MASON CITY – There was only one home run that mattered the night of NIACC baseball’s game against Luther JV on Monday, May 7.
But it was a different home run, no pitcher or batter involved.
Just the head coach, Travis Hergert, and his son, Brody, rounding the bases together, his team cheering them on while sporting yellow, red, light and dark blue puzzle-piece decorated jerseys.
It was Autism Awareness night at Roosevelt Field, and for Hergert, it’s personal.
“When Brody was born, he had mild to moderate hearing loss in his right ear,” Hergert said. “Over the course of time, we went through a lot of different tests to find out to what degree he had lost some hearing, during that time he lost the language and speech development he needed.”
Hergert would realize the impact when Brody was almost three years-old, he wouldn’t respond to his name and was limited in sentence structure when he spoke. After various tests at the Children’s Autism Center in Clear Lake, Brody was diagnosed on the spectrum with expressive and receptive impairment.
He’s been undergoing speech therapy ever since.
“He’s grown leaps and bounds,” Hergert said. “I thought it would be fun for us to give back to hundreds of other families with children with autism.”
Hergert did his research, calling head coach Travis Lellamend at Crowder College in Neosho, Missouri, a program that had just started an Autism Awareness baseball game.
“He just said he was thinking of doing it,” Lellamend said. “And I said, ‘Man I tell you what: it was the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had no matter how organized or unorganized it was, it’s worth putting the time into getting it together,’”
Crowder College’s Autism Awareness game benefits the Maddox Hill Center, which serves children with autism and developmental disabilities in the Neosho School District. In its first year, the Autism Awareness game raised $800 and this year, $1,000. Lellamend said it made his baseball players feel part of a community, serving a bigger purpose than just playing junior college baseball.
Hergert thought it could do the same for his team, and when NIACC held its first Autism Awareness baseball game last year, the community surpassed his expectations, raising $4,000 from selling t-shirts and taking free-will donations for the Children’s Autism Center in Clear Lake.
This year, Hergert had the puzzle-piece jerseys made for auction, in addition to selling t-shirts, hats and auctioning off gift baskets. The team raised over $6,200.
Dr. Jesse Logue, director of behavioral services at the Children’s Autism Center, said that the money from the fundraisers has provided additional services for the patients.
“Sometimes, if we haven’t established an insurance provider for a patient, we may dip into fundraising dollars until more permanent source can be found,” Dr. Logue said. “Other things like sensory materials, books, visual schedules, token boards… Sensory items are a big thing we go through, families can rent free of charge to try out because they are expensive to purchase on their own.”
Dr. Logue adds the center is also starting to incorporate more use of technology with I-pads and NOVA chat tablets with the funds.
But Hergert wanted to do more than raise money. Inspired by the way his players embraced his kids Brody and Owen, Hergert partnered with the autism center to implement “Balltism.”
Balltism was a series of three games played on Thursday nights at Roosevelt Field in September 2017, where the players taught the kids how to play baseball.
It was the little things like playing catch or helping a kid get his or her first hit that made such a profound impact.
“It just makes you realize the things we get to do every day is kind of hard for them to do,” NIACC sophomore pitcher Spencer Chirpich said. “But when I get to see them do it and I see how excited they are and it reminds me to be excited to play baseball.”
Freshman Jacob Hansen didn’t realize how much the event would affect him personally, but then he met 10 year-old Asher Eppins.
“He gave me two wristbands to wear to every game,” Hansen said. “Me and his family got along really well, we formed a great bond together. When I saw him again at the game [on May 7], he ran up to me and we ran around the bases together.”
Eppins is really shy, not straying away from his parents much. But Hansen when they met, it would be the first time Eppins felt comfortable letting go of his dad.
“It humbles you really fast, some people take it for granted sometimes and our team is extremely humble, that’s what we do it for,” Hansen said. “We do it for the kids.”
Dr. Logue says that for most kids, Balltism was the first event that gave them an opportunity to be successful at a sport.
“I think it shows that they can do just as much as their neurologically developed peers,” Dr. Logue said. “Hopefully they can go on and do it through a t-ball league or other event.”
After Hergert finished his journey around the bases with this son, he expressed his gratitude before the first pitch.
“I got really choked up and I look over and see our players just reach out to kids and embrace it,” Hergert said. “To me as a coach, they’ve exceeded my expectations, like we’ve done our job.”