A violent collision at second base on a field in Chickamauga, Georgia, made 4-year-old Brenna Nation hate softball.
So for the remainder of the season, her father, Frank Nation, held her hand each time she rounded the bases.
On Friday, Brenna, now a junior on the Terrapins softball team, returned to the state where she spent countless hours working to perfect her game with her father.
But without Frank at the Georgia State Tournament to cheer her on, she had an emotional weekend. On Oct. 26, Frank died.
“To see my entire family out there and not my dad kind of shook me a little bit,” Nation said.
Frank had started feeling dizzy sometime in late September.
He went to the hospital, endured a series of tests and was diagnosed with vertigo. Over the next couple of weeks, his conditioned worsened.
His hand would draw up, his face would twitch and his body would spasm.
Doctors “couldn’t really figure anything out,” Nation said. “But my mom told me not to worry.”
Then, midway through a fall exhibition contest, a Terps coach came out to meet Nation at the mound. She was removed from the game.
“I actually left the ballpark because my dad had gone to a hospital. He was on a ventilator, and the small twitches he had been having were focal seizures,” Nation said.
After running another set of medical tests, doctors diagnosed her father with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a terminal brain illness without a cure. Ten days later, he was dead.
The sudden loss stunned Nation, who didn’t think she could handle losing a parent.
She said her father had been the person she “wanted to hang out with more than my friends at home.”
A shared passion for softball was a key fixture in their relationship.
“He was the guy who would drive an hour and 45 minutes for a 45-minute pitching lesson,” Nation said, adding that he would often leave work early to catch her games.
And when Nation didn’t think she was good enough to compete at the college level, her father insisted that she could. “He always kept pushing me,” she said.
Since the loss of the man she called her best friend, Nation has used softball to regain her peace of mind.
She said she feels closest to her father when out in the pitching circle.
“I didn’t think I would be able to get back out there [on a softball field] at first. It was a big deal for me, and I avoided it for a while,” Nation said. “But now it’s that one lasting connection that I have with him that no one else had any involvement in.”
In the Terps’ first game of the season against Boston College, she was “hit like a train” with emotion when she stepped into the circle.
“That first day was really hard,” Nation said.
The second day was easier. While her father wasn’t physically there, she realized everything he had taught and instilled in her was.
She started against No. 6 Oregon and pitched five consecutive scoreless innings. Though she faltered in the sixth, allowing five runs on five hits, Nation left the mound with a lasting memory.
“He would have killed to see me pitch against Oregon,” Nation said. “So I thought I might as well make him proud.”
The junior has come a long way since October, when she said she was a “rambling mess.” In fact, she said the experience has made her grow as a person.
“I don’t let little things get to me as much anymore,” Nation said.
Coach Julie Wright, whom Nation described as a second mom to her during the grieving process, agreed.
“She’s handled herself brilliantly,” Wright said. “I’m very proud of her.”
On Sunday in Atlanta, the Terps wore purple warm-up jerseys to help raise awareness for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The gesture was first suggested by Wright and pitcher Madison Martin in the offseason and will take place every Sunday this year.
It took on added meaning this weekend with Nation, wearing her own purple hair bow in memory of her father, back in her home state pitching in front of her loved ones.
She said she struggled to control her emotions and continues to work toward a balance between pitching and the feelings that drive her.
“I just missed my dad,” Nation said of the weekend.
Frank taught Nation to love softball when she was too scared to run the bases alone, but later, he taught her to find her own strength.
When Nation got her first hit in the season after the terrible collision at second base, she waited for her father to grab her hand as he had done so many times before.-
“He just didn’t,” she said. “He was a tough-love kind of guy.”