the grief and the process of coming out of that and remember our loved ones is really amazing,” Pader said.
The Day He Played Catch With Pujols
There was one day in particular that was especially special for Dan. One hot summer day, Dan, who was invited to Busch stadium in St. Louis, threw out a ceremonial first pitch before a Cardinals game. His catch partner that day was someone he never met yet knew well.
“Are you kidding me?” Dan said as Albert Pujols came to the dugout. The two fathers slapped hands and hugged each other. “It’s pretty amazing what you’re doing,” Pujols told Dan. “I appreciate you. Thank you for letting me be a part of your journey.”
On His 18th Birthday
Once Pujols, a father of five, heard about Dan’s story, he was eager to become a participant. The only problem was finding a date on the Cardinals’ home schedule that also worked for the team, the film crew, and for Dan (who was still working full-time as the city administrator in Desloge).
Finally, the day June 24 was offered to Dan, which was basically a sign considering it was Ethan’s birthday. So, on the day of his son’s would-be 18th birthday, Dan played catch with a future Hall of Famer.
Chatting on the Field With Pujols
Just as he did with his other catch partners, Dan and Pujols chatted while tossing the ball. “What’s your first memory of baseball as a young boy?” he asked Pujols. “Well, I was like about 5 or 6 years old, following my dad around,” Pujols replied.
“He used to play softball, so I used to take his glove and he used to give me ground balls and play catch with me between games. Really young. Started really young.” Dan told him how Ethan was the same.
The Meaning of Catch
Let it be known that catch is more than just a baseball activity. Researchers have found that Parkinson’s patients benefit from playing catch with either a real or a virtual ball. And studies have shown that playing catch can improve one’s mood and mental health.
John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, compared playing catch to a “deep, cosmic joy.” It has a way of taking you back in time, to baseball practice, to tossing the ball with dad or a sibling, to a special moment when you shared something and knew it would return.
National Play Catch Week
June 19 has become National Play Catch Week, which happens to be very close to Ethan’s birthday. On June 24 of 2022, Ethan would have turned 18. On most days, Dan thinks about his son’s life and what his son will miss.
“In the beginning,” he said, “I just wanted to spread the word, let people know who Ethan was, for those that didn’t get to meet him, and keeping his memory alive with me. It’s become a lot more than a game of catch.”
The Year Isn’t Up Yet
A few days after his day with Pujols, Dan posted on his Facebook page: “What an honor and privilege to be joined by such an amazing baseball player… Thank you Albert for honoring Ethan and just having the interest to be one of the 365 catch sessions here in 2022.”
At the time of this article’s publication, Dan is still completing his mission. He’s not entirely sure what the next chapter of his life will look like. But it’s clear that he’s already learned an important lesson.
The Healing Power of Baseball
Dan said that he never comes to any of the catches with an outline of what he wants to talk about, “because everyone’s different.” He explained, “I just want it to be whatever’s on somebody’s heart, whatever’s on my heart.”
He’s learned this year that “healing can happen in many different forms.” He had never personally talked or experienced someone “who went through healing the way that I’m trying to heal, going through these grief cycles and finding this healing from within.” And since he feels comfortable with baseball, it’s allowed him to open up.
Ethan Bryan’s Year of Catch
As for Ethan D. Bryan, the author who originally played the 365-day catch game, his mission took place in 2018. He was 44 at the time, and the one constant in his life was playing catch each and every day.
Even when it was 1 degree Fahrenheit on a January day, Bryan and his daughter Sophie tossed the ball outside. For the rest of that year, Bryan would play catch with former MLB players, friends, and even strangers. For him, it was a way to start a conversation – to get a back-and-forth going.