DUI victim Tufano hopes Matt Bush can right his ways

Anthony Tufano was the victim of the accident that put former No. 1 draft pick Matt Bush in prison. He was knocked off his motorcycle and run over, but still hopes the young former player can do some good with his life.

Anthony Tufano examines the helmet that saved his life.

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Anthony Tufano was not a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays. The 73-year-old had no idea that the Rays had invited the exceptionally talented -- and alcoholic -- pitcher Matt Bush, the No. 1 overall draft pick by the San Diego Padres in 2004, to spring training in 2012 and had no reason to care. Nevertheless, the paths of these two men momentarily crossed and forever altered both of their lives.

That spring, Tony Tufano was a grieving man. Patti, the love of his life, his wife of 50 years, had passed 10 months prior. He saw a therapist three days a week to work through his loss, and filled his days with his grandchildren and his motorcycle.

March 22 began like any other day for Tufano.

"I was babysitting, up in Northport, Florida, my youngest granddaughter. When I left, it was light out and I got just past 776 on 41. I remember coming up to the next light," Tufano said during our visit last month in a Port Charlotte coffee shop. "I wanted to get into the left lane and nothing was in the left lane ahead of me to the light. I checked the mirror, and I see nothing. I turn my head to look at the blind spot, there wasn't anything. And I went out into the lane, I don't remember anything for like 10 days. Everything else was told to me."

Matt Bush had clipped Tufano's motorcycle, then run over him as he lay on the ground. It's unreasonable to assume his brain would recall a single bit of data, his life only spared by his helmet.

It was with a perpetually heavy heart that Tufano traveled. He spoke romantically of his rides with Patti, her with arms around him, a Hallmark snapshot of retirement in the US. He's still struggling with the grieving process, seemingly innocuous daily activities are reminders of his sweetheart. One particular instance had Tufano broken down sobbing in a grocery store after seeing a box of Patti's favorite peanut butter crackers.

"I couldn't even say her name without losing it," Tufano shared with me.

Tufano is beyond confident that the day of the accident, had Patti been alive, she would have been glued to him as the bike hit the pavement.

"She would have been because I was baby-sitting. If I was doing something with the kids, we always went together."

Perhaps if she'd been with him, the two would have selected a different route. Maybe they would have stopped for gelato just long enough to avoid the scene and perhaps Matt Bush wouldn't have hit anyone that day. Instead, Tufano wrestles with pain and lack of balance daily.

Prior to the wreck, Tufano was an avid runner who began performing a daily routine of push-ups beginning at age 26. To have that athletic rhythm removed is every bit as excruciating for him as his ailments. Rob a man of his ability to exercise comfortably, and you've stolen a bit of his freedom.

"I have a stiff neck," Tufano gripes. "I had the first eight vertebrae fractured, and it's stiff. I do some exercises rotating my head, and it sounds like you're at a crap table when I make all those sounds. I used to be able to keep my legs straight and put my hands flat on the floor. I can't even bow down to my ankles. I think with an effort I could get back to, as a goal, touch my toes. I would grab my toes sitting on the floor, and put my head into my knees.  That's how flexible I was. I don't even think about doing that now."

It requires the forgiveness of a saint to cope with Tufano's ailments, loss of strength and inability to be the physically active man he recently was. Once in a blue moon, he has to fight the urge to be less than compassionate. He directs that urge into an experienced elder mindset.

Bush knows how much he took away from Tufano that day.

Tony Tufano in the hospital after the accident.

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"I would just apologize to him (if I could see him again)," Bush told me when I visited him in prison. "I would let him know how sorry I am, and that, in the future, I would do everything in my power to never have to put another human being in that situation, where I might be out there, putting someone (in) harm's way. And I'd really just let him know how much it really hurt me to realize that I came close to killing him, and it's very, very difficult to deal with."

If it sounds like a teenager authentically trying to prove his remorse to his father for acting up, the shoe fits. Tufano has fatherly qualities, having been there and done that. Bush has screwed up and is begging for that chance to prove that he's better than this. Tony isn't focused on the past. Instead, he takes the perspective of a mentor, one with the wisdom of someone who has been there before. 

"It would be great if the kid got into education, got into business, got into anything, got back into sports, this might have been a blessing for him, for both of us."

I was curious what Mr. Tufano, who expressed the desire to sit with Bush one-on-one, would say to him. He was firm and frank in his delivery, yet understanding while he role-played with me.

"Yes, it started when you were 18. I know what I was like when I was 18. I just did wild things. But now you've got a chance to straighten your life out. I don't want to see you go down the road, 'Oh yeah, that's the guy that ran over the guy on the motorcycle.' I'd like to see him get back into sports. The press would jump on that."

When I visited with Bush, he spoke about how he still carries that dream.

"More than anything, my wish is to be successful again, to hopefully be able to turn things around," Bush shared. "I still have the dream of playing again. I still feel like I can play, you know? If I can get a year under my belt where I can get back into the game, and even if I get a chance to play, that would be great."

"It would be great if the kid got into education, got into business, got into anything, got back into sports, this might have been a blessing for him, for both of us," Tufano said.

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He knows, however, that there is something bigger than his individual dream.

"But at the same time, there's other things that I can do, and more than anything, I don't want to fall back to ever having a drink again, putting my family through the pain and the loss. And I don't ever want to come back to jail or prison ever again. It's just -- it's a nightmare that no one could possibly want to go through."

These two men, Bush and Tufano are now linked for life and can inspire growth in the other. Bush needs to be forgiven to gain closure. Tufano has naturally, rhythmically, and gracefully released any grudge he may have held. Bush proving himself worthy of Tufano's forgiveness may be key to his recovery. Tufano is retired. He has time, experience, and a deep well of patience.

"I would say, 'Look, you're a young man, it's unfortunate this happened. The good news for both of us is that I'm here,'" Tufano said. "'I don't know how good you are. You'll be 30 or 31 when you get out, and that's young as an athlete today. You may have a chance. But if you don't, do something positive.'"

Now that I've experienced, firsthand, the gifts that Tufano has to offer Bush, I can't help but fantasize about the two men inhabiting the same, sunny ballpark somewhere. I can imagine Tufano behind home plate, hot dog in hand, calmly watching as Bush warms up for his first Opening Day in the uniform he was meant to wear.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. In this case, the teacher may have arrived on a motorcycle with an open seat, recently vacated to make room for a new passenger.

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