Sophomore outfielder Bobby Whalen dashed full speed toward the ball during a game in March, getting closer and closer to the outfield wall. Whalen's head tilted up, searching for the ball before it sailed out of the park. He barreled into the wall.
Four players and Indiana's head coach Jeff Mercer surrounded Whalen, who was sitting on one knee and grabbing his chest. However, it only took a few minutes for Whalen to slowly bounce back up and stay in the game.
A week after crashing into the wall, Whalen collided with an opposing first baseman running to first base and lay on the ground, grimacing. Again, he got up and remained in the game.
"If I would have taken him out, he probably would have put me in a headlock," Mercer said. "He just needed a second to catch his breath. He'll have a good bruise."
Indiana baseball has posted 52 starting lineups this season. Whalen's name has appeared all 52 times. He ensures it — his competitive nature and toughness outlast the bruises he's sustained on the field.
Whalen's resilience and motivation stem from Tom Kirchhoff, his best friend's father, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The pair had a strong bond before Kirchhoff passed away during Whalen's freshman year of high school.
Whalen refers to Kirchhoff as his uncle and said he thinks of Kirchhoff during challenging periods in his life, like the start of his collegiate career.
Whalen initially committed to play baseball at the University of Louisville in high school. He was a multi-sport athlete but stood out on the baseball diamond, becoming the first Cedar Cliff High School player to reach the 100-mark in career hits and career runs scored.
"He's one of the ones that had one of the biggest effects on our program," Scott Lackey, Whalen's former high school baseball coach, said. "Not just because of the player he was, but because of all of the things he did. Practice, play, and on and off the field."
One of Whalen's off-the-field efforts was helping raise over $300,000 for ALS research in honor of Kirchhoff with his best friend Tommy, Kirchhoff's son, through their neighboring high school football teams.
"Both high schools knew each other (and) everyone knew him," Whalen said. "He coached us when we were little, so everyone came together for him."
Whalen said the traumatic loss of someone so special has helped him put life in perspective. From Lackey's mentoring and coaching point of view, he agreed.
"When you're 14, and you're an athlete like Bobby was at that point, you feel pretty invincible," Lackey said. "There's not much that you're worried about. When an event like that happens, it sets a perspective."
Whalen also wasn't physically invincible upon reaching Louisville. He broke his thumb in the fall of his freshman year, which required surgery. After healing, he did not make the roster later that year.
"It was one of the worst times of my life," Whalen said. "I was committed there for four years, finally got there with all the expectations for myself, and I didn't meet them."
But Whalen's initial struggle fueled him to work even harder. He sought to find the right-fitting team and transferred to Indiana for the 2021 season as a redshirt freshman.
Whalen was one of seven freshmen outfielders listed on the roster and was competing with experienced returning players. Playing time was scarce. He played in eight games, struck out in half of his trips to the plate and had only one hit in 14 at-bats.
"He got an at-bat and looked awful," Lackey said about Whalen's collegiate debut during the season-opening weekend. "He said he was so nervous."
Amid his struggles, Whalen turned to the memory of Kirchhoff and the way he fought.
"Every day you wake up, and you're like 'this is hard,'" Whalen said. "But it's not really hard. He taught me that nothing I've gone through is hard compared to what it could be. Every time I go to lift, (if) I don't know if I want to do another rep, I'll do another rep because of him."
Whalen adopted Kirchhoff's resilient mentality. He said he took inspiration from seeing his uncle choose to freely live his life while battling ALS — especially when Kirchhoff displayed strength at Whalen's sporting events.
"He was going through the worst thing you could ever imagine," Whalen said. "Every time we had a football game or a basketball game or baseball game, he was walking in when everyone said he wasn't going to be able to walk at that time."
While Whalen said he thought of his family and Kirchhoff during the summer of 2021, he achieved better results on the diamond. In June, he earned Player of the Week honors across the Appalachian League, hitting .667 with six extra-base hits and six stolen bases.
Mercer said one of Whalen's first improvements came after recognizing that he needed to adjust his swing during the offseason. He worked on hitting drills to improve and fully invested in the process.
"You talk about the drill work we do — the drill work only works if the guy working it works," Mercer said. "Whether he has a good day or a bad day, he's in there working every day."
Whalen started the first series for Indiana in 2022. In the final game, he robbed a home run and had four hits. Indiana lost, but Whalen showed his improvement. He hasn't left the starting lineup since.
The sophomore has fluctuated between the top third of the batting order so far this season while slashing .305/.373/.426. Not only have Whalen's batting numbers spiked, but his excellent speed has contributed to his team-leading 22 stolen bases and four triples.
As he's flying around the base paths, Whalen said he’s overjoyed to have the opportunity to play the game he loves. His loved ones, especially Kirchhoff, and his previous failures have shaped him into the star he currently is.
"I didn't play as a freshman; I went through a lot," Whalen said. "Every time I hear my name called, it's like I'm living a dream."
And, as Whalen jogs out to center field before every game, Kirchhoff is always in the back of his mind.
"It's something that sticks with me," Whalen said. "I think about it just about every minute of the day."