This Feel-Good Friday story starts on a somber note, and builds to the uplift. Wait for it!
Ethan D. Bryan is a musician and writer from Springfield, Missouri. He is also an avid baseball enthusiast who still dreams of playing for the Kansas City Royals. Bryan’s daughters challenged him to start playing catch with another human, and to do this every day. Bryan decided that in 2018 he’d do just that—but bigger.
Bryan traveled 12,000 through 10 states, not only playing catch with people who were often total strangers, but documenting that journey: recording the conversations and lessons he learned by simply making intimate connections with people through a baseball and a catcher’s mitt.
When the challenge was complete, Bryan pulled his experiences together for his book, A Year of Playing Catch: What a Simple Daily Experiment Taught Me About Life.
On September 16, 2020, Dan Bryan (no relation) watched his 16-year-old son Ethan practice with the West County High School team in Park Hills, Missouri. Ethan was a sophomore with tremendous promise and ambition. After practice, Dan Bryan went home, while Ethan stayed behind to “throw a bullpen and help some younger players.”
Young Ethan never made it home, dying in a car accident. Dan Bryan was devastated.
Days after the accident, author Ethan D. Bryan was still in Springfield, Missouri, and as writers do when we publish a work, we search ourselves for reviews and comments. In the search, the obituary for young Ethan Bryan was in the results.
From the Athletic:
For the next 10 minutes, he began to read about Ethan, how he loved baseball, singing and Marvel movies, how he left behind one older brother and a team of friends at West County High School. Awed by the coincidence and feeling the urge to do something, Bryan emailed a high school administrator, then sent along copy of his book with an accompanying note of sympathy[.]
In the fog of his grief, the book sat on Dan Bryan’s shelf for a year-and-a-half. Dan Bryan was slowly working through his grief by speaking with a counselor, attending church, and commemorating his son’s memory by starting a scholarship with his ex-wife in Ethan’s name, and getting a stretch of highway and a golf tournament named in Ethan’s honor. But Dan Bryan could not pass by the baseball field where his son played without being overwhelmed with grief.
In December of 2021, Dan Bryan remembered the book that was sent to him by Ethan D. Bryan, and decided to pull it off the shelf.
There was something about the concept that touched him, Dan says, the idea of ritual and communal grieving, a daily journal of baseball. He phoned Bryan, the author, to offer thanks. Then he set about planning. “I just determined that I was going to use that leather ball and the red seams and I was going to use that as a form of therapy,” he said.
Dan Bryan committed to Catch 365 in 2022, as one more act of honoring his son Ethan, as well as to work through another layer of his grief.
He enlisted former teachers and coaches. He posted invitations on Facebook. “I hope,” he wrote, “to meet and toss the baseball with those I currently know and future friends I have not yet met.” He pulled out Ethan’s glove and a baseball that was collected from the car. He gave his project a name: “Baseball Seams to Heal.”
I love it, because journeys of healing involve movement, and playing catch is a kinetic act. Dan Bryan was on Day 59 when he spoke with the Athletic in February, and he continues his journey to play catch everyday.
If you play catch with Dan, you will hear stories of Ethan, how he loved to listen to Lewis Capaldi and Sam Smith, how he modeled his left-handed approach after the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, how he was the rare high school athlete who enjoyed performing Calum Scott’s cover of “Dancing on My Own.” Dan found the stories to be cathartic. What he did not expect was how playing catch would make him feel. “I’m not afraid to show my emotion now,” he said. “I’ve become vulnerable.”
Five years before author Ethan D. Bryan took his Catch 365 journey, Rhett Grametbauer decided to take his own road trip across the nation, visiting every NFL stadium in a VW Bus. On this trip, Grametbauer rediscovered his own passion for playing catch, and like Ethan the author, he engaged total strangers in playing catch with him at major landmarks like the St. Louis Arch and the Golden Gate Bridge.
When he returned home, Grametbauer started the Play Catch Movement. The non-profit organization seeks to encourage everyone in playing catch, and also provides those in need with the necessary equipment—including a partner—to play with!
Grametbauer also started a National Play Catch Week, which he engineered to coincide with Father’s Day.
Not surprisingly, Ethan D. Bryan is a partner in the organization.
After Bryan published his book in 2020, he maintained his habit of playing catch. Last year he joined another catch evangelist, Rhett Grametbauer, at the Play Catch Movement, a non-profit focused on promoting the benefits of the act. On June 19, they will spearhead the first-ever National Play Catch Week, which will launch on Father’s Day and coincide with a Guinness World Record Attempt in Council Bluffs, Iowa, during the College World Series.
By chance, it will also coincide with Ethan Bryan’s birthday. He would have been 18 years old on June 24. He would have been a senior this fall.
Playing catch has a number of benefits for young and old. Socialization, confidence, agility, and just the joy of connecting with another human in a relaxed setting. In Dan Bryan’s case, it was a way to overcome his grief. Playing catch allowed him to reconnect to the sport his Ethan loved; and with each pitch and catch, those baseball seams are helping to heal his soul.
“In the beginning,” he said, “I just wanted to spread the word, let people know who Ethan was, for those that didn’t get to meet him, and keeping his memory alive with me. It’s become a lot more than a game of catch.”