Ashland High center fielder Max Gordon has battled through adversity to return to the field for his senior season. - Jim Craven

The courage to move on

ASHLAND — He has told this story many times, but it doesn't stop Max Gordon from sharing it with a hint of bewilderment as he dresses for baseball practice early this week in the North Mountain Park locker room.

The date is Jan. 2, and he's riding shotgun as his older brother Nick drives his 1998 Subaru Impreza west on Highway 62 near Eagle Point.

The two brothers are having the time of their lives as they return from a ski trip at Mount Bachelor.

"I remember me and my brother going down the road, driving and listening to Led Zeppelin or something," Gordon says, halting the process of tying his cleats to give full attention to his words. "We were kinda just having a good ol' time and then, that's it. That's the last memory pretty much."

The holes in the rest of the story have since been filled in from police reports and eyewitness accounts.

The moment when 20-year-old Nick entered the opposite lane to pass another car is only on paper, as is the description of him swerving back into his lane to avoid a collision with an oncoming 2005 Toyota Highlander.

The ensuing fishtail that brought the car back into harm's way is nowhere to be found when the 17-year-old Ashland High senior recounts the day's events.

But the moment he regained consciousness in the hospital, that memory is as fresh today as ever.

"Waking up in the hospital, the first thing I thought was something's wrong with my brother," says Gordon. "And the second thing was I'm perfectly fine. I don't know. It's kinda weird how everything turned around."

The three-car crash ultimately claimed the life of his brother and left the affable teenager in critical condition with severe head trauma and a lacerated spleen, among other injuries. A bout of pneumonia also slowed Gordon's progress although, in his mind, he was always fit as a fiddle.

"I was actually reading all the stories from the paper on the internet the other day, and I read a quote from (Ashland football coach Charlie Hall) where he said, 'He wasn't supposed to make it through the night,'" says Gordon, who was an all-conference defensive back last fall for the Grizzlies. "That kinda set me back because I was like, 'Whoa, I was that far?'"

While the true nature of his own health may have been a mystery, the outpouring of love from the Ashland community and his friends on the football and baseball teams at Ashland was overwhelming in the weeks that followed the crash.

Gordon also received a huge gift basket from the North Medford baseball team, including a baseball with a heart instead of the usual seams and all the coaches' and players' signatures.

"That was pretty cool of them to do that," he says. "They're a good group of guys."

While Gordon would have been well within his rights to step away from it all to heal mentally and physically from the devastating event, that thought never entered his mind. When baseball coach Don Senestraro came to check on him in mid-January, his resolve was clear on the matter.

"I remember talking to him in his hospital bed, asking if there's anything you want me to tell your buddies today when we meet for the first time as a program and he said, 'Yeah, tell them I'll be there to play center field for them,'" the fourth-year coach recalls.

Sure enough, Gordon was on the field in February — much to the chagrin of doctors who wanted him to take it a little easier than he knows how. He was told to hold off on diving for the baseball for a while, but he couldn't resist. He was told not to expect too much out of his body early on, but he couldn't help but be frustrated by preseason results.

It wasn't until teammate Luke Jannusch set him straight that Gordon finally began to relax a little on the diamond.

"His line to me was, 'Dude, you cheated death ... don't worry about it,'" Gordon says with a slight smile.

And so he hasn't.

He freely admits he's not as focused on baseball as he has been in the past. With the accident and the challenges a senior year brings, as well as the passing of a beloved grandfather only a few weeks before his own crash, Gordon has had enough on his mind.

"Now I go out there and just play ball," he says. "It's kinda like when I was in Little League, I don't think about it too much. This year I've just gone out there knowing it can be taken away pretty quick so you might as well go out and have fun with it."

The end result has Gordon playing some of the best baseball he's ever played for the Grizzlies. Entering Tuesday's game against Crater, the leadoff batter was hitting .412 with 14 runs and 12 RBIs. In 34 at-bats, he's only struck out once.

"Most guys you ask for 110 percent, but he gives 150 percent, and I'm not exaggerating," says Senestraro. "He'll give you every ounce of energy he has in his body every single play. He gets the team going and is just a great teammate."

A highlight to Gordon's season came a few weeks ago, when the 5-foot-7, 160-pounder belted a grand slam against Eagle Point. It was his first-ever home run on a full-size diamond and caught him as much by surprise as anyone.

"I don't try for it," Gordon says of clearing the fence. "I just kinda got under it and it went farther than I thought it would. That worked out pretty well."

As has his return to the sport he loves.

"Getting back to baseball was a way of just getting back to normal," he confides. "It's just helped me get my mind off things a little bit."

"There are times when I think about how my brother should be here with me right now, though," Gordon adds, noting he looks to the sky for Nick every time he steps to the plate. "It is all taking awhile. I don't want to forget, but I kinda want to get past it to where I can kinda just live life. But I don't know ... it's tough to lose your best friend."

By all accounts, though, Gordon has been a true inspiration for how he's handled all his hardships. He's kept his head high and continues to bring a positive spirit to those around him.

"The kid is just a trooper," says Senestraro. "I don't know any other kid that could get through it all like he has."

As Gordon sees it, he really has no choice. It wouldn't be fair to Nick if he let up in any way. His brother was a free-spirited, fun-loving person who would take to anyone in a heartbeat. It wouldn't do him justice to sit and wallow over hard times.

Which is why that last memory is such a great memory. That smile, those jokes, that feeling of true comfort and love.

"That's a good memory," Gordon says of those final moments with Nick. "There's some part of me where I do want to remember the wreck, but I'm almost happy that I don't. I'm better off this way."

With that, the chapter ends. But Gordon's story is far from over as he trots off to join his "other" brothers for afternoon practice.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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