Sunday, April 25, 2010

Baseball Game Draws Together a Father's Life, Son's Love

by Jim Henry

Senior College Sports Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimmy Everett stepped slowly and carefully, clutching a cane in his right hand and his son's arm in his left hand. Everett was determined to take the 40 steps from near Florida State's dugout along the first base line to a patch of green grass in front of the pitcher's mound at Dick Howser Stadium here Wednesday night.

Everett took those dramatic steps for son Tyler Everett. And for ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

FSU, in conjunction with the ALS Association, Florida Chapter, staged ALS Awareness Night for its game against Charleston Southern. It was part fund-raiser and part-tribute for Everett, a former Seminole football player and the father of current Seminole pitcher Tyler Everett. Jimmy Everett, 56, was diagnosed in March 2009 with ALS.

"It was very important, to go out there with my son," Everett told FanHouse as he sat in an open-air stadium suite and watched the game. "I loved it. One day, I hope they find a cure for it (ALS) so the people behind me can be saved."

There weren't many dry eyes before the 6 p.m. start.

Everett, a popular coach and administrator at Tallahassee Lincoln High School, was positioned near the Seminoles' dugout. A chair, splashed with a decorative Seminole head, was placed behind him. Everett, surrounded by family and friends, stood next to Tyler. Most players and coaches from both teams were lined across the top step in each dugout.

All eyes were locked on the stadium scoreboard beyond the left-field wall.

The black-and-white video clip of Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech from Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 was broadcast -- Gehrig's career and life were cut short by the disease later named after him -- followed by a public-service announcement on ALS.

"That was tough, my emotions got to me, standing next to Tyler and knowing he's got to deal with what I have," Everett said.

Everett made his way toward the pitchers mound with his son at his side. Tyler retreated to home plate, where he caught his father's ceremonial first pitch -- an inspirational, one-hopper just inside the left-handed batters box considering how the disease has ravaged his body and changed his once active lifestyle. It was not known until Jimmy Everett arrived at the field whether he felt strong enough to make the right-handed throw.

ALS is dastardly, a progressive and fatal affliction caused by the degeneration of the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement.

"It is taking him piece by piece," said red-eyed Sondra Everett, Jimmy's bride of less than a year.

According to medical journals, one or two out of 100,000 persons develop ALS each year. ALS most commonly strikes persons between 40 and 60 years of age, but younger and older persons can also develop the disease. Men are affected slightly more often than women.

Today, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and former NFL player O.J. Brigance are among the best-known living ALS patients.

Everett initially noticed a change in his fitness level less than two years ago while playing basketball at a local health club. He was lethargic, tired, sore, unusual feelings for a former athlete who also made annual cross-country motorcycle trips with fellow members of a club he founded years earlier called "The Peckerheads."

"When you first are told the news, it makes you numb, it takes the life out of you," Sondra Everett said.

"For weeks and months you feel that way. And then you want to fight the disease and do what the doctors tell us to do. Now, we are just living day-by-day, time to enjoy each moment and focus on, as the doctors said (last Friday), the quality of time instead of the quantity of time."

Wednesday night was quality.

Everett received a thunderous ovation from fans as he walked off the field and back toward FSU's dugout, where the entire team waited to greet him. The next two minutes or so, however, the spacious ballpark went silent. The team gathered around Jimmy, who told players "good luck and kick butt."

A respectful parade of hugs and handshakes followed for both Jimmy and their teammate Tyler, and a final cheer erupted when FSU head coach Mike Martin and Jimmy Everett embraced. Martin coached Everett in high school.

"It's the most emotional experience I have ever had since I have been at Florida State," Martin said. "I can honestly say that there are a lot of things that you don't understand (about the disease) and that is certainly one of them."

The red jerseys worn by the FSU players were auctioned off following the game. Donations to ALS were taken at the gate. Tables stationed in the stadium breezeway were lined with auction items, including an autographed baseball and bat from former Seminole catcher Buster Posey.

Everett's friends marvel at his toughness and competitive spirit, earning him the nickname "Colonel Klink" from his fellow coaching peers for his penchant to toss ringers in the outside game of horseshoes.

Each January for the past 20 years, more than 50 local high school coaches gather for a weekend at Mack Lake in nearby Sopchoppy to "build a fire, tell lies, and talk about football and life," good friend and horseshoes partner Mark Feely said.

The group met at Everett's home this past January. Horseshoes wasn't played.

The disease causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body. Jimmy has difficulty moving his fingers and toes. The right side of his body is weaker than his left; his legs have lost strength. He has shortness of breath and experiences difficulty speaking clearly. His stamina allows one hour pool workouts twice a week.

"A lot of people love and care about him," said Feely, dean of students and athletics director at Tallahassee Leon High School. "We roll on with our lives every day and we are blessed by things we don't even recognize. Jimmy's somebody -- he's 10 years older than I -- but he's a guy who I always wanted to be like."

Tyler Everett wants to be just like his dad, too.

One of the Atlantic Coast Conference's top relievers, Tyler made his third career start. He threw the first inning -- and was part of all three outs. He coaxed a bouncer back to him to open the game. He assisted on a ground ball to the first baseman for the second out. He fanned the third hitter.

Thirteen pitches, seven for strikes, each with a purpose.

"It was pretty crazy, those first three outs," Everett admitted. "It was nothing about me. It was all about him today. It's pretty much what this whole season has been about, especially today, the whole season I have dedicated just for him."

Tyler's opening inning was also replayed on the video board later in the game for Jimmy. He missed the first two hitters of the game as he made his way to his seat on the stadium's third level -- slowly and carefully, clutching a cane in his right hand. Sondra was at his side.

Yet, here's betting that his son's arm was there to help guide him as well.

"I truly believe in angels now," Sondra Everett said. "We've had so much support from families and friends. It's unbelievable, it's unbelievable the love they have shown Jimmy."

The Seminoles also won the game, 12-4.

1 comment:

Jen said...

Baseball is fun if you are a skilled player. It sucks at the start and needs more practice to able to play it. It requires long practice, determination and skills. You will able to stand on the game if you have a strong body, good stamina and focus. I do admire those baseball players because not everybody can stand on that game and knows how to play it well.