DANVILLE — A Vermilion County native will take the Danville Stadium field as a member of the visiting team during the 10th annual Finest vs. Bravest softball charity event on Saturday.
Jason Wills, a 2000 Oakwood High School graduate and veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, will be one of the 11 players on VETSports' National Softball Team that will showcase its athletic abilities once again during the three-game softball series against the Danville police and fire departments.
"It's such an honor to play with them," said Wills, 31, who now lives in Danville. "It's definitely something I couldn't pass up."
The charity event, which is free and open to the public, is hosted by the Danville Police Benevolent and Protective Association Unit 11 and Danville Firefighters Local 429 in partnership with Doug Barnette and family.
Each year, the event draws thousands of people to the historic stadium's stands and raises thousands of dollars for local agencies and causes including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, CRIS Senior Services and the AMBUCS' AmTryke program. This year, the proceeds will be used to help offset the medical expenses of Kim Pasley of Danville and Alex McMahon of Westville, both of whom are fighting cancer.
"It's just a fun event for the whole family, and every year, it just grows," said Jason Dunavan, a police officer and event organizer. "Two years ago, we raised $12,000 for charity, and last year, we raised $16,000. Hopefully this year, we'll exceed that."
This is the third consecutive year that police and firefighter teams will square off against a team of combat-wounded veterans, which has been a big draw for fans. The first year, the local teams hosted the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. This year, they will host the VETSports team for the second year in a row.
The nonprofit organization helps raise funds for and awareness of its mission, which is "to help wounded veterans overcome their injuries through adaptive sports and rehabilitation programs."
"The guys are completely amped to come back and feel like a major leaguer for the day," said B.T. Urruela, VETSports vice president and an Iraq War Army vet who lost his right leg below the knee after his Humvee was hit by two improvised explosive devices in 2006. Urruela, of Tampa, also came to Danville with the Wounded Warrior team in 2011. "It's an amazing crowd, and they always fill the stadium. It's great to have that kind of response and community support."
Urruela and his teammates are eager to have a local warrior join them, something they started at a July event in Houston. Wills will wear the team's No. 4 jersey.
"It's just another way to interact with the community," he said.
Wills was 19 and a year out of high school and when he joined the Army in July 2001. He was in basic training when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2002.
On Nov. 5, 2003, during his tour in Iraq, two rocket-propelled grenades hit the Humvee Wills and four others were riding in while patrolling a highway. The blast killed his platoon sergeant and left Wills with a traumatic brain injury that affected his fine motor skills in his right — and once dominant — arm and hand.
Wills was hospitalized for a month and spent a couple years in physical rehabilitation. Wills, who still has seven pieces of shrapnel in his brain, had to learn how to speak, read and write and complete daily tasks like feeding and dressing himself again, all with his left hand.
Though he suffered his share of frustration, he refused to let the experience make him bitter.
"The doctor thought I was going to die, so I'm happy to be alive," said Wills, who works at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System and leads an active life. "I can deal with my injuries. If I want to accomplish something, I'll find a way. It just may take me a little longer to get it done."
It was that determination that led him to join a team in the Danville Parks and Recreation summer softball league in 2004.
"It helps me relieve a lot of the stress," said Wills, who has always been athletic and ran cross-country and track in high school. "And I'm the type who if someone tells me I can't do it, I'm like, 'I'll show you.'"
Wills said he's thrilled to play for the VETSports team, a chance he got thanks to some police officers who passed his name along to team officials as a potential player.
"It's going to be awesome," he said. "I think it's great how they show people that even if you had a severe injury, you can overcome that."
Finest vs. Bravest
7 p.m.: Meet and greet with VETSports National Softball Team (combat-wounded vets).
All day, El Toro restaurant in Danville will donate 20 percent of customers' bills to VETSports nonprofit organization.
2:40 p.m.: The VETSports team will be escorted to Danville Stadium by the American Legion Riders, Illinois Patriot Guard and several emergency vehicles.
The route begins at Danville Area Community College's front parking lot, goes through the Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System grounds, goes west on Main Street to Gilbert Street, south on Gilbert Street to Fourth Street, east on Fourth Street to Highland Boulevard and south on Highland Boulevard to the stadium. People are asked to line the street with flags and signs and cheer on the players.
3 p.m.: Gates open, and batting practice begins.
4 p.m.: Home run derby with players from each team competing.
5 p.m.: Opening ceremonies with Danville police Officer Dennis Rogers singing the National Anthem and state Sen. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, and state Rep. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, throwing out the first pitch.
5:30 p.m.: Danville Police Department vs. VETSports
6:30: First intermission with K-9 demonstrations and a speed painting by local artist John Jansky. The painting will be auctioned off that night.
7 p.m.: Danville Police Department vs. Danville Fire Department.
8 p.m.: Second intermission with more K-9 demonstrations.
8:30 p.m.: Danville Fire Department vs. VETSports.
Fireworks show to follow.