Devastated Dad Invites Hundreds of People to Play Catch After Losing Baseball-Loving Son: 'It's Healing'

Ethan Bryan, 16, died in a car accident in 2020, eventually launching his father, Dan, on a year of catch that has created a community of support

Dan Bryan plays catch in memory of his son. July 20, 2022, Desloge, MO, at North County High School. Credit: Paul Nordmann
Dan Bryan with his son Ethan's glove and baseball that he uses in his games of catch. Photo: Paul Nordmann

After work on Sept. 16, 2020, Dan Bryan realized he could still catch the tail end of his 16-year-old son's baseball practice at West County High School in Park Hills, Missouri. He arrived in time to see Ethan smash a ball that bounced over the right field fence, driving in two runs to bring the practice to a close.

Circling back to fetch his bat, Ethan, who usually offered little more than a humble nod, looked up to acknowledge his dad with a big wave and a smile. "He'd never done that before," Dan tells PEOPLE. "That showed me he was having an absolute blast. He was just enjoying life."

Less than an hour later Ethan's young life came to an end. Dan's ex-wife called to say their son had been in a car accident. He'd swerved to avoid another vehicle, ran head-on into a pickup truck, and died at the scene. Hundreds attended the funeral four days later on the Bulldogs' baseball field, with Ethan's coffin placed behind home plate.

But Dan's mourning for his son, who started playing baseball at age 5, was only beginning.

Shattered by the loss, the city administrator withdrew into himself. "I was very emotional, dealing with anxiety and depression," he recalls. "I couldn't leave the house. I couldn't get myself to go." A promise to support his son's teammates and attend the games that resumed after a respectful pause was, for Dan, "one of the toughest things I could do."

It also rescued him.

Dan Bryan lost his son Ethan to a car crash in September 2020 and found that playing catch with Strangers a sport loved by Ethan helped him in his mourning. in 2019 at a Cardinals game. Credit: Courtesy Dan Bryan
Dan Bryan with his son, Ethan, in 2019. Courtesy Dan Bryan

Asked to throw out a first pitch in Ethan's honor, Dan, 46, showed up and was seated in the bleachers when the school principal gave him a book titled A Year of Playing Catch, written by an author named, uncannily, Ethan D. Bryan.

Seeing that name on a book about baseball "floored me," says Dan. "I stared at the cover for over a year." When he finally did read it, he raced through the author's whimsical nonfiction account of tossing a baseball with a different person for 365 days in a row. Soon Dan was on the phone with the author, describing his desire to launch his own yearlong game of catch.

"Tossing this ball," he recalls thinking, "is going to be my vehicle to open up and talk about Ethan. It's going to keep us close. That's what's going to make me heal."

Since Jan. 1, 2022, Dan has used Ethan's ball and glove to play catch with more than 230 people to date, chronicling the journey on his Facebook page. He's had people from as far away as California, Florida, Texas and Israel, and even entire teams, reach out to ask about joining him in a toss.

Although his initial mission was just to honor his son, along the way Dan connected with a community, many of whom he'd found are shouldering similar losses.

"The thing I didn't anticipate was being a part of someone else's healing," he says. "It's become a really beautiful thing."

The Bryan family's bond over baseball began when Dan started coaching his two sons — McKenzy, now 24, and Ethan — as kids. Ethan, seven years younger, "didn't know he wasn't the same age or ability as his older brother," says Dan, who divorced from Ethan's mother in 2019; they shared custody of Ethan, who divided his time between their households.

Throwing right-handed but batting left, Ethan could play any position; off the field, he was elected to the student council and sang in the high school choir. He was "a complete joy, effortless to raise," says his father.

Tributes to his son opened Dan's eyes to things he didn't know. He gratefully discovered Ethan had joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, along with a separate student-led Bible-study group, finding his own way to his faith. Handwritten messages on luminaries at a vigil revealed Ethan also watched out for the needs of others. "He recognized a classmate was having an off day and made sure they were all right," one message said. "Ethan had time for everybody."

Dan Bryan plays catch in memory of his son. July 20, 2022, Desloge, MO, at North County High School. Credit: Paul Nordmann
Dan Bryan has played every game in his year of catch using his son Ethan's glove and baseball. Paul Nordmann

Ethan's family members have extended his impact by raising funds — through a golf tournament, trivia nights and a Facebook campaign — to award about $12,000 in scholarships in Ethan's name the last two years to college-bound West County High School students they select.

But it's the year of catch that has been Dan's road to recovery.

To honor his son, Dan began with his own outreach — to Ethan's best friend Tycen Price, who was in the car with Ethan, but survived the crash. "If anyone needed to have that game of catch, it was him," Dan says.

While playing, their talk slowly turned from painful trauma to "good, fun memories," Dan recalls, like the times the two teens drove a golf cart around Dan's lake community and picked a spot to swim based on where the girls gathered. Their game stretched long past sunset. "We threw that ball until we couldn't see it anymore," he says.

As Dan posted open invitations online to join him in the effort he christened Baseball Seams to Heal, they were gobbled up — first a week in advance, then two weeks, then a month. He now sometimes books two or more a day to accommodate requests.

Games of catch in a public park fill his lunch breaks, while inclement weather pushes them into a church hall or gym. But most want to play on the baseball field where Ethan excelled.

Mike Newhouse, 47, lost his daughter Katlynn, a classmate of Ethan's, in a car crash April 2 on the same two-lane highway where Ethan died. Newhouse didn't want to intrude on Dan grief, but was grateful for the chance to unpack his own when Dan invited him to take part.

As the ball passed between them, the tears that first ran down Newhouse's cheek gave way to a smile as the men remembered a photograph of their two teens together at a school dance. Newhouse talked about still watching his daughter, 17, giggle on TikTok, and the time she fell backward in the snow while walking as her phone's camera kept recording. "The more you throw the ball, the more you start thinking of things," he told Dan. "Now I'm thinking about the good things."

For more on Dan Bryan, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Len Pader, 39, visiting his wife's family in Missouri from his home in Israel, had lost his mother unexpectedly around the same time Ethan died. He arranged a catch with Dan after seeing his story online. "To hear from him, and then share my experiences, and see where we're able to overlap in the grief and the process of coming out of that and remember our loved ones is really amazing," Pader says of the experience.

"For me," he adds, "this is a moment of joy, not of sadness. We're here to touch other people's lives. And he's doing that."

Says Dan: "I don't ever come into any of these catches with a script or an outline on what I want to talk about, because everyone's different. What is said, is said because it's meant to be said. I just want it to be whatever's on somebody's heart, whatever's on my heart."

"I've learned that healing can happen in many different forms," he says. "I had not personally ever talked or experienced someone who went through healing the way that I'm trying to heal, going through these grief cycles and finding this healing from within."

"I have comfort in baseball, I have comfort in playing catch, and it does allow me to bring those positive memories back of Ethan," he says. "And it allows me to find this healing."

It has also provided him a guide, turning his effort to honor his son into something even more powerful.

"Now, people come to me and we're able to shoulder some of each other's pain," he says. "Even though I'm hurting, I can help. It's what Ethan would have done."

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