Freak farm accident left Hollis Fanning blind in an eye. Now he dazzles for Tennessee baseball

Hollis Fanning was shaken but felt fine.

Sure, his vision was blurry after a wire clipped him in the left eye. But he wasn’t concerned. He wasn’t in pain. The wire's end surely bounced off his eyelid when it snapped after he trimmed the taut cable.

Then he took out his contacts.

“There was a hole through the middle of the left one,” Fanning said.

Fanning was 15 when he lost sight in his left eye in the freak farming accident that punctured his eye. But more than five years later, he's an increasingly prominent piece of the Tennessee baseball pitching staff, an unlikely MLB draft prospect living out baseball dreams that were plunged into peril on Jan. 21, 2018.

TOURNAMENT: Tennessee baseball is No. 7 seed in SEC Tournament bracket, will face Texas A&M

ROAD WIN: Tennessee baseball proved itself at South Carolina. The Vols are humming into the postseason.

The day that left Hollis Fanning blind in his left eye

Fanning’s last day with two healthy, functional eyes was a typical one on his family's 176-acre farm in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

The high school sophomore spent it tying gates together with wire to form a new cow pen, setting up for some cattle to leave the farm and new ones to arrive. He tied 3-foot segments of the wire into shoelace-style knots, cut it at at the coil and moved on. He’d done it probably 100 times in his life and at least a dozen times that day.

“It definitely wasn’t new to me,” Fanning said. “I have done a lot of stupider stuff in my life. That was just the thing that caught up to me, I guess.”

He finished a tie, pulled it tight and reached over to clip the wire at the coil on the back of a four-wheeler. It snapped violently, striking him directly in the eye.

“It was dead-center,” Fanning said. “It literally went straight through the center of my eye.”

Fanning was unaware and unbothered, continuing to work on the farm and going hunting with his dad, Michael Fanning. Fanning didn’t shoot anything, but that was normal. He is an admittedly bad hunter.

His punctured contact delivered the reality. His mom, McKenzi Fanning, rushed him to his eye doctor. His eye doctor said, “Get to Vanderbilt” and the Fannings sped toward Nashville, surgeries and uncertainty.

Fanning had an initial surgery to clean out his eye and make sure it wasn’t infected with any bacteria from the farm. It got infected while he slept that night. A second surgery addressed the infection. The third surgery filled the tear in the eye with silicone oil to keep the shape and give the retina a chance to reattach at the back of the eye.

He laid face down for two days, his head hanging over the edge of the couch. He watched Netflix on his phone on the ground waiting to see if his eye would heal. It didn’t. Doctors said his eye healed too quickly, causing scar tissue to form on the back of his eye and never giving the retina a chance to return to its place.

“I accepted I was going to be blind and really just rolled with it,” Fanning said.

How Hollis Fanning learned to pitch, live with one functional eye

Bryan Morris launched into action after Fanning’s injury. The then-Tullahoma assistant baseball coach scoured the internet in search of one-eyed players who reached professional baseball.

Morris, now the Tullahoma head coach, emailed a list of seven or eight names to Fanning when he got out of the hospital.

“I just knew at that time there was only one way I could keep him in the right mindset,” Morris said. “That was to find other people with similar situations that were successful. Just to let him know that it is possible.”

Fanning understood the reality in the hospital. The best-case scenario for his future was he could see shadows in his left eye. He was left with zero sight, which proved to be the best-case scenario as his right eye is free to operate without interference or confusion.

“It is out of sight, out of mind kind of,” Fanning said.

Fanning had baseball dreams, ones that Morris spoke into with his email. He wasn’t sure if it was possible after his injury. In his first practice, it seemed impossible. Coaches rolled ground balls to Fanning. He could not figure out where the ball was. He started crying.

Fanning had to relearn how to process depth. Driving was terrifying and he sat at a stop sign for two minutes during his driver’s test weeks after the accident. A teacher handing him a paper was a nightmare and he slapped papers to gauge where they were. He had to train his mind to recognize where things really where and not where they might be.

Tennessee pitcher Hollis Fanning warming up before the start of the NCAA baseball game against Alabama A&M in Knoxville February 21.
Tennessee pitcher Hollis Fanning warming up before the start of the NCAA baseball game against Alabama A&M in Knoxville February 21.

He settled into baseball again in the weeks after his injury. He learned how to field and play catch with changed vision.

“The thing about baseball is either everything is coming toward me or going away from me,” Fanning said. “I don’t have to guess where it is.”

Fanning had always approached pitching by looking at the catcher’s glove and throw it to that spot. It didn’t take much thinking. It required a new outlook. Fanning came up with a motto: Just throw it through the catcher and everything will work out.

He thinks of pitching now as throwing the ball to the backstop and the catcher is there to stop it. There is no thought of the 60 feet, 6 inches between the rubber and the plate — just throwing it.

He adjusted to fielding safely with a changed depth perception — and looking over his right shoulder to hold runners on at first base instead of glancing over his left.

“I knew that he could perform and do well if he was able to see well enough to do what he needed to do,” Morris said.

How Hollis Fanning has become an MLB Draft prospect at Tennessee

Josh Elander had a question for Fanning midway through his freshman year at Tennessee.

“Hollis, how many eyes do you have?” the Vols hitting coach asked.

Fanning said he had two. Elander asked how many Fanning could see out of.

“Coach, that is a different answer,” Fanning said.

Fanning’s ascent was a whirlwind — one that has accelerated at Tennessee. He didn’t pitch as a freshman at Tullahoma because of a partially torn UCL. He thinks his eye injury was a blessing, affording him time away for his arm to heal. He barely pitched as a sophomore.

Once he figured out pitching again as a junior, he expected he could play Division II. But fears lingered that college coaches would flee when they found out he only had one eye.

“The way I got around that was when I was being recruited I just didn’t tell anybody I had one eye,” Fanning said.

Tennessee saw Fanning in his month-long recruitment following his junior season in 2019. He threw strikes. He was 6-foot-7. He was a good student and teammate. His coaches with the Nashville Knights program told Tennessee coach Tony Vitello that Fanning was a winner.

Fanning held his poker face regarding his eye. UT was unaware.

“One eye, two eyes, he throws strikes,” Vitello said.

Fanning’s lost sight mattered little to Vitello, who coached a former first-round pick Andy Shipman at Missouri. Shipman lost his left eye when he was an infant.

Fanning has proved it doesn’t matter at all. He threw six innings in nine appearances in his first two seasons. He morphed into a monster as a junior, especially in May. He has struck out 24 in 13 innings and allowed 10 hits with three walks. He’s hitting 97 mph and flinging freely.

Pitching coach Frank Anderson told Fanning it was time to cut it loose this season. Fanning responded by letting go of his emphasis of always throwing perfect strikes and worrying about getting outs. He’s honed in on staying in inside and outside ranges, missing barrels and mowing down opponents. He’s not only a reliable arm, but a shutdown candidate and beyond.

“The big picture thing is he’s gone from, ‘Yeah, let’s give this guy a chance’ to ‘he’s a draft pick,’” said Vitello, whose No. 7 Vols (38-18) open the SEC Tournament against No. 10 seed Texas A&M (32-23) on Tuesday in Hoover, Alabama.

Fanning accepted blindness in one eye five years ago. He accepted the idea of going to college to get a degree he didn’t care about if baseball didn’t work out. He accepted life would go on and he’d crave being at home on the farm, where his life changed forever.

He’s accepting now that baseball is more than working out. He's on the verge of joining the names on the list that Morris emailed to him − and there’s nothing blurry about it.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Blind in eye, Tennessee baseball's Hollis Fanning stars for Tony Vitello