By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Chief Editor
HELEN – With a whiffle bat in hand and his dad throwing pitches at him, Jake Crooks was unaware of the path of perseverance he was creating through baseball at age 3.
Now a junior on the Helena High School baseball team, Crooks fell in love with the sport at age 8 and put in hours of hard work to become the best.
Crooks, however, is not your usual baseball player. Since the age of 7, he persevered through a rare vision condition which resulted in the loss of the majority of his vision in his right eye and the loss of some vision in his left eye.
“It made me a lot stronger,” Crooks said. “I have gifts that I didn’t think I had when I was younger because of my illness. I didn’t know if I would make this team or if I would be able to do anything else, and I went through trials and tribulations, but I made it.
Change your view
At the age of 5, Crooks was diagnosed with X-linked juvenile retinoschisis, a disease that impairs vision from childhood and can worsen on contact.
In more severe cases, there is separation of the retinal layers or leakage of blood vessels into the retina, leading to severe vision impairment, which Crooks faced in his right eye.
After his diagnosis, however, he was fine for the next two years until he hit his head against the monkey bars one day at recess.
“I was fine,” Crooks said. “I just had a big goose egg on my head.”
But three days later, in the middle of a baseball game, Crooks found himself third when suddenly his vision went blurry.
“Everything went black,” he said. ” I did not see anything. It was like I had big clouds following my vision.
The next day, his parents took him to different doctors to find out what was going on.
Crooks was eventually diagnosed with a detached retina, which is where the back of the eye detaches from the layer of blood vessels.
The condition itself is rare and the detachment even rarer.
However, that was just the beginning for Crooks.
He had six detached retinas in his right eye and four additional surgeries in his right eye, which ultimately resulted in the loss of most vision in his right eye.
“In those surgeries I forget which one it was, we think it was nine or 10, my optic nerve went pale. Since then I only have light perception in my right eye. In big it’s like i cover my left eye and i can only tell where a light is coming from i can’t make out an object or really anything i can tell you when something is on but nothing else.
Find your way
With the loss of vision in his right eye, playing the sport he loves has presented its fair share of challenges over the past few years in key aspects of the game, such as hitting a baseball and playing ball.
From third to sixth grade, Crooks said his vision wasn’t as bad. He played on the pitch during those years, and he could struggle to find the ball at times, but it wasn’t until seventh grade that he had that 10th operation and his optic nerve deteriorated that he really felt the impact.
“Nowadays, if I’m playing wrestling with people, if I’m playing wrestling with somebody throwing hard, I don’t see it,” Crooks said.
He recalled times in eighth grade and first grade when he broke his lip throwing with someone and broke his nose another time while warming up in the bullpen. relievers because he never saw the ball coming.
The time he broke his nose, he didn’t see two in a row before the third jumped in his face.
Thanks to this, Crooks had to make adjustments. He knew giving up playing his favorite sport wasn’t an option, so he worked to adapt.
“It certainly caused very poor depth perception, but it also presented a huge challenge,” Crooks said. “With him, I learned to adapt. I found that when I tell people to throw it on my right side with my left eye in that direction, I see it much better. Or with me being a thrower only, we do hits instead of digital cues. It was really great to adapt to these changes.
He also credited former teammate Brooks Tolbert, who also suffered from mild visual impairments but continued to work to play baseball.
“It was inspiring to know that he was part of a team that was really good and that he contributed to that team,” Crooks said. “It inspired me a lot to want to be that type of player and not feel sorry for myself in the sense of ‘woe to me’. I didn’t want to find excuses, I wanted to overcome the adversity of ‘be banned with what I could do in certain aspects of the game.
He did, however, have another scare and test of faith in February as he sat in class and his left eye started giving him problems.
“I couldn’t even read the big E on the chart,” Crooks said. “It also happened sporadically. I was just sitting in class and all of a sudden I couldn’t see the board.
He said it was a terrifying moment and the doctor’s appointments that followed didn’t make it any easier.
“It was scary because some of the doctors we spoke to thought it was a detached retina in my good eye,” Crooks said. “We were very worried about it. I was texting everyone and letting them know how uncertain I was.
Crooks said by the grace of God it was just a haemorrhage and he missed a few days of school but can finally see well enough again to do what he used to do.
He currently has 20-40 vision in his left eye, but if he is affected there is a risk that the retina will detach and his left eye will also lose vision.
Still, he fights for his love of the game and he doesn’t let anyone know he’s dealing with more than the rest of the team.
“We take what we have for granted and we can’t really imagine the courage it takes to do what he does every day,” said head coach PJ Guy. “Everyday life for us, during the season, you go out and you really don’t realize there’s anything wrong with him because he doesn’t give you any signs or attitude that he has dealing with something different, even though he is. Seeing the difficulties he goes through and the way he handles them is inspiring for his coaches and teammates.
Crooks has taken this approach throughout his career as he continues to progress as a baseball player, even changing his mechanic from an over-the-top move to dropping it to be an inferior version.
He worked closely with former Helena pitcher Robbie Lively, who also used a drop arm lunge to pitch and was successful in doing so for the Huskies.
Crooks said he hopes this translates to success on the court early in his senior season so he can make a big impact for the Huskies.
See what others can’t
Despite the visual impairments, Crooks sees other aspects of sport and life more clearly than many his age due to his adversity.
It’s one of the reasons coaches and players consider him a leader for the Huskies, who are in the middle of the playoffs.
“Jake contributes to this team in so many ways,” Guy said. “He contributes with his work ethic day in and day out. Whether he’s an everyday player or not, I think he’s the most respected player on our baseball team. He deserved this because of the type of player and teammate he is. The guys also know he’s taking care of something the others don’t have to take care of. They respect him for the way he wears it by not acting differently. He is first and foremost a teammate. »
Known as “Pastor Jake” to much of the team, he also doesn’t shy away from his faith, which is another key to him having the respect of his teammates, according to Guy.
“He really affects us all and inspires me how bold he is with his faith,” Guy said. “He is everything we could ask of a baseball player Helena, and we are the lucky ones who get to be a part of his life.”
Perhaps most impressive, however, is Crooks’ ability to get a realistic view of what playing high school baseball can do for him by learning more about life than the statistics that come with the game.
Guy said his response to difficult situations, including his visual impairments, is something that separates him from most teenagers.
“It’s a game of chess,” Crooks said. “You’re going to fail anyway, and you have to adjust to get better. That’s also how life is. When you fail in life, you have to pick yourself up. You cannot stand still. You cannot dwell on it. It happened for a reason, now let’s move on and find out why it happened.
That prospect is a big reason Crooks said he doesn’t fear what lies ahead when it comes to his vision. He said he realizes how blessed he is to play the game at the moment and do other activities such as just driving a car.
It’s that faith and vision that has been infectious for the entire team as they not only look to pursue a special run in the playoffs, but also prepare for life as they move forward.