A little more than three months ago, Norm Mueller was laid out in a Springfield hospital bed. His head and neck were braced. He was allowed to move his eyes, but little else.
Hours earlier, Mueller got out of bed at his Atlanta home to go to the bathroom. Those of us on the shaded side of 50 know all about that.
Mueller fell and hit his head, snapping it backward.
“I broke the C6 (vertebrae) … which is typically called a broken neck,” he said.
So there he was on the afternoon of April 5, lying motionless (though not paralyzed) as he awaited surgery that night. Looking at him, you wondered how long his road back would be. Surely, you thought, it would never include umpiring again.
Now look at him.
This weekend, Mueller was back on the diamond, calling balls and strikes and signaling safe and out in the Bloomington-Normal Girls Softball Association In-Town Tournament at Champion Fields.
Friday, he worked two games (one behind the plate) with temperature in the 90s and a heat index north of 100. Saturday, he was to work three more, the middle one behind the plate.
Oh, and there’s this. Mueller is 77 years old.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh man, what are you doing?’” Mueller said Saturday prior to a 1 p.m. 12-under game. “This keeps me active. I don’t want to sit around on the couch and do nothing. I’ve been around kids all my life. I taught school for 38 years. I just love to have fun with them.”
Motivation comes in many forms. For Mueller, the chance to interact with and impact young players tops the list.
It drove him during his recovery from surgery that lasted eight hours, starting at 8 p.m. April 5 and ending at 4 a.m. April 6. He said two spindles, 12 screws and a plate were inserted.
What followed was a rehab prescribed by a doctor but overseen at home by Mueller’s wife of 56 years, Pat.
“She was a good nurse,” he said.
“I was determined I was going to do my exercises and someway, somehow if I didn’t make it back this fall, I was going to make it next year,” Mueller said. “I did everything they wanted me to do, but more. I just wanted to get back.”
In the interest of full disclosure, Mueller was my eighth-grade baseball and basketball coach at Atlanta Grade School. He was a good coach who made you work but also made you laugh.
He later coached girls basketball at Olympia High School and is a member of the Olympia Activities Hall of Fame. His teams won more than they lost, but outcome aside, he always cared about those in uniform.
That hasn’t changed.
Throughout his lengthy career as an umpire, Mueller has gone out of his way to encourage players. Some have the letters to prove it.
He estimates he’s written more than 100 over the years, seeking to lift spirits and promote good work habits and sportsmanship.
“I always go to the parents first and ask them if it’s OK,” Mueller said. “Then they’ll sneak me the address.
“I’ve gotten some responses and then when I see them they’ll say, ‘I still have your letter. I read it every once in a while.’ It makes you feel good when you see them or the mother or the father and they say, ‘Thank you so much for that letter.’”
Mueller missed that interaction in what he called “a long spring and summer.” To most, three and a half months is not so long. For Mueller, it was an eternity.
While his surgeon recently OK’d the return to umpiring, Mueller still is not allowed to drive because of the possibility his fall was caused by a seizure. He was told not to drive for sixth months, or until Oct. 5.
That means his wife will be driving him to and from games, as she did this weekend.
“I only have two open dates in August, so I’ll be pretty busy,” he said. “People say, ‘Why don’t you stop and enjoy life? Go on a trip?’ I don’t want to do that. I enjoy what I’m doing. It's what I love.”
The game, and its players, love him back.
Great to see them reunited.