Cubs

Project 34: How a friendship evolved into a movement

Cubs

The image of Cory Hahn slowly pulling off his batting gloves after ball four is cemented into Trevor Williams’ memory. Somehow, he felt the gravity of that moment during the first weekend series of their freshman year at Arizona State University.

Not long after, Hahn was laying on the ground at second base, with their coach and athletic trainer standing over him. Williams didn’t see the initial impact. But he remembers watching the trainer’s body language, trying to read the severity of Hahn’s injury from the way the trainer put his hands on his head.

“That was the first time in my life where I heard sirens and knew exactly what it was for,” Williams said.

A decade later, Williams and Hahn’s friendship has deepened and evolved. They’re no longer teammates on the baseball field Williams is on a one-year deal with the Cubs, and Hahn is the Diamondbacks’ coordinator of pro scouting – but they’re colleagues in a different sense.  

The friends run a nonprofit together. They created Project 34 to support individuals living with spinal cord injuries, like the one Hahn sustained their freshman year at ASU. They borrowed the number Hahn wore in college for the name of the nonprofit.

 

Similarly, Williams switched his own number a couple years into his big-league career to honor Hahn. But when he signed with the Cubs this offseason, Williams wasn’t going to ask for No. 34 out of respect to Jon Lester. So, he reached out to Hahn: “Hey, dude, I’ve got a problem.”

Williams gave Hahn the list of available numbers, and one jumped out to him right away. Hahn had worn No. 32 in high school and travel ball. The number was taken by a senior in Hahn’s first year at ASU, and he’d planned to switch back to it the next season. Williams agreed to No. 32 right away.

“I'm really excited that Chicago’s going to get to know this guy,” Hahn said of Williams early in the season, “because he’s an A-1 human, and there's not many like that.”

 

Williams and Hahn played on the same travel ball team, the ABD Bulldogs. That’s how they first met. The pair roomed together on a trip to Georgia, where Hahn said he had to stop Williams from microwaving nachos in a metal pan.

From the beginning, they’ve clicked, Hahn told NBC Sports Chicago.

“We’re very similar in the way we approach life,” Hahn said. “Our minds work pretty similarly – we both like to have a lot of fun, we both obviously had a passion for baseball, however insanely competitive.”

They both ended up at ASU, where the California natives were roommates. Williams began his decorated college career as a reliever. Hahn, who’d been named their home state’s Mr. Baseball, chose college over pro ball when the Padres drafted him in the 26th round of the 2010 MLB draft.

On opening weekend, Hahn started in center field in the second game of a Sunday doubleheader against New Mexico. In his first at-bat, Hahn drew a walk, slowly removing his batting gloves. He remembers Deven Marrero, now a Marlins infielder and then the Sun Devils’ shortstop, flashing the signal for a double steal from second.

“Basically, it’s like a perfect storm,” Hahn said.

They both took off, and the Lobos catcher threw to second. Hahn slid headfirst, and the throw pulled the second baseman off the bag. The second baseman’s knee collided with Hahn’s head. Hahn ended up on his side, watching the ball roll into the outfield.

 

“This is always the weird part to think about,” Hahn said, “but because of the nature of the injury, it's a very painless injury because your body just goes completely numb. Mentally I just told myself, ‘Get up. Go to third.’ And then I couldn't.”

Hahn’s dad ran onto the field from the stands, joining the coaches and trainers tending to Hahn. ASU coach Tim Esmay asked Hahn how he felt. He couldn’t feel where his body was in space.

“Where am I?” Hahn said.

Esmay told him he was on second base, that he was safe on the play.

“Damn right, I’m safe,” Hahn said, uttering a phrase that would become a Sun Devils rallying cry.

 

Within a couple hours, Hahn said, he was undergoing emergency surgery. Doctors told him he’d sustained a burst fracture of his C5 vertebra. He was still sedated when Williams and the rest of their team came to see him, straight from the field. Hahn found out later that they stayed until the hospital kicked them out.

It wasn’t until the next morning that Hahn began to understand what his diagnosis would mean for him.

“That's obviously when they dropped the bomb of, we don’t anticipate you ever walking again,” said Hahn, whose injury paralyzed him from the chest down.

Hahn decided to undergo his inpatient injury rehabilitation – as he put it, “starting to relearn life again” back home in Southern California.

“It was a grind,” Hahn said, “because it's a lot of really frustrating moments, when you realize you can't feed yourself, or can’t even brush your own teeth.”

After he was released from the inpatient program, Hahn was going to rehab five days a week, split between three different facilities. Williams, a San Diego native, asked Hahn for his rehab schedule. Home for the summer, Williams would show up at Project Walk in Carlsbad to keep Hahn company.

 

“It's a monotonous rehab process, where you're doing the same thing over and over and over again,” Williams said. “It's very small wins over a long period of time.”

Williams treasured those sessions with Hahn. He likened it to hanging out with a friend while he was working out at the gym. Except Hahn’s reps would be things like rolling on a mat or regulating blood pressure in a standing frame.

“It helped me a ton, knowing that I wasn't in this fight alone,” said Hahn, who redirected his competitive drive into his rehab. “And that's all that I've ever needed.”

Hahn said he gained back more function than his original prognosis.

 

A birthday dinner birthed Project 34.

Since their college days, Hahn and Williams had talked about wanting to give back – at first, they just hadn’t settled on how or when. But in December of 2017, Williams had just finished the first full season of his MLB career with the Pirates. Hahn was climbing the ranks in the Diamondbacks front office.

“At that point in time,” Hahn said, “there just happened to be a lot of things going in the right direction and things in place to where we could then really start to open up and dive into this.”

They met at Steak 44 in Phoenix to celebrate the birthdays of Hahn and Tanner Bush, who was the baseball team’s student manager when they were in school together. The five of them – Hahn, Trevor Williams and his wife Jackie, Tanner Bush and his wife Megan – gathered around a white tablecloth setting for the festivities.

Eventually, the conversation turned to launching a nonprofit.

“My first question to Cory,” Williams said, “was, if you needed help, what would you need help with the most? Would it be finances? Would it be emotional? Should we just make a startup wheelchair donation nonprofit? Should we build a facility for physical therapy? What do you think is the biggest thing?”

The group of friends decided they wanted to make an immediate impact on peoples’ lives. They settled on financial support and providing equipment that insurance wouldn’t cover.

“You go through all these rigors of the day-to-day life,” Hahn said, “and it's not cheap, it's hard, and you need help and support, as much as you possibly can (get). And that was one thing I always had.

 

 “I was very fortunate, but not everybody is that fortunate.”

They added two more members to their team. Sam Cerbo, another ASU alumnus, became the treasurer. Kristen Purnell, a friend of Megan Bush’s, steered the group through the process of launching a nonprofit. All seven original members still serve on the board.

“I sit here smiling and just getting so giddy about it, thinking back to that night," Megan Bush said, "because there was never really a moment when we were sitting at dinner thinking, ‘Is this a good idea?’ We never questioned it.”

Project 34 has given out over $90,000 in grants over the last couple years, Hahn estimates.

 

The connections Williams has made through Project 34 have stuck with him – from a five-year-old with a rare neurological condition, to a teenager who was shot in the back of the neck. The nonprofit has installed ramps and wheelchair lifts, giving people access to their basement or truck – but more than that, providing additional independence after a life-altering injury.

“Everyone has a story, and everyone has a tragedy,” Williams said. “And to see everybody fight for the greater good, or the good to come out of their tragedy, is awesome.”

Some stories have hit close to home. Last summer, a family friend of Megan Bush's sustained a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident. Josh O’Callaghan – who is now in his early 20s and was seeking a master’s degree while working at Intel – was one of her younger brother’s buddies who would hang out at their house and stay for dinner when they were kids.

“It’s overwhelmingly emotional because of the information you know,” Bush said. “… That's why it's so impactful for me, is that it’s someone you love and you wouldn't want them to have any struggles in any way.”

O’Callaghan qualified for a grant from Project 34 to make his living quarters more accessible, Bush said. He’s applied for the next grant quarter too, hoping for a standing chair.

“It's coming full circle,” Williams said. “It's like, ‘Yes, we can help you. This is what it's for.’”

Other stories have a sadder ending.

 

A little over a year and a half ago, Williams and Hahn met their first grant recipient.

“That's what I'll always remember, to be able to not just break the news, but do it in person,” Hahn said, “to just see the impact on not just his face, but his wife’s face, was pretty incredible.”

Project 34 provided him with a standing frame and other equipment for his return home from the hospital. But as the coronavirus pandemic gained a foothold in the U.S., he died of COVID-19.

 

A couple days before Williams last start of spring training, the Cubs pitcher sat down with Hahn over a glass of bourbon and a full agenda. They had to go over Project 34 social media strategies, an apparel revamp, and the pledge cards they were creating for players.

Both in Arizona, the pair spent plenty of time together this spring. But Project 34 gave them one more reason to meet up.

 “He is a very determined individual,” Williams said of Hahn. “… All the stars were aligning for him to have a long career in baseball. After injury, you saw that same determination, you saw the same grit, you saw the same fight in him, that he's going to walk again someday.

“And seeing it carry over now, from an athlete to the more business side of baseball and seeing him in a professional setting, you can still see that fire in him.”

Williams jokes that when Hahn eventually becomes a general manager, his Project 34 cofounder/former teammate and roommate better be Hahn’s first transaction.

 “Yes, Trevor's a major league pitcher, and he's really good at what he does,” Hahn said. “But baseball definitely doesn't define this guy. The incredibly big heart that he has, the way that he is as a family man, as a father, as a husband, as a friend, are probably his strongest characteristics.”

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