Florida Gulf Coast University’s (FGCU) baseball stadium was full of action over the weekend, but not for the college season just yet. It’s serving as the set of the new inspirational documentary, “Curveballs.”
Here’s the thing about curveballs – not everybody can throw one…but everyone has been hit by a curveball at some point in their life.
“Most of us never face the kind of curveballs that these guys have seen,” said Louisville Slugger spokesperson Rick Redman.
The guys he’s referring to are the Louisville Slugger Warriors, made up of veterans and former college athletes who are amputees or have had some sort of traumatic injury. They travel the country and play what they call “able-bodied teams.” “It’s giving them another outlook on life,” said David Van Sleet, Warriors general manager. They probably thought they’d never play again. They’re playing and they’re playing at a high level.”
Van Sleet, a resident of Estero, FL, formed the Warriors in 2018. An army veteran, he spent many years working in prosthetics in the VA. He said one night the idea just came to him to create a team full of players regarded as disabled.
“It gives me personal satisfaction to do something for these guys,” said Van Sleet. “Let them be a kid again and play the game they grew up with and sponsor it and it’s a dream come true for me.”
This fall, nine-time Emmy award winning documentarian and Fort Myers native John Biffar heard about the Warriors and knew immediately that he wanted his next project to feature the team, fittingly naming it “Curveballs.”
“Some of them have been thrown more than one curveball, and it fits our team,” said Van Sleet. “It’s perfect.”
“To me, I love telling stories that are true stories about people who are inspirational,” said Biffar. “This couldn’t be a more inspirational true story that at the end of the day, when you watch it, you walk away and I think it inspires you to be the best person you can be, whether with a handicap or without.”
The crew set up shop at Swanson Stadium at FGCU filming practice and interviews, telling the story of how each player has overcome their injuries.
Carlo Rolla is a shortstop and catcher for the Warriors. He said he injured his leg while in the military, but that it was nothing major. When he was back at home, he hit a deer while riding a motorcycle and it shattered his ankle. After a few years and several surgeries, there was nothing that could be done to salvage it, so he opted to have the lower part of his leg amputated.
“I had to learn how to transition my life and everything I do,” Rolla said. “I’m very active. I’ve always liked sports. Even when I wasn’t an amputee, I was into baseball and softball. So just learning that basically, I could do anything on this thing (prosthetic leg) and trusting it. Just trusting the guys and growing by learning from their motivation and all that. Just watching everybody and being at the center for the intrepid was a blessing.”
The goal of the documentary is to inspire the viewers, but those involved in the film say their mindset has changed in the process too.
“I’ve learned the will of the human spirit and the will to overcome all obstacles in life,” Redman said. “What I’ve learned is that holy cow, the little things that sometimes I let bother me or get to me, I need to just let those things go because I’ve never – thank God – had to face some of the kinds of things that these guys have faced.”
“I think that if you’re feeling sorry for yourself, come out and watch these guys play,” Biffar said simply.
There’s no doubt that these players are truly inspirational. But in their eyes, it’s just who they are.
“These guys don’t hide anything,” said Van Sleet. “They’re not ashamed of their disability.”
“Even though we’ve had injuries, we can adapt and overcome and still live our life to the fullest,” Rolla said. “There’s honestly nothing I can’t do on a prosthetic. There’s stuff that I don’t like to do on a prosthetic, but there’s honestly nothing that I can’t do that I did before I was an amputee. I felt like I could do everything that I did before I was an amputee so I feel like I’m winning.”