Jake Crooks fights through vision loss to pitch for Helena

Published 8:43 am Thursday, April 28, 2022

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

HELENA – With a whiffle bat in hand and his dad tossing him pitches, Jake Crooks was unaware of the path of perseverance he was creating through baseball at the age of 3.

Now a junior on the Helena High School baseball team, Crooks fell in love with the sport at the age of 8 and poured hours of work into becoming the best.

Crooks, however, isn’t your normal baseball player. Since the age of 7, he has persevered through a rare vision condition that led to the loss of the majority of his vision in his right eye and the loss of some vision in his left eye.

“It has made me a lot stronger,” Crooks said. “I have gifts that I didn’t think I would have when I was younger because of the condition. I didn’t know if I would make this team or be able to do other things, and I’ve been through trials and tribulations, but I’ve made it through.”

Changing his view

When he was 5 years old, Crooks was diagnosed with X-linked juvenile retinoschisis, which is a condition that impairs vision beginning in childhood and can worsen through contact.

In more severe cases, there is a separation of the retinal layers or leakage of blood vessels in the retina, which lead to severe impairment of vision, which is what Crooks has had to deal with in his right eye.

After his diagnosis, however, he was fine for the next two years until he hit his head on the monkey bars one day at recess.

“I was fine,” Crooks said. “I just had a big goose egg on my head.”

But three days later, in the middle of a baseball game, Crooks found himself on third when all of a sudden, his vision went blurry.

“Everything went black,” he said. “I couldn’t see anything. It was like I had big clouds following my vision around.”

The next day, his parents took him to a few different doctors to get to the bottom of what was happening.

Crooks was eventually diagnosed with a detached retina, which is where the back of the eye pulls away from the layer of blood vessels.

The condition itself is rare and the detachment even more rare.

That, however, was just the start for Crooks.

He has had six detached retinas in his right eye and four additional surgeries in his right eye, which eventually led to the loss of most vision out of his right eye.

“In those surgeries, I forget which one it was, we think it was nine or 10, my optic nerve grew pale. Ever since then, I only have light perception in my right eye now. Basically, that’s just like I cover up my left eye and I can only tell where a light is coming from. I can’t make out an object or really anything. I can tell you when something is lit up, but nothing else.”

Finding his path

With the loss of vision in his right eye, playing the sport he loves has presented its share of challenges the last several years from the main aspects of the game, such as hitting a baseball and playing catch.

From third through sixth grade, Crooks said his vision wasn’t as bad. He played outfield during those years, and he could struggle to find the ball off the bat at times, but it wasn’t until seventh grade when he had that 10th surgery and his optic nerve went bad that he really felt the impact.

“Nowadays, if I’m playing catch with people, if I’m playing catch with someone who throws hard, I can’t see it,” Crooks said.

He recalled moments as an eighth grader and a freshman when he busted his lip throwing with someone and broke his nose another time while warming up in the bullpen because he never saw the ball coming.

The time he broke his nose, he failed to see two in a row before the third one popped him in the face.

Through that, Crooks had to make adjustments. He knew giving up on playing his favorite sport wasn’t an option, so he worked to adapt.

“It has definitely caused my depth perception to get really bad, but it has also presented a neat challenge,” Crooks said. “With it, I’ve learned how to adapt to it. I’ve found out when I tell people to throw it to my right side with my left eye facing that way, I see it a lot better. Or with me being a pitcher only, we do touches instead of number signals. It has been really neat to adapt to those changes.”

He also credited former teammate Brooks Tolbert, who dealt with slight vision impairments as well, but continued working to play baseball.

“It was inspiring to know he was on a team that was really good and he contributed to that team,” Crooks said. “It inspired me a lot to want to be that type of player and not feel sorry for myself in the game in a sense of ‘Woe is me.’ I didn’t want to make excuses, I wanted to push through the adversity of being prohibited with what I could do in certain aspects of the game.”

He did, however, have another scare and test of faith in February when he was sitting in class and his left eye started causing him issues.

“I couldn’t even read the big E on the chart,” Crooks said. “It happened so sporadically too. I was just sitting in class and all of sudden couldn’t see the board.”

He said it was a terrifying moment and the doctor appointments that followed didn’t make it any easier.

“It was scary because some of the doctors we talked with thought it was a detached retina in my good eye,” Crooks said. “We were very concerned about that. I was texting everybody and letting them know how unsure I was.”

Crooks said that by the grace of God it was just a hemorrhage and he missed a few days of school, but can now ultimately see well enough again to do what he was doing before.

He currently has 20-40 vision in his left eye, but if he gets hit, there is a risk of the retina detaching and his left eye also losing visuallyvision.

Still, he fights on for his love of the game, and he doesn’t let anyone know he’s dealing with any more than the rest of the team.

“We take for granted what we have and don’t really fathom the amount of courage it takes to do what he does every day,” head coach PJ Guy said. “Everyday life for us, during the season, you go out there and you really don’t realize there is anything wrong with him because he doesn’t give you any signs or attitude that he is dealing with anything different, even though he is. To see the struggles that he does go through and the way he does handle it, it’s inspiring to his coaches and his teammates.”

Crooks has taken that approach throughout his journey, as he continues to progress as a baseball player, even changing his mechanics from an over-the-top motion by dropping it down to be a lower release.

He has been working closely with former Helena pitcher Robbie Lively, who also used a dropped arm slot to pitch and had success in doing so for the Huskies.

Crooks said he hopes that translates to success on the field going into his senior season so he can make a big impact for the Huskies.

Seeing what others can’t

Despite visual impairments, Crooks does see other aspects of the sport and life more clearly than many his age might because of his adversity.

It’s one of the reasons the coaches and players look up to him as a leader of the Huskies, who are in the midst of the playoffs.

“Jake contributes in so many ways to this team,” Guy said. “He contributes through his work ethic day-in and day-out. Regardless of if they are an everyday player or not, I think he is the most well-respected player on our baseball team. He has earned that because of the type of player and teammate he is. The guys also know that he deals with something that the rest of them don’t have to deal with. They respect him for how he carries it by not acting any different. He is a teammate first.”

Known as “Pastor Jake” to much of the team, he also doesn’t shy away from his faith, which is another key in him having the respect of his teammates, according to Guy.

“He really affects all of us and inspires me with how bold he is with his faith,” Guy said. “He’s everything we could ever ask for in a Helena baseball player, and we’re the lucky ones who get to be a part of his life.” 

Perhaps most impressive, however, is the ability of Crooks to have a realistic outlook on what playing high school baseball can do for him in learning about life more so than the stats that come along with the game.

Guy said his response to difficult situations, including his visual impairments, is something that separates him from most teenagers.

“This is a game of failure,” Crooks said. “You’re going to fail regardless, and you have to make the adjustment to improve on it. That’s also how life is. When you fail in life, you have to pick yourself up. You can’t just have a standstill. You can’t dwell on it. It happened for a reason, now let’s move forward and find out why it happened.”

That outlook is one major reason Crooks said he doesn’t fear what’s ahead when it comes to his vision. He said he realizes how blessed he is to play the game for the time being and do other activities such as simply drive a car.

It’s that faith and outlook that has been infectious to the entire team, as they not only look to continue a special postseason run, but also prepare for life as they move forward.