VALDOSTA -- It's not that 8-year-old Matt Wilder is stubborn or set in his ways,. Hhe just has his own way of getting the job done.
It's because the week leading up to Halloween 2002 changed his life and because he chose to show that no problem, even for an 8-year-old, is too great to overcome.
On Oct. 26, 2002, Wilder climbed on a trailer scattered with hay, ready for a Halloween hay ride not unlike any other in Lowndes County that night. But this ride would go terribly wrong.
Wearing a loose fitting Halloween costume, Wilder sat too close to the spinning tires of the hay trailer. In an instant one of the tires grabbed hold of Wilder's waving costume, pulling it and him underneath.
The tires consumed Wilder's costume and then his left arm, wrenching it away from his slender body. The next thing Wilder remembers, he was being airlifted in a helicopter to a Jacksonville hospital.
"That was fun," he said about the helicopter ride.
There, Wilder's left arm was amputated flush with his side so that no stub was left to protrude from the shoulder.
Wilder was admitted to the hospital on Oct. 26. Five days later he was released. Just over two months later, on Jan. 3, 2003, Wilder was playing in a basketball league at The Boys and Girls Club.
According to Matt's father, Byron Wilder, doctors weren't exactly keen to the idea of Matt playing sports so soon after the accident. But Matt, who has played sports since he was four, found a way.
"Everybody was amazed that the recovery process was that quick," Byron said. "His balance was off a little, but he scored and played good defense." In fact, Byron said Matt's coach named him the team's best defensive player.
Matt has been fitted for an arm twice locally in Valdosta, but has yet to find one that fits properly. His family is awaiting word on a third fitting.
"It's been a change," Byron said. "Mom and dad probably suffer worse than he does. He never complains, doesn't get down. Kids see he's just another kid."
Nowadays, Matt, who is a student at Lake Park Elementary, wants to play more sports, following the footsteps of his brother, Todd, 12, who attends Lowndes Middle. Credit Todd with some of Matt's determination, Byron says.
"His brother plays all sports and little brother wants to be like big brother. "Todd helps," Byron says, as Matt interrupts with a look of disagreement, "...and he roughs him up a little bit."
As of this week, Matt was playing baseball at the Valdosta-Lowndes Recreation Department on his 9- and 10-year-old team (although none of the players on the team are actually 10). Matt's Pizza Hut team finished third in its division after the regular season ended Monday and made it to the playoffs.
Matt says swinging is the toughest thing for him in baseball, but that didn't stop him from getting a hit Monday and scoring two runs in his team's win.
Pizza Hut head coach Tiger Berard didn't know what to think the first time he saw Matt. Berard, whose son also plays on the team, says he scheduled a few drills at the beginning of the season that almost require two hands to accomplish.
"I wasn't confident he could get the job done, but we wanted him on the team," Berard said. "He has absolutely surprised me in every way. Everything that he does on the field, he finds a way to get it done. I'm proud of that."
Of course, Berard didn't know about Matt's ability to adjust.
"He's just amazing to watch to see how quick he learns or figures out a way to do things," Byron said. "The only thing he can't do is button his left sleeve with his shirt on."
To see Matt perform the simplest fundamentals of baseball, like fielding a grounder, is amazing, almost inspirational. With a glove on his right hand, Matt will scoop up a rolling ball in his glove, flip the ball in the air while tossing the glove off his hand simultaneously. Then, with his free hand, he catches the ball and tosses it to his desired destination.
"It's amazing how accurate he is," Byron said.
Said Berard, " He is as effective in the outfield as anybody out there. He does not hurt our team in any way. He's raised the spirits of all the kids and it's been very exciting for me to coach him. Matt does it his way. He makes the necessary adjustments."
Some everyday tasks are somewhat difficult, Matt says, like putting on his chain necklace or tying his shoe, but he's figured out a way to do all of them. He can even jump rope by holding one end and tying the other to a doorknob to allow the knot to spin while he jumps.
"We've all adjusted," said Jo Wilder, Matt's mother. "He adapts better than we do. When he meets a new challenge he just backs up and you see the wheels turning. In a few minutes he's got it figured out."
If an 8-year-old can figure out all that, sports shouldn't be a problem.
"He'll continue to play sports, there's no doubt in my mind," Byron said.
After Matt's accident, the Wilder family says it was showered with affection from the Valdosta community. Churches, friends, family and even strangers wanted to do whatever they could to help. Berard even set up a fundraiser to help with medical costs.
"Tiger has been a blessing," Byron said. "The whole community has. They got behind us when this happens."
Said mother Jo, "the outpour from the community was just amazing. We got cards from people we didn't even know, from out of state. It lets you know how good people are."
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