North Carolina pitcher gives his dad a CWS surprise

Cooper Criswell is greeted by North Carolina teammates after shutting down Oregon State on Saturday. Steven Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports

OMAHA, Neb. -- Tim Criswell still feels numbness in his right arm as a result of the cracked collarbone he sustained nearly 11 months ago, the least of his injuries from a bicycle accident that left him in a medically induced coma for three weeks and unable to see straight or remember much about his life when he awoke Aug. 26.

On Saturday at the College World Series, Criswell, the boys basketball coach of 30 years at Carrollton (Georgia) High School and a former minor league pitcher for the Dodgers and Braves, sat in the shade behind the North Carolina dugout and watched his son play an unexpected, starring role as the Tar Heels beat Oregon State 8-6 at TD Ameritrade Park.

Cooper Criswell threw 2⅓ scoreless innings in his first relief appearance since April 7, jumping into action to rescue an overextended UNC pitching staff after starter Gianluca Dalatri left with arm problems in the first inning.

For the Criswells, said Cooper's mother, Dawn, "it's almost like icing on the cake."

Tim and Cooper Criswell have never counted their blessings as much as over these past few months. They'll celebrate Father's Day on Sunday together in Omaha, a sentimental reminder of all that the family has overcome since Aug. 5 of last year.

"It's just incredible that he's here," Tim Criswell said, "the experience that he's getting in the College World Series. He's dreamed of being here since he was 8 years old. It's a miracle to be here with him, to be here with our family. We're so excited and happy."

Dawn Criswell sat alongside Tim, his brother Cris and Cooper's girlfriend, Alex Smithson, for the opening-round game after the group drove almost 1,000 miles this week from Georgia.

"I can't believe we're here today," she said.

It was almost as hard to believe that Cooper pitched Saturday. He had been scheduled to start North Carolina's second game here, on Monday, and began this day assigned to chart pitches.

Dalatri, plagued this spring by elbow soreness, might not pitch again this season, North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. Criswell is likely out of the mix for the next game, at least as a starter. But Fox said he's not worried about depth on the mound after finding a way to beat Oregon State.

"We'll figure it out," the coach said.

Ten months ago, according to Dawn Criswell, the family "had to push Cooper out the door" to Chapel Hill. He didn't want to leave the bedside of his father. Tim spent 28 days in intensive care at Grady Memorial Hospital, to which he was transported by helicopter after the early-morning accident on the Carrollton GreenBelt, an 18-mile trail the Criswells biked several times per week.

Tim said he believes he blacked out before his front wheel clipped the back of his wife's bike. They were both thrown to the ground. Dawn wrecked her left shoulder and needed stitches in both elbows. Tim broke the ribs on his right side and punctured a lung in addition to the collarbone fracture.

The brain injury nearly killed him.

"The prayers and support from the whole community," Cooper Criswell said, "that helped. And my mom has been a warrior through all of this."

Tim Criswell describes Dawn as his "angel." Despite her injuries, she spent every night with him at Grady Memorial, then at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta when he was transferred after four weeks. Cooper, his brother Riley and Andrea Godwin, a close family friend, alternated nights next to Dawn.

Several days after his dad emerged from the coma, Cooper returned to Georgia from Chapel Hill. His presence sparked key progress for Tim, who remembers little about his hospital stay before Cooper visited.

"I do remember him coming in," Tim said. "I was so amazed he was there, and I knew I was so fortunate that I was still alive."

Tim had to relearn to walk. He missed his first season as Carrollton's basketball coach since taking over three decades ago. But as Cooper made strides at UNC, so did his dad back in Georgia. He will return to work full time at the high school in August, he said.

"They're very close," Fox said Saturday. "I think that emotion that Coop went through, watching his dad recover -- and really just live -- helped make him stronger in a lot of ways. "

In his first season after transferring from Southern Union State Community College in Alabama, the 6-foot-6 right-hander developed midseason into a starter. Since April 14, a week after Tim traveled to Chapel Hill for the first time to see him pitch, he's started eight games.

Included in Criswell's starts were postseason wins over North Carolina A&T and Stetson in which he allowed one earned run in 11 combined innings. On June 6, Criswell was drafted in the 13th round by the Los Angeles Angels.

Fox on Saturday looked to Criswell with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the seventh as UNC led by a pair of runs. Criswell struck out Oregon State leadoff man Steven Kwan, who entered the at-bat 3-for-3.

Cooper has benefited from seeing his dad in the seats. In fact, the pitcher said, as soon as he took the mound June 8 to start in the super regional, he heard a familiar voice.

"Pound the zone," Tim shouted.

North Carolina outfielder Jackson Hesterlee, too, heard Tim's voice. Hesterlee grew up with the Criswells in Carrollton. He was with Cooper and their girlfriends in Alabama on the weekend last summer when the bike accident occurred.

Cooper, after learning of the situation, rushed home before even talking to Hesterlee.

"His dad was like a second dad to me growing up," Hesterlee said. "So oh, gosh, to see that he made it out of that situation and was alive and well, that was amazing to see."

UNC moved to 6-0 in the postseason Saturday as Criswell snagged a ground ball hit by Oregon State's Jack Anderson and flipped to Michael Busch for the final out of a perfect ninth inning.

Tim and Dawn stood and hugged in their seats, tears in the eyes of both parents.

Even before this storybook CWS debut, they were set to savor Father's Day, Tim said.

"He couldn't have given me a better gift."