Cam Carpenter is only 11 years old, but he already has lost two teeth from three bloody baseball injuries during the past three years.
And he still plays travel ball and in the Phenix City Little League.
"I was scared coming back," admitted Cam, a fifth-grader at Lakewood Elementary School.
Asked how he overcame that fear, Cam explained, "You've just got to get better. You've got to work hard and have more confidence."
This is his persevering story:
Injury No. 1
In the spring of 2011, 8-year-old Cam was playing catch with a friend on the sideline while his younger sister, Carleigh, played in a softball game. One of the throws from his friend landed short, hit a rock and crashed into Cam's mouth.
Cam had a spacer in his teeth, along with four brace brackets, so his teeth already were loose. The ball banged into a bracket and popped out an upper front tooth.
"I was freaking out," Cam said.
"Blood was going everywhere, all over him and me," said his father, Rick, a Realtor with Shepherd Brokers Real Estate and a Phenix City Board of Education member.
It was around 7:30 p.m., but fortunately Rick's uncle Dr. Rusty Floyd is a dentist in town, so Uncle Rusty met them at his office that night and secured Cam's tooth back in his mouth.
"My heart hurt for him," said his mother, Haley, a loan originator for Synovus Mortgage Corp., "but I know he's a tough kid."
She and everyone else who knows Cam were about to find out just how tough.
But first, he had to promise his mama he would wear a mouthpiece every time he played baseball.
Injury No. 2
Cam took a few weeks to recover and continued to succeed on the field.
"The first practice back, I was a little nervous," he said, "but then I was fine."
As an 8-year-old, he was good enough to play in the age 9-10 division and made the all-star team for 9-year-olds. The following spring, Cam was invited to play for the Cobras travel ball team.
During practice, he tried to field a groundball, but another bad bounce banged into his mouth.
"That one hurt the worst," Cam said.
He wore braces by then, so the metal in his mouth made it a bloodier scene -- but it might have helped save his teeth. Three of his upper front teeth, including the one that popped out the first time, dangled between his wires.
Seeing his son injured the same way was painful enough for Rick. He also had to call his wife to break the bad news about their son again. But this time was more stressful because of a little detail with a big impact: Cam didn't wear his mouthpiece.
"He was complaining about the mouthpiece throughout the Little League season," Rick said, "and about halfway through, I just said, 'OK, that's fine.'"
"I thought he was kidding," Haley said. "Then I got really mad at him."
After another after-hours call to Uncle Rusty, Cam was back in the dentist chair for an emergency visit. Cam's orthodontist, Dr. Burch Cameron, tag-teamed with Uncle Rusty to secure Cam's teeth back in his mouth.
Cam had to miss the rest of the season while his teeth healed. He wasn't allowed to even run, but he got mighty good at Ping-Pong.
In the fall, his teeth finally were stable enough for Cam to play football. The next spring, Cam again vowed to wear a mouthpiece when playing baseball.
"He had a fantastic baseball season that 2013 year," Rick said.
"People thought I wasn't going to play again," Cam said.
"As a matter of fact," Haley noted, "some of the other Cobras got mouthpieces."
"They started to," Cam interjected, "but then they stopped."
But even a mouthpiece couldn't keep Cam from needing one more emergency visit to Uncle Rusty the following year.
Injury No. 3
Last month, during a tournament with the Bombers travel ball team in Dothan, he was playing shortstop while a runner tried to steal second base. The catcher's throw bounced in front of Cam as he covered the bag. The ball hit the runner and deflected into Cam's mouth.
"It really didn't hurt," Cam said. "I was just scared."
So was his friend and teammate Will Smith, who was playing third base.
Will thought, "Oh, my God. It happened again. It was scary how much he was screaming."
"I heard the pop and heard him scream," said Will's father, Ron Smith, the Bombers head coach. "I put my head into my hands when I saw his dad running out to him on the field. I just felt so bad for Cam and for his parents."
Rick, one of the assistant coaches, initially thought Cam was OK. After all, his son had learned his lesson and was wearing his mouthpiece.
"But then I see him on all fours," Rick said, "and there comes the blood."
Cam got up and ran toward his daddy. Rick looked at his son's two upper front teeth and saw another train wreck.
One tooth fell out amid the panic. Rick pushed the other one back in Cam's mouth and, along with his stepfather, Phenix City Public Schools interim superintendent Rod Hinton, rushed Cam to the emergency room in Dothan.
"They basically could not do anything for him," Rick said. "That is a lot for an 11-year-old to take. He was trying to get his mind around that. He would be without his permanent teeth for the rest of his life."
The father couldn't bear making such a phone call to his wife. So while he contacted Uncle Rusty for another desperate visit to the dentist, the grandfather called the mother.
Hearing that Cam was wearing his mouthpiece eased her anger, Haley said, "but it still broke my heart."
During the car ride back to Phenix City, Cam announced, "You know, Daddy? I get to pitch tomorrow."
Rick couldn't contain his protective impulse any longer. He told his son they were done with baseball that weekend and probably for good.
Cam refused to quit. He used some words of wisdom his father and grandfather had preached, the ones about perseverance.
"I did what most husbands and dads do," Rick recalled. "I said, 'If your mama says it is OK, then OK.'"
Cam immediately picked up his father's cellphone and found out.
"Absolutely not," Haley hollered. "You are not going back to play this weekend!"
But the family finally agreed that trusty Uncle Rusty ultimately would decide. Although even he couldn't save those teeth this time, the dentist did save the patient's dream.
Through numbed gums and cotton-packed cheeks, Cam mumbled, "Uncle Rusty?"
"I get to pitch tomorrow. Will you let me go back to Dothan to play in my tournament?"
"After you have been hit like this in the mouth again, you want to go play baseball?"
"I hear you, buddy. You can do whatever you want to, just make sure you keep wearing your mouthpiece for your gums to heal and be careful what you eat."
The dentist also told his gap-toothed patient, "You'll be the meanest looking pitcher those batters have ever seen."
Haley struggled with granting permission. She relented after hearing the team was praying for Cam and some of the boys were crying.
"Cam thought it would be good to go back and show the team that he's OK," she said. "He wanted to finish out his commitment."
He also wanted to uphold a family legacy.
Cam's grandmother Marsha Posey told him about his great-uncle Leo Griffith, who lost his arm from gangrene after falling out of a tree in Phenix City when he was around Cam's age. Leo recovered enough to still play youth baseball.
"He pushed through it," Cam said. "He didn't let it keep him down."
So the Carpenters drove back to Dothan that night. Coach Smith called Rick to check on Cam and was "incredulous" to hear they were returning to the tournament.
When teammates saw him at the hotel, "they were shocked that I was back," Cam said. "They thought I looked like a hockey player."
Will was amazed to see his buddy back so soon.
"But he's a fighter," Will said. "It pumped me up."
The next morning, Cam threw up from all the blood he had swallowed the previous day. Still, he insisted on playing.
He did indeed.
Cam singled during his first at-bat. As the starting pitcher, he notched the victory as he allowed only one unearned run in three innings. And he sparkled in the field. He snared a line drive back to the mound and threw to third base for a double play, and he cleanly fielded several hard groundballs while playing second base.
"That felt good," Cam said with a smile, now showing a mouth full of straight teeth, courtesy Uncle Rusty's dental flipper. It looks like a retainer with two false teeth to cover the gap.
"I don't want to overdramatize it," Coach Smith said, "but those kids felt a lot better to see him be so tough and come back and play like that. He's one of the hardest-working 11-year-olds I've been around."
In 38 years of dentistry, Uncle Rusty said he never has seen such a young patient go through so much trauma in such a short period.
"He's a brave little bugger," the dentist said, then added with a laugh. "He keeps his eye on the ball; he's just got to learn to look away sometimes."
Haley has noticed this hardship has helped her son learn a lesson off the field as well.
"He overcomes the little things now," the mother said. "He doesn't sweat the small stuff."
Rick marveled at his son's grit and gushed with pride.
"He has never backed away and has never quit," the father said. "He has actually wanted to work harder to get better each time. You try to teach your kids lessons in life, but in my case my son has taught me a lot about how to handle life."
Cam summed up his philosophy this way:
"I'd rather it happen to me than another kid," he said. "I've felt the pain before."
Besides, he added as he flicked out his dental flipper and revealed his gap, "You can't knock out these teeth anymore."
A 2012 report by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry states that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than half of the 7 million sports- and recreation-related injuries that occur each year are sustained by youth as young as 5 years old.
In 2011, the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation forecasted that more than 3 million teeth would be knocked out in youth sporting events -- yet, in a survey commissioned by the American Association of Orthodontists, 67 percent of parents admitted that their children do not wear a mouth guard during organized sports.
The NYSSF says that athletes who do not wear mouth guards are 60 times more likely to sustain damage to their teeth.