When I first said, “I’m going back in,” my brother-in-law said, “No, you’re not.”
I said, “Yes, I am,” and Cathie said, “What do you mean you’re going back in?”
And I said, “Baby, I have to go back in. I can’t just let these people die.”
And she knew I had to go.
This is not about baseball. It just happens to involve a baseball family.
On October 1, 2017, Todd Blyleven was at the final concert of Route 91 Harvest, a three-day country music festival held each year in Las Vegas, Nevada. He had traveled from his home near Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Cathie, along with six friends from Texas. They met up with Cathie’s brother and his wife, along with several other friends from Southern California, where the Blylevens had lived until a couple months earlier. It was Todd and Cathie’s fourth straight year attending the festival with most of the same group of friends and family, and it culminated in this concert featuring one of their favorite country singers, Jason Aldean.
A few minutes after 10:00 p.m., Todd heard gunshots coming from high up in the Mandalay Bay hotel adjacent to the outdoor concert venue. The first round of shots caused more confusion than anything else. When the shots started a second time, people began to take cover. During the third volley of bullets, the Blyleven group rushed to the exit, to what they hoped was safety.
“After I got my wife and our group out,” he says, “we were running down the east side of the venue on Giles Street toward Tropicana, and I saw a guy carrying a girl who had been shot. So I ran over and helped lay her down, and her body was lifeless. At that moment, that feeling of her arm, of her hair brushing against my forearm, and the lifelessness of her body — something grabbed me and said, ‘You need to go do something. You need to go back.’ And I looked at my brother-in-law and said, ‘Joe, you need to take Cathie and Heather and keep running north. I’m going back in.'”
Todd Blyleven never served in the military. He has never been a police officer or a firefighter or a paramedic. But he is an athlete, from a family of athletes. Todd’s father, Bert Blyleven, spent 22 years in the big leagues with the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, and California Angels and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011. Todd spent five seasons as a pitcher in the minor leagues, then spent several years as a scout for the Angels and the Colorado Rockies. As a scout in Northern California for the Angels, Blyleven scouted a high school player named Troy Tulowitzki, then helped the Rockies to draft Tulowitzki in the first round of the 2005 draft out of Cal State Long Beach.
At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Todd Blyleven the pitcher was fearless. These days, he says, “I’m still athletic, even though I’m 45 and completely out of shape,” and that fearlessness still remains. So when he felt the need to run back into the line of fire to help the helpless, he subconsciously fell back on his athletic training. “I look back on those long runs, ‘Hell Week’ and things like that, things where you learn to persevere and battle through pain. I’ve got a hip that bothers me on my left side, but you just don’t stop. All that training allowed me to keep my body moving.”
It’s not just Todd’s athleticism that he drew on. “I know that I had God’s help,” he says. “I know that angels were protecting me. I was scared to death, but at the same time, I had no fear of taking that next step, because I knew that if I went down, I went down proud, I went down fighting for someone else.”
“I had a dream a few days later,” Blyleven says, “where I saw an angel sweeping through the venue floor, shielding me from bullets. I woke up, and I had that same feeling that it was real.”
Cathie recently had her first dream about that night. “Cathie’s dream was hearing the sound of the gunfire and of us running towards the exit, and it kept repeating every time she closed her eyes. PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] affects people at different stages or times in their recovery or healing process. Unfortunately, at 5:00 a.m. the other night, it affected my wife, which was very hard for me to see. You just wrap your arms around her and tell her she is ok, and she is safe, and alive. You just love.”
The details of what went on that night are still somewhat of a blur for Todd. He and others carried some victims over their shoulders, but they also used wheelbarrows to get the wounded out of harm’s way. When he talked to a reporter just hours after the shooting, Blyleven estimated that he had helped about 30 people out of the concert venue to safety. Over time, between the help of his therapists and people who have reached out to him on social media, he came to realize that the number is larger than he thought.
“I remember carrying people over my shoulder,” he says, “but I don’t remember the timing of it. I don’t remember all the steps that I took. The pieces are all disjointed, and the night jumps from start to end to middle. That’s PTSD. But through therapy, I’ve been able to remember just how far into the venue I went, how many people I saw on the ground. It’s just really hard to process all of that emotion, everything that is missing in the storyline.”
He physically helped about 40 people to safety; there was also a group of about 100 people who had taken cover behind some chairs, and he helped encourage and guide them to make a successful run for the exit.
Between Todd’s heroism and his famous family, word of his bravery got out pretty quickly. Over the ensuing days and weeks, he received messages from several people on Facebook. “They just said, ‘You helped me,’ or, ‘You carried me out and I just wanted to say thank you.'” Some of the messages sparked memories for him; there are others who have told him he helped them who he just can’t remember.
Not everyone was so fortunate. Three women who Todd carried or helped out of the venue died in his arms. He found out later that another woman passed away on the way to the hospital that night.
Those four people stick in Todd’s mind, but so do some others. He recently got a tattoo on his shoulder and tricep in memory of that night. In the middle of the tattoo is the Route 91 logo surrounded by five stars. One star is to honor his wife. Another is to honor the 58 people who lost their lives that night. The other three represent people who worked by his side that night.
The first was an off-duty emergency room trauma nurse. When Todd speaks of her, you can hear the admiration in his voice. She was “a little, tiny, 5-foot-nothin’ blonde-haired lady” who, as soon as she had reached safety, turned to him and asked, “What can I do to help?” He found out she was a nurse, and she ended up setting up a makeshift triage center to assess needs and get everyone the best medical care possible in an impossible situation. Blyleven and several others have tried to find out who that nurse was, but so far their efforts have been in vain.
The next star represents another nurse, who bravely ran back into danger by Todd’s side to help give aid to a girl who had been shot. He says that her example was an inspiration to him “to always help others when in need regardless of the situation.”
The fifth star represents an off-duty paramedic with whom he spent much of the night. “As I was running back in, I was running against the wave of people coming out. But each time that I went in — the times I remember, anyway; apparently I went in about a dozen times — there was someone else with me. One time, after the shooting was over, there was a guy standing next to me, and he said, ‘Let’s go.’ I said, ‘Who are you?’ And he said, ‘I’ve been with you.’ I didn’t even realize it. He was a Las Vegas EMT — he would assess, I would lift, and we would go.” About that man, Todd said on his Facebook page, “You never stopped. You will forever be honored by me.”
“I saw some of the bravest people I’ll ever see in my life that night.”
A couple days after the shooting, Blyleven saw a video that a concert attendee had taken, a video that shows Todd himself running in and out of the frame helping those in need. At one point, he says, “I see myself just standing there, yelling for medical attention for someone who was injured, and there’s gunfire going on, and I’m watching the video and thinking, ‘Hey, stupid! Get back a little bit! You’re gonna get yourself shot!'”
Even after the shooting was over, Blyleven and the others had no way of knowing they were safe. There were false reports of other gunmen, of bombs in hotels. For seven hours after the shooting, Blyleven and others continued to search for survivors and perpetrators, and it was more than eight hours from the time Todd and Cathie separated to when they were safely reunited. “I knew that she was safe, and I knew that she was with her brother. I knew that he’s a strong guy who would do whatever it took to protect her and his wife. But I thought of her and our two kids with every step I took.”
Eventually, word got out that it had been a lone shooter and that the situation had been resolved. After hours of selfless work, Blyleven’s night was over.
“If you want to call it stubborn, I guess I was as stubborn as you can get,” he says. “I was just gonna keep going until there was no one left who needed my help, and that’s what I did. At the Tropicana, we were cordoned off into a room, and a SWAT team member came up to me. I had other people’s blood all over me, on my clothes and my cowboy hat and my boots. And he just touched my shoulder and said, ‘I’ve got you now. You don’t have to do anymore.’ And I just collapsed. He stood over me for … I don’t even know how long. I just collapsed. I had people coming up and giving me hugs and giving me water. I remember I had a lot of pain in my body, and a young girl went and got some Advil for me.
“Wow. I had forgotten all that until just now, talking about it.”
Hours after the shooting, Blyleven told a reporter that it was going to be “a day or two” before he could shake the emotions associated with that night. It has been nearly five months, and he’s not there yet. He started meeting with a therapist immediately upon his return to Texas, which was helpful. Then a friend, who is a firefighter in the San Francisco Bay Area, recommended Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR), which is commonly used to treat PTSD stemming from military combat.
“I couldn’t remember a lot of what happened in the first 90 minutes after the shooting,” he says. “The EMDR allows me to chip away at the backside of my brain and chip things off as my brain is able to process them. It kind of puts them in a sequence, like I’m watching a movie with all the scenes mixed up, and the EMDR helps put those things back in order for me so I can process them.”
There is no set plan in place for when Blyleven thinks he will be fully recovered. He says it’s “a day-to-day thing.” He is drawing on his relationship with his wife and his rekindled relationship with God.
“I find that the one place where I can release and cry and take my armor off is church. I’m not normally a cryer,” he says. “I was raised to try to be this big strong athlete. Especially around my wife, I try to be this tough guy. But church is a place where I feel safe to sometimes let things out, and it adds to that healing process. And that’s good — it’s okay to cry.
“I wasn’t an extremely religious person before,” he says, “but I am joined at the hip with God now, and I’m ready to fight evil wherever it is.”
When asked if he has survivor’s guilt, Blyleven pauses. “I’m heartbroken for the people who lost their lives. At the same time, I’m very happy to be alive. I’m proud of what I was able to do. I can say honestly, because I’ve been through it, that I would do it again. I’m happy that I was able to help other people survive. I wish I could have helped more people, but I don’t feel guilty for surviving.”
Blyleven says he feels a kinship with other people who have gone through what he went through, either in Las Vegas or in other acts of senseless violence. “I run into people who were at Route 91, people I don’t know, but we share that. And the first thing we always say is, ‘I’m really happy that you lived. I’m happy that you made it.'”
For Todd, his life changed on that October night, and he doesn’t know when — or if — things will get back to his old version of “normal.” He doesn’t even really know what outcome he is looking for in therapy, but he has a few specific goals.
“All I’m trying to do,” he says, “is to try to fight that battle every day to where I can process more, I can release more, and I can learn to live my life with this trauma. I want to go to a movie with my kids. I want to be able to go to an outdoor concert again one day — I can’t right now. I can’t even listen to Jason Aldean, who was one of my favorite singers, because it triggers flashbacks of what I saw, heard, and touched that night. But it’s my goal to be able to go to one of his concerts again.”
And yet, amid the tragedy and the PTSD and the nightmares, Blyleven is working on coming out the other side a better person. He says there are some parts of his old “normal” that he doesn’t plan on returning to.
“What this has done for me and the others who were in this situation or any similar situation,” he says, “is, when I look at life now, I’m not just seeing a flower, I’m not just seeing a tree, but I’m really seeing the beauty behind it and appreciating it. And the small drama that we allow ourselves to build up in life, we let it take over and take away from the most important things in life — I don’t do that anymore. I know it’s short-term, but I’m not planning on going back to that. You grab onto the things that are really important and you really look at life from a new perspective. And each step that I take now, I take for the 58 people who died that night, who don’t get to take those steps for themselves.”
Blyleven, like everyone else, is unsure exactly how to stop things like this from happening. But seeing it happen again in Sutherland, Texas, in November and Parkland, Florida, last week, he recognizes that something needs to change.
“I don’t want to get into politics,” he says, “but when you’re there and you’re seeing these moms and dads and sisters and brothers — everyday people — being shot and killed, it’s horrifying. And I just hope that our government and the powers that be really start to put their foot down and try to change today’s society in a way that we can better identify these types of people who would do this thing, and maybe put a little control on the kind of weaponry that is being put out in the public.”
Blyleven was honored at a baseball banquet in Southern California recently. Watching coaches and players receive awards for their work on the field, he began to feel a little unsure of his place there. When it came his time to speak, he worried about bringing the crowd down. But what he said to that group shows the lessons that can be taught and learned in baseball and other sports, life lessons that can apply to situations of all kinds.
“This really doesn’t relate to baseball,” he said, “other than that I was a baseball player. I loved to play, and I hated to lose. I don’t know if that had anything to do with this. But baseball gave me character — I learned that from my dad. Baseball allowed me to play on a team and develop a work ethic. Those three things got me through this experience, and those three things will help me get over it: hard work, team, and character. If you have good character, you have a good team around you, and you work hard, you can do anything.”
Blyleven’s team now consists of Cathie (who recently bought him a new pair of cowboy boots to replace the blood-stained pair he wore that night), their children, his therapists, and the support group he is surrounded by (including the friends and family who attended the concert with him). His character and his genuine caring for his fellow man led him to run back into harm’s way 10 or 15 times that night, and that character is now helping him learn the lessons he needed to learn from the experience.
When Blyleven took action that night, there was no thought of personal gain or fame, and throughout our discussion he repeatedly turns his focus to the other brave souls who helped save the lives of strangers, as well as the 58 people they weren’t able to save. But he is willing to talk about it, to put his story out there, because of the lessons to be learned.
“Not every act of service is this dramatic,” he says, “but we never know how we can affect someone else’s life. My story is about moving forward in a positive direction, and my hope is that more people will hear it and open their arms a little more to people in need of help. I still can’t believe that I did any of this, or that the event even happened. I will never forget those that fell that night, the injured who fought to stay alive, and those brave people who put their lives at risk to help complete strangers or loved ones in a time of great need. That night changed my life forever, but forever I will lead a life of doing good and a life filled with love. It’s really the way life is supposed to be lived. I think people just forget that sometimes.”
We often refer to athletes as heroes; it’s nice to have one who actually is.