MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Jon Wilhite walks through Marine Avenue Park in Manhattan Beach.
He meets, greets and flashes a smile as bright as the sun that starts to make an appearance early Saturday afternoon.
Wilhite is the draw — many people just want to say hello.
Just above the hood on the blue jacket he’s wearing is a visible scar that travels from his neck up the back of his head.
He’s an example for all in attendance of a walking miracle.
He’s the lone survivor of the famous car crash on April 9, 2009, that took the lives of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and friends Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson.
On Saturday, the Manhattan Beach community, members of the Cal State Fullerton athletic department and cheer squad, Angels vice president Tim Mead and pitcher Jered Weaver dedicated a Commemorative Wall at the Big Marine Field at Marine Avenue Park.
The wall reads at the top:
“Let every action, every reaction, every thought and every emotion be based upon love, care and development of our youth.”
And on the bottom:
“On April 9, 2009, Henry Pearson, Courtney Stewart and Nick Adenhart were killed by a drunk driver. Jon Wilhite miraculously survived and recovered. They remain an inspiration to us all.”
“It’s going to do a lot of good,” Wilhite said. “It starts the dialogue of drinking and driving between a young kid and his family early on. Kids are real impressionable at a young age so I think it’s going to do a lot of good. Manhattan Beach stepped up and put some money and funds (for the wall).”
The dedication preceded a game between Mira Costa — Wilhite and Pearson’s school — and El Segundo.
Wilhite made the ceremonial first catch on a toss from Weaver before giving a resounding “play ball” on the microphone.
There was a time when no one knew if Wilhite would ever be able to utter those words or any ever again.
“The first short while in the hospital was tough. We didn’t know if he was going to make it,” said Wilhite’s dad, Tony.
He spent months in the hospital after undergoing surgery to fuse his head and neck together. The accident caused internal decapitation. A diagnosis that takes the lives of greater than 95 percent of people who suffer the injury. Dr Nitin Bhatia, who performed Wilhite’s surgery, said there are only four known survivors.
As Jon recovered in the hospital, current Cal State Fullerton athletic director Brian Quinn placed a Titans baseball jersey at the foot of his bed.
“Our thought was as soon as his eyes open, he’s going to see the Cal State Fullerton jersey and we wanted that to be the first thing he ever saw,” Quinn said to the few hundred in attendance.
Wilhite, the former Titans catcher, cracked a smile.
In fact, it was the efforts of people like Quinn and the Manhattan Beach community that helped Wilhite along the way.
“Look at all these people, it’s awesome. This is why I was doing so good. This has helped me through my recovery no doubt,” said Jon. “All the love and support from friends and family and even people I don’t know. It’s awesome.”
Today he walks around as a pillar of strength for those who come into contact with him. He’s able to live what he calls his “new normal” life. His coordination isn’t what it once was and his neck will never be the same. As he puts it, “I can’t really turn my neck too much. My head’s not on a swivel.”
He works for his dad in the freight business.
“I was doing it because I was bored,” Jon joked. “Not even getting paid. I was that bored. I went to work for free.”
Now a working member of his father’s company, he’s still trying to get the hang of it. “I had to kind of break him in a little bit. He (had) a tough time adjusting (to) sitting behind a desk after playing sports his whole life,” Tony said.
The Pearsons and Stewarts have drawn strength from the Wilhites and vice versa.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Tony said. “I don’t know how he does it physically, mentally, emotionally. I’m surprised by it but he does it with a smile and always picking people up. He’s an amazing young man.”