'The thing I didn't anticipate was being a part of someone else's healing,' he said. 'It's become a really beautiful thing.'
When Dan Bryan arrived at West County High School in Park Hills, Missouri, on September 16, 2020, for his son's baseball practice, it was just in time to see the 16-year-old hit a ball that took a bounce over the right field fence to drive in two runs, bringing the practice to a close. Ethan Bryan, who normally "offered little more than a humble nod, glanced up to acknowledge his father with a big wave and a smile as he circled back to retrieve his bat. 'He'd never done that before,'" Dan told PEOPLE. "That showed me he was having an absolute blast. He was just enjoying life."
Unfortunately, Ethan's young life came to a devastating end less than an hour later. Dan's ex-wife called to inform him that their son had been in a car accident when he swerved to avoid another vehicle and ran head-on into a pickup truck. The teenager died on the spot. Hundreds of people turned out for Ethan's funeral four days later on the Bulldogs' baseball field, where his casket was positioned behind home plate. However, the community's support was of little help to a heartbroken Dan who withdrew into himself after the loss of his beloved son.
"I was very emotional, dealing with anxiety and depression," the city administrator recalled. "I couldn't leave the house. I couldn't get myself to go." Ultimately, it was a promise to support his son's teammates and attend the games that resumed after a respectful pause that pulled Dan out of mourning. When the 46-year-old showed up to throw out the first pitch in Ethan's honor as per the school's request, the school principal gave him a book titled A Year of Playing Catch, written by an author named Ethan D. Bryan.
Seeing his late son's name on a book about baseball "floored me," Dan shared. "I stared at the cover for over a year." When he finally mustered up the courage to read the book, he was gripped by the author's nonfiction account of tossing a baseball with a different person for 365 days in a row. Not long after, he was on the phone with the author, discussing his desire to launch his own yearlong game of catch. "Tossing this ball," Dan 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 launching his year of catch—which he christened Baseball Seams to Heal—on January 1, 2022, Dan has used Ethan's ball and glove to play catch with more than 240 individuals. People from as far as California, Florida, Texas and Israel, as well as entire teams, have contacted him about joining him in a toss. Although it began as an effort to honor Ethan's memory, over the past seven months, Dan's initiative has helped him connect with the community, many of whom he discovered are dealing with similar losses. "The thing I didn't anticipate was being a part of someone else's healing," he said. "It's become a really beautiful thing."
Meanwhile, Ethan's family members have also honored his legacy by raising money—through a golf tournament, trivia evenings and a Facebook campaign—to grant around $12,000 in scholarships in the late teen's honor to college-bound West County High School students the last two years. Today, Baseball Seams to Heal is the name of his initiative. He now books two or more sessions a day sometimes to accommodate the overwhelming number of requests. "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," said Dan.
"I've learned that healing can happen in many different forms," he continued. "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. And it allows me to find this healing... Now, people come to me and we're able to shoulder some of each other's pain. Even though I'm hurting, I can help. It's what Ethan would have done."