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Henry Pearson Classic: Honoring Baseball, Friendship

The inaugural classic Monday will be a celebration of the human spirit and remembrance of those lost in a tragic car crash nearly two years ago.

A love of baseball united Nick Adenhart, Courtney Stewart, Henry Pearson and Jon Wilhite, developing a friendship that saw tragedy on April 9, 2009, when the four were victims of a drunk driving accident.

The crash claimed the lives of Anaheim Angels pitcher Adenhart, Stewart and Henry. Jon was left clinging to life.

Baseball fans and the Beach Cities community will gather Monday at Marine Avenue Park in Manhattan Beach to launch the inaugural Henry Pearson Classic, featuring a double-header between Mira Costa and El Segundo high school baseball teams.

The Pearson Classic, which begins at 4:30 p.m., .

Jon is scheduled to throw the first pitch, bringing together those who wish to celebrate Henry's life, the triumph of the human spirit and, of course, a love of baseball.

“Having this double-header annually is a wonderful way to celebrate what Henry was about and we will be reminded of that message ‘play for fun’ each year,” said Henry's father Nigel Pearson.

Henry’s “Play For Fun” motto will be immortalized on the Marine Sports Park scoreboard as a lasting nod. Henry wrote the phrase down as one of the goals he would pursue with his teammates as captain of the Mira Costa High School baseball team his senior year.

“There is no doubt in my mind that I am where I am today [recovery process] because of baseball,” Jon told Hermosa Beach Patch.

Manhattan Beach resident Jon, who played catcher for Mira Costa and Cal State Fullerton baseball teams, has made a miraculous near-full recovery from his internal decapitation, a usually fatal injury that occurs when the skull has been separated from the spinal column.

Now the only thing left for Jon to conquer is a limited range of motion in his neck. Henry and Jon's purposeful lives and attitudes have made lasting impressions.

Uncommon Balance

Henry, at three years old, got his hands on his aunt’s Mets magazine and was captivated by baseball from then on.

Throughout his childhood, he would bypass toys for the simple pleasure of throwing the ball around. 

Henry developed excellent hand-eye coordination and exhibited a scrappy all-out mentality at second base for Mira Costa.

“You almost couldn’t help but have fun when you were around Henry," said former high school teammate and friend Michael Wilhite. "He was just having a great time, all the time."

Ask anyone who came in contact with Henry and they will happily recount a story related to his exuberance for life, unflinching positivity and genuine love of baseball.

“As a young man he was very fun-loving and outgoing, but at the same time he was very responsible and hardworking and that’s not something that often comes in one package,” Henry’s father Nigel said.

Henry’s upbeat demeanor and contagious love of baseball would not end with his playing days in high school.

He pursued a journalism degree at Arizona State and continued to law school at Cal State Fullerton in hopes of becoming a sports agent.

Henry and Jon grew up as teammates in Little League and into high school. But, it was at Fullerton, where their friendship grew, with Henry attending almost all of Jon’s games.

“If you met Henry once, you remembered him forever. That’s the type of guy he was,” Jon said.

Henry's joie-de-vivre extended beyond the baseball diamond and into his numerous meaningful friendships.

“There is a lot that can be learned from his life and the way he was," Nigel said. "We want to show people and the youth of the community it’s possible to find the right balance."

Determined to Recover

Throwing the first pitch at the inaugural Henry Pearson Classic on Monday will not be the first time 26-year-old Jon has been a part of an honorary first pitch.

He has taken the mound at Angel Stadium and has been asked to begin games often since recovering from an injury gruesomely termed as internal decapitation.

After the crash, Jon's injuries appeared to be only minor cuts on his hand. But it was beneath the surface where the damage had occurred, and where he would fuel his miraculous recovery.

He has given his “entourage” of extended friends and family an example of extreme perseverance and positivity.

“Being able to persevere and deal with failure while working towards goals was so important for me during rehab,” Jon said.

He was shuffled back and forth from lengthy rehabilitation appointments, patiently enduring the intense struggles on his way to minor victories.

“Jon is such a strong young man," said his mother Betsy Wilhite. "He never complained, ever, throughout the whole ordeal.” 

Jon made steady progress and refused to go about his long-road to recovery passively, instead attacking it head on, with the determination that led him to make a major college baseball team.

“A lot of rehab patients feel sorry for themselves," Jon said. "I had the attitude of ‘bring it on.’ I wanted to push myself and get the most out of my rehab.” 

Jon, who in less than two years has made a near-full recovery with limited range of motion in his neck, has resumed his characteristically intense workout regimen.

“Jon’s work ethic was so admirable," said his older brother Michael. "He treated every day like his rehab was his job. He worked so hard and was so positive.” 

Lasting Legacy

After Monday’s games, baseball fans and the community can look forward to next year's Henry Pearson Classic and a commemorative wall at Marine Avenue Park in Manhattan Beach that will honor Henry, Jon and other positive contributors to the city's youth sports community.

The Manhattan Beach City Council approved in February the building of the commemorative wall.

“Initially, I think they [the council] were skeptical of the project, but the public outpouring of emotion forced them to do a 180-degree turn and back this,” said Henry's dad, Nigel.

Jon, who has worked tirelessly on getting his health back in order, now feels ready to speak out against the perils of drunk driving.

“I don’t want to look back and say I was given that stage and didn’t do anything with it,” he told Hermosa Beach Patch. 

When Jon steps to the mound of the Marine Sports Park baseball diamond Monday, it will be with purpose and emotion.

“This one is one I’m looking forward to," he said. "It means so much to honor them. It’s important to honor Henry.” 

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