Vandy Continues Everett Healing ProcessColumns
NASHVILLE — How do you regain some sense of normalcy in the wake of the unthinkable?
When tragedy strikes — and eventually, inevitably, it strikes us all — how do you move forward? When do you move forward? How long do you grieve for your lost ones, and how do you balance the necessity of recovery with the imperative to never forget those you lost?
These are questions we all must face during the course of our lives, but they are questions the 18-to-22-year-olds on the Vanderbilt baseball team never expected to confront at this stage in their lives. The drowning of the wildly talented and just as wildly beloved and fun-loving Donny Everett last June had a profound effect on the Commodores — how could it not? Baseball is important to these players, who have loved the game and aspired to play it professionally for as long as they could remember. But how could they focus on baseball in their regional opener last June 4, just two days after their teammate’s death?
Ten months have passed since Vanderbilt’s emotional 0-2 exit from the 2016 Nashville Regional, but the Commodores are still grappling with the appropriate response to the tragedy. Baseball is still important; but so is Donny. They want to honor Donny by channeling their love for him into a passionate, focused performance on the baseball diamond.
But it’s a gradual process, chock full of stops and starts. Perhaps Saturday was both a stop and a start.
One day before what would have been Donny’s 20th birthday, Vanderbilt honored him by retiring his No. 41 jersey in a pregame ceremony before the rubber game of its series against Florida. Donny’s mother, Susan, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and then Susan and her husband Teddy were presented with a framed No. 41 jersey.
The players and the parents lined up along the third-base line and looked up at the video board in left-center field to watch a tribute video to Donny. Vandy ace Kyle Wright wrapped his arm around Susan, and reliever Collin Snider draped his arm around Teddy’s shoulders. When it was over, Wright and reliever Matt Ruppenthal hugged Susan, and then the players lined up in numerical order for the national anthem.
They left a space between No. 40 Snider and No. 42 Maddux Conger — and the Everetts filled that void, with Susan wearing a gold jersey that read “No. 41 Everett”. When that was over, player after player lined up to hug both Everetts. They wiped tears from their eyes, and so did the umpires, who also took turns embracing the parents.
And then it was time to play baseball. Before the Commodores took the field, they huddled together in front of their third-base dugout. Somebody must have told a wonderfully hilarious story about Donny, because when they broke, everybody sported a wide grin.
Nobody seemed rattled, or distracted, or despondent. The Commodores took the field — and immediately gave up four runs in the top of the first. It got worse two innings later, when the Gators tacked on eight more runs. The ’Dores answered with five of their own in the bottom of the third, but it was not their day. Florida cruised to a 20-8 win, scoring more runs than any Vanderbilt team had given up in the 15-year Tim Corbin era.
Was the emotion of the day too much for the Commodores, or were they just short on dependable pitching? Vandy rolled out plenty of quality arms, but they just couldn’t stop the hits from coming.
“We talked about it last night, and we talked about the emotions that come with it, but that’s kind of how we have to deal with things, really,” Corbin said. “That’s been part of our lives, and we can’t remove it from it, we just have to face it. As an adult, when my feelings are strong towards it, you can only imagine the feelings of kids. But at the same time, when you’re out here on the field of competition, you have to remove yourself from a lot of things. There’s no excuses. We’ve just got to do the best we can to play baseball.”
The Commodores surely gave it the best they could on Saturday, and they came up woefully short. But it still felt like a day of healing, a day of growth. This team cannot outrun the shadow of Donny Everett’s death, but it can continue to wrap the Everett family with warm embraces, and together they can all find a way forward.
“We know how they feel. We hate to have them do this on their own, we’re kinda there and they’re there for us too. So it kinda goes back and forth, it’s super nice,” Vanderbilt outfielder Jeren Kendall said. “It goes both ways: We need them and they need us, and that’s how it’s gonna be for a while now.”