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Originally published May 3, 2010 at 8:44 PM | Page modified May 7, 2010 at 2:50 PM

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Bellevue Christian trio not caught looking

Complicated medical conditions could not keep Nat Townsend, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jo Jo Howie from starting for Bellevue Christian's baseball team.

Seattle Times staff reporter

BELLEVUE — One school. Three juniors. Three afflictions.

Baseball brought them together.

For Bellevue Christian standouts Nat Townsend, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jo Jo Howie, the path to baseball success has been diverted by complicated conditions, situations as difficult to spell as they are to describe.

Townsend suffered from osteochondroma, a developmental abnormality in the bone that led to 12 surgeries, starting when he was in third grade.

Fitzpatrick learned he had a non-ossifying fibroma, a void in the bone of his upper right arm, when he suffered a fracture trying to deliver a pitch as a 12-year-old.

Howie deals with the daily struggles of muscular dystrophy, which causes him to constantly work on building and maintaining muscle.

Three athletes. Three conditions. One reason to move forward.

Baseball.

"These three kids are my top three guys," said Bellevue Christian coach Rob May. "They've just done a great job of overcoming."

"It felt like a knife in my ... legs"

When Nat Townsend was a toddler, his parents found growths poking out of the skin around his spine.

"OK, something's wrong here," they thought.

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It was a condition called osteochondroma. Parts of Townsend's bone-growth plates had broken off and reattached in different spots on his body. These extraneous pieces of bone grew as his body developed, some becoming so painful he couldn't complete a full baseball game.

"I don't know what it feels like to be stabbed, but it felt like a knife in my knees or legs the whole time when I was playing," Townsend said. "I would have to go ice for an hour or two every night after a game or a practice just to have my legs recover enough to make it through another day."

After each surgery he was stuck in bed for at least two weeks, followed by a week in a wheelchair or on crutches. He then went through physical therapy for two or three months.

The Townsend family planned their summers around surgeries.

"He lived a life of pain," said Townsend's mother, Rebecca.

The most challenging surgery came in August 2008. He went through a tibial osteotomy. His left leg was growing at an angle and an 18-degree wedge of bone had to be removed. The leg had to be realigned with a plate and six three-inch screws.

Complications arose, requiring two more surgeries. He lost 20 pounds, was given IV antibiotics three times a day for six weeks and couldn't attend a full day of classes for the first seven weeks of the school year.

"It was just a long process that took a lot of time," Townsend said. "The recovery from that is just so long; it's really hard to get back into things."

Now, at 17, Townsend is finally pain free. He first noticed it at a hitting lesson. Swinging a bat had always been painful, but he looked at his father, Nate, and said, "I don't feel anything in my leg."

He carried an ear-to-ear smile all the way home. Rebecca was so happy, she started to cry.

"To go from that to know that you have a strong, 6-foot-4-plus kid who can play baseball and enjoy that to the degree he does, it's an amazing miracle," she said.

One pitch changed everything

It was the final day of a Little League tournament in Sumner, and Ryan Fitzpatrick stepped onto the mound. He was still beaming from the day before. He threw a two-hitter, struck out at least 10 and threw close to 100 pitches.

But, this time, when he threw his first pitch, his right arm snapped.

"Oh my gosh, I've never experienced something as painful as that," Fitzpatrick said.

What happened next is a blur. The pitch seemed to fly 40 feet in the air. Fitzpatrick remembers grabbing his arm and moving toward the dugout. His father, Dave, sprinted to his son, and took him to the nearest hospital.

Fitzpatrick eventually ended up at Children's Hospital, where he learned he had a non-ossifying fibroma.

The hope was the hole in the bone would eventually fill in; the expected recovery time was at least a year.

"Whoa, I can't play baseball," Fitzpatrick said, looking back on his reaction.

He was able to swing a bat, but he wasn't allowed to throw right-handed. His grandmother suggested he play left-handed.

So he did.

He left his select team and played in a recreation league. He made the all-star team. Left-handed.

"I just wanted to play and did whatever it took," he said.

Eventually Fitzpatrick had surgery on his right arm and by December of his freshman year, he was pitching right-handed again.

"Through all the challenges that are thrown at you, you just have to have faith and know that you're going to get through," Fitzpatrick said. "I just was faithful and something pulled me through. It was hard, but it worked out all good."

We need to get him a running coach

Something just didn't look right when John Howie's son, Jo Jo, ran around the T-ball field.

"We would watch him run and it was kind of like the cartoons where a lot of stuff is moving, but he's not getting very far," he said.

So he told his wife they should get their son a running coach. Eventually, they decided Jo Jo should be checked out by a doctor. Like Townsend and Fitzpatrick, Jo Jo Howie ended up at Children's Hospital, where he learned he had a form of muscular dystrophy.

"I always remembered I was just never as strong as anyone," Howie said. "I was never as fast as anyone. I was always all right at the sport, but there was always a physical aspect holding me back from everything I wanted to do."

Growing up, he always showed a natural aptitude for athletics. But, when he was about 10, he didn't get picked for an all-star team. There were other disappointments, which only made Howie work harder.

He knows his body will break down if he isn't constantly building muscle. So, in addition to practices and games, he goes through core exercises every night.

Like his teammates, he learned to make the most of his situation. He didn't let it keep him from excelling at the game he loves.

"If he really wanted it, he could do it, but he had to work at it," said his father. "It's kind of the same thing. He has to continue to work at it. He doesn't come back as quickly as some of the kids do from throwing 100 pitches.

"I have a tremendous amount of pride watching him play, knowing what it's taken for him to get there."

With Townsend, Fitzpatrick and Howie leading the way, the Vikings were among the top teams in the Emerald City League.

One school. One team. Three friends. Three success stories.

Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or mkelley@seattletimes.com

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