When wounded veterans get together on the baseball field with kids who are living with amputations, they don’t just learn about fielding and hitting – they also learn about courage in life.
A few weeks ago, 12-year-old Nicholas Knotts was playing softball at his junior high in Oxford, Mich., when he heard one of the kids in the outfield snicker, “Easy out,” just as he stepped up to bat. Born without a fibula, Knotts’s left foot was amputated when he was 10 months old, and as he stood there waiting for the pitch, he watched as the opposing team members moved in close, confident that the seventh grader with the prosthetic foot couldn’t hit.
“I popped it over all their heads for a single,” laughs Knotts. “That felt really good.”
What most of the kids didn’t know was that months earlier Knotts got a crash course on the finer points of softball – along with some powerful lessons about perseverance – from a group of veteran and active-duty soldiers who lost limbs while serving in the military and now compete on the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team.
Held last June at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., Knotts and 19 other young amputees spent five days being coached by 10 battle-hardened, soldiers turned sluggers.
“We wanted to show them that it s possible to compete even if you re missing a limb,” says Matt Kinsey, a former Army sergeant whose right foot was blown off in 2010 after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan.
The Wounded Warrior team, which regularly travels the country playing – and often annihilating – other softball teams, coached the kids on everything from base running to how to tie cleats with one hand.
“After a couple of days, they were diving for balls and playing their hearts out,” says Kinsey, who has continued to keep in touch with many of the kids through Facebook. “If you ve ever had a bad day, just watching them will quickly change that.”
Not only did the young players bond with their older mentors, but they struck up close friendships with the other camp-goers.
“I d never really met anyone my age who was an amputee, says Knotts. “One of the other kids, whose leg had been amputated above his knee, emailed me to say that after camp he wore shorts to school for the first time in his life because he wasn t embarrassed any more.”
Knotts s mother, Kelli, insists that the camp taught her son plenty besides how to swing a bat.
“Some of those [Wounded Warriors] were double amputees, but they played like rock stars,” she says. “It was really good for Nicholas to see that he can do anything, that nothing need ever hold him back.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine