Sixteen months after his life nearly ended due to a severe head injury, Southern Miss redshirt senior Michael Gilbert stepped into the batter's box on Feb. 20 to a rousing ovation at Pete Taylor Park.
Those in attendance realized the gravity of the moment and what it meant for Gilbert, who is still working his way back to 100 percent health, to find his way onto the field in the opening weekend of baseball season.
"A flood of emotions went through me," Gilbert said. "It was a surreal thing. I don't remember it like I was on the field. I was just taking it all in. It's a moment I'll definitely remember."
It's the terrifying moment from Oct. 2, 2014, that Gilbert can't recall that caused panicked concern from his family and the USM community.
Gilbert, a Saucier native and Harrison Central product, sustained the head injury during an offseason workout with his USM teammates at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
He remembers waking up that October morning, heading to the stadium and the minutes leading up to the accident. The week following the accident is lost from his memory.
The injury happened during a drill that involved three players, including Gilbert, carrying a log single file with the log on their right shoulder. Gilbert was at the front of the line. He lost his footing and the log struck him on the head.
Gilbert was rushed to nearby Forrest General Hospital and then to University Medical Center in Jackson, where he was listed in critical, but stable condition. He suffered a basilar skull fracture, which is a fracture at the base of the skull that stretches from ear to ear.
"We were in total shock," said Bill Gilbert, Michael's father. "It's something you'd never expect. Seeing him go from a thriving young man to near death, it was a very difficult situation. It's something that was totally off the wall. You go from talking to him the night before, to getting that phone call the next morning. We were at a loss."
Tough road back
Friends, family and members of the USM community all came to visit Michael while he was in the hospital.
He was released four days later on Oct. 6, but the long and difficult recovery was just beginning. The left and right sides of his face were paralyzed. He battled double vision and constant headaches. For almost four months, he couldn't smile or blink his eyes.
Gilbert's parents traveled with Michael to UMC weekly to have tests run and to undergo therapy. Doctors tested him with different exercises to see how best to bring back facial movement. His ears had to be cleaned regularly due to bleeding from the injury. One of Michael's eyes had to be sewn shut so it wouldn't dry out.
The recovery was a challenging time for Michael, who was living with his parents in Saucier at the time.
"It was tough to have a conversation," he said. "I didn't want to talk to anybody. I was upset at having everything taken away. I didn't know what the rest of my life would be like. It was stressful, but I had hundreds of Southern Miss fans that showed support through social media. I had coaches talking to me and other players and families reaching out through phone calls. I had the USM family here in Hattiesburg and my family back home in Gulfport and all around Saucier. I got phone calls from all over the country."
By mid January, Michael began to feel the nerves slowly healing in his face.
"I could feel little twitches as that spring went on," he said. "Going into April and May, it seemed like it slowly started to come alive again and things came back. Eventually, my vision was correcting little by little."
By May of last year, Gilbert's vision was almost 100 percent. He still deals with double vision if he cuts his eyes all the way to the left, but that's not an issue in the batter's box. He will always have ringing in his ears and his face is not yet healed 100 percent.
Dr. Scott Piland, a teacher in USM's School of Kinesiology, took the extra time to work with Michael during his recovery to see if he could still retain information well. He was enrolled in one class and he received his usual grade of an A.
"That gave him a little boost," Michael's father said. "He realized he can still do it and the rest is history. It was very rewarding."
'This isn't the end'
By June of 2015, Michael had received the OK from doctors to begin his comeback attempt at baseball. The biggest obstacle was testing himself in the batting cage, but his swing returned with time and he regained his footing on the diamond.
However, Gilbert had one more challenge ahead before he could join his teammates for the 2016 campaign. He suffered a knee injury, a torn ACL, in August, putting his senior campaign in serious doubt.
"The way the doctors were talking about a timetable for a return, it would almost be impossible to play in my senior season," Michael said. "I busted my butt. I was up at the field every day for four or five hours trying to rehab it back. They said I wouldn't be ready for opening day. After going through all that and people telling me over and over that I wouldn't be able to play, you have that in the back of your mind.
"Being able to step back on the diamond this spring and with the season we're having, it really has been something special. When I was back at home, a lot of people didn't know if I would play again. I told them, 'This isn't the end.'"
Michael was cleared to play less than two weeks before opening day, giving him little time to get ready for the season after not facing live pitching for a year and a half.
In the second contest of the opening weekend, USM head coach Scott Berry gave him the nod to enter the game.
Even Michael's father admits he doubted early on that his son could make the return to baseball, but his former high school coach at Harrison Central, Pat Olmi, knew he had it in him.
"If anybody could overcome what he's overcome and get back to where he was, it was him," Olmi said. "His faith and his work ethic, all that is what got him through it. His mentality was he wasn't going to let this beat him."
For a proud USM program that's worked its way back to become a national contender this season, Berry points to Michael as playing a major role in that rebound.
"It's been an inspiration for everybody," Berry said. "First of all, he has his quality of life back. That's the most important thing. Baseball was certainly way down the line."
Michael serves as a key role player for the USM baseball team, which is set to end a four-year postseason drought, and he recently graduated from USM's School of Kinesiology with a GPA of 4.0. He has never made a B as a college student and he plans to take the MCAT exam in June with hopes of enrolling in medical school.
Michael, who played his first two years of college ball at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, has seen time at third base and in the outfield, showing off the slick fielding that's always been a part of his game. He has played in 29 games, batting .186 with a homer and nine RBIs.
Michael's best game of the season came in a 5-1 win at Ole Miss on April 13 when he went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles and an RBI. He also hit a grand slam, the first home run of his career, in an 11-0 win over UAB on April 17.
Michael has a better appreciation for every moment on the field.
"The Ole Miss game was obviously one of those mountains you look forward to," he said. "When you have games like that in that type of environment, you have to step back and think about it. If you had told me a year and a half ago I'd have that game at Ole Miss, I would not have thought that was even possible. It was something pretty special. It's something I'll cherish."