Braves family helps Porter during tough time
Head trainer's wife died during a car accident on Dec. 31
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Braves head athletic trainer Jeff Porter still feels hesitant when approaching any intersection, and over the past couple of months he has learned how to handle the many household responsibilities that he had not worried about over the previous 28 years.
Life will never be the same as it was before a car accident claimed the life of Kathy Porter at around 4:40 p.m. ET on Dec. 31. But as Jeff Porter deals with the hurt and pain, it is obvious that he is comforted by the fact that his wife's love will continue to live in the presence of their 19-year-old son David.
"We were only blessed with one child, but Kathy raised David like she'd already done it 10 times," Porter said, as tears moistened his eyes. "Her mothering and parenting skills were just off the charts. You look up the definition of mother in the dictionary and her name will be there."
David Porter, a freshman at Auburn University, spent the past week enjoying the Spring Training experience that he had so often shared with his mother. This marked the first time he had seen his father in more than a month.
"It was very good medicine for me," Porter said of his son's decision to spend his spring break with him. "We've gotten closer for obvious reasons. I don't love him any more [than I had]. I couldn't. But yeah, it draws us a little closer together. We'll share that common bond for the rest of our lives."
Before the Braves staged their first full-squad workout in February, Porter asked the players to not treat him any different than they had in the past. Holding true to his end of the bargain, he has spent the past few weeks talking about North Carolina basketball and performing all of the other normal activities that surround his job.
But Porter finally allowed his emotions to show on Friday, when he spoke publicly for the first time since his wife was killed as she sat just an arm's length away from him on Dec. 31. He did not address potential litigation or the specifics of the fatal car accident that occurred after a Georgia State Patrol officer ran a red light located less than a mile north of Turner Field.
Tragedy struck as Porter was traveling with his wife, his son and his son's girlfriend, Courtney Ann Williams, to see Auburn play Virginia in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Instead of exiting Interstate 20 and taking the same left-hand turn that he does when going to Turner Field, Porter turned right toward the Georgia Dome.
Moments later, as the Porters' Ford Expedition traveled under a green light at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Memorial Avenue, it was struck by a state patrol car. Kathy Porter, 54, died at scene of the crash that also caused non-life threatening injuries to her son and his girlfriend.
"I [still] get a bad feeling every intersection I come to," Porter said. "It's getting better, but for the first month, it was hard. Everybody would be the same way. You get to an intersection and you get a bad feeling. You're looking. You're slowing down. People behind you are honking. The light turns green and you look again. People honk. Hang with 'em."
As Porter was in the emergency room alongside his son, he was informed that a number of friends from the Braves organization had come to console him. Those who joined him at Grady Memorial Hospital less than two hours after the accident included former manager Bobby Cox, current manager Fredi Gonzalez, pitching coach Roger McDowell, first-base coach Terry Pendleton, Brian McCann and clubhouse staff members John Holland, Fred Stone and Chris Van Zant.
Braves assistant trainer Jim Lovell cut short his vacation and traveled back to Atlanta to be with Porter. "That's a special list," Porter said, as he continued to fight back the tears.
Longtime team physician Dr. Joe Chandler was the first member of the Braves family to make contact, and he ended up taking the Porters back to their home the night of the accident. Chandler stayed there that evening and most that followed over the course of the next two weeks.
Like he had helped Braves Minor League manager Luis Salazar persevere after he lost his left eye last year, Chandler provided the emotional support that allowed the Porters to better deal with their grief.
"I couldn't get through it without him," Porter said. "He's got a big heart."
Always a Roy Williams fan, Porter gained a better understanding of the kind of compassion North Carolina's head basketball coach has when he received a sympathy letter from him in January. He also learned a little more about Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik, who expressed his sympathy on Lovell's voicemail around 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, approximately three hours after leading his team to a win in the Chick Fil-A Bowl.
The Chizik family also gave the Porters a clone of the famous oak tree located on Toomer's Corner on Auburn's campus. It has already been planted in Porter's yard.
"Roy Williams, I don't know how he found out I grew up in North Carolina, but he did," Porter said. "He took time out of his schedule to write us a letter. You find out a lot about people's hearts ... I had met [Chizik] for 15 minutes of my life."
With the assistance of Chandler, Dr. Gary Lourie and Donna Lane, a Christian counselor and family friend, David Porter made the decision to return to Auburn one week after his mother passed. The elder Porter was also able to provide some perspective, as he was one week into his junior year of college when a one-car accident claimed the life of his brother.
"The timeframe was incredibly close," Porter said. "So I shared my experience with him -- how tough it was, how hard it was to concentrate. David is in a very tough field [veterinary medicine], and I didn't want his future jeopardized by one bad semester because he couldn't concentrate. It was tough, but he's done a remarkable job."
When Porter took his son back to Auburn on Jan. 7, he declined Tim Hudson's invitation to stay at his family's home, which is located just down the road from the campus. He opted to spend the night alone to catch up on some work. As he was concluding his work around 9:30 p.m., he Googled his wife's name and stumbled across Legacy.com, which included 497 messages of condolence in response to his wife's death.
"I read every one of them," said Porter, who ended up going to sleep around 2:15 a.m.
Porter accepted the Hudson's invitation to watch the BCS Championship Game at their home the following night.
"It was obviously a fragile time for him with a lot of uncertainty," Hudson said. "You didn't know how he and David would deal with everything they had to deal with. A lot of people in baseball understand the wives are the ones that deal with everything. Then, all of the sudden, you don't have that security anymore."
Porter kind of laughs about some of the trouble he has encountered over the past couple months while figuring out things like the PIN numbers and passwords his wife used to pay bills and take care of online banking.
There will be greater emotional challenges over the course of this first season he spends without his wife. They would have celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary on March 3.
Every time he travels from his home to Turner Field, Porter will exit the interstate within eyeshot of where he was introduced to tragedy. He still has not returned to that same intersection.
There will also be the oddity of experiencing a home opener for the first time without his wife and son both in attendance. David Porter is already looking forward to driving back to Atlanta to be present for the April 13 home opener against the Brewers. But he knows this one will be different than any other he has experienced.
"Spring Training, the first few days felt a little weird, but I'm used to it now," David Porter said. "I guess Opening Day will feel a little weird. I haven't missed too many Opening Days. Yeah, Opening Day is going to be kind of weird."
Porter declined the Braves' invitation to take as much time as he needed before he returned to work. He has been a part of Atlanta's staff since 1985, and became the head trainer in 2003. Working provides him the opportunity to at least find some familiarity in a world that will forever feel different.
"I told them, 'If David needs me, I'm gone,'" Porter said. "Otherwise, I'm here every day."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.