Born To Be A VandyBoy

The Life And Death Of Donny Everett

Donny Everett (Photo by Danny Parker)

Thank you Teddy and Susan—I am honored to speak about your son . . . and our teammate.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn.—Cars never drove down the street in front of Forney Abbott’s house.

Born in Houston and raised in 1940s Palestine (No, not the Middle East. Palestine, Texas. Pronounced PaleSTEEN), Abbott’s formative years came before cellphones and Xboxes and color TVs. He didn’t even have a diamond nearby to play on, no chalky foul lines or fertile grass, just the white lines and the hot, black asphalt of a mostly deserted street.

When he was 7, 8 years old, Abbott would take a baseball and march onto that street like he was Joe DiMaggio and it was Yankee Stadium. Instead of throwing from foul pole to foul pole, he’d go light pole to light pole, hurling the ball as far as he could over the power lines that stretched above his head and aiming for the pole 100 yards away.

He did this every day, until one day, a car did drive down the street in front of Forney Abbott’s house. And inside that car were two scouts for Major League Baseball teams, one for the Pirates and one for the Cardinals. Abbott, now 77, doesn’t remember their names—a few too many blows to the head in the boxing matches of his youth sapped him of those memories. But he remembers them stopping their car, on their way to some recruiting mission in nearby Houston or Tyler, and talking to this 7-, 8-year-old kid out on the street and watching him throw. That car would continue to stop, usually once every month or so, and the Pirates scout—who lived in a small town about 15 or 20 miles away—would give the young Abbott pointers. OK, here’s how to throw a baseball.

The scout kept coming by until Abbott was 11 years old. For that, he’s always been thankful. Still, as a teenager, playing for his high school team and summer league teams, Abbott would draw criticism for the way he threw. Other kids would always tell him he was throwing the wrong way. But he knew they were the ones who were wrong. He knew he threw hard. He didn’t have a radar gun to prove it, but he always felt as though God had granted him the ability to throw a baseball with velocity.

Abbott never had the chance to test his arm in the professional ranks. He joined the Army. Served in the Korean War. And when he returned, he moved to Clarksville, Tenn. He turned his attention to coaching kids, just like that Pirates scout once coached him. He felt, again, as though God had given him this gift for a reason. God wanted him to share it.

Over his adult life, Abbott has helped thousands of kids—and some of those kids’ kids. At any time, he could have several 11- or 12-year-olds out in his front yard—instead of in the street like he was—working on drills to strengthen their bodies, arms and minds.

There was one kid, among those thousands, who was different. One kid that no uppercut to the jaw could ever jostle free from his memory.

Abbott will never forget Donny Everett. He gets emotional thinking about him now.

“I was glad to know Donny,” Abbott says. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Abbott still remembers the day Donny and his father, Teddy Everett, pulled up in front of Abbott’s carport about eight years ago. Donny stepped out of the passenger’s side with the widest smile, a younger, spitting image of his burly blond-haired father. Together with Teddy, the 11-year-old Donny strolled toward the 70-year-old Abbott, who was sitting outside, and introduced himself.

“Mr. Forney,” Donny began. He always called him Mr. Forney. Never Mr. Abbott. Never coach. Just Mr. Forney. “Can you help me?”

“Son, I don’t know,” Mr. Forney said, “What do you need me to help you with?”

“He wants to be a baseball player,” Teddy interjected.

“Well,” Mr. Forney laughed. “What does he do?”

“He pitches.”

“OK, if he pitches, that’s good,” Mr. Forney said. “What does he want to do with this if he wants to be a pitcher?”

Abbott will never forget the look in the 11-year-old Donny’s eyes after he asked that question— the urgent sense of determination, the desire, a simmering dream on the precipice of reality. Abbott knew, in that moment, that Donny would get to where he wanted to go, that this kid was going to be something special. He was already special.

“Mr. Forney,” Donny said, looking up at the 70-year-old man in front of him. “I want to be a major league baseball player.”

***

Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode

The eyes in the Soddy Daisy (Tenn.) High dugout didn’t blink as the 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker of a 17-year-old lumbered by them, bat in one hand, glove in the other, shaking the ground beneath him.

“That’s Donny Everett!” their eyes seemed to scream in adulation. They weren’t expecting this—THE Donny Everett running toward the bullpen. No. 14 wasn’t supposed to pitch today.

It was March 21, 2015—the fifth inning of a game between a loaded Soddy Daisy team and Everett’s visiting Clarksville Wildcats. Everett was playing first base and batting cleanup, his Wildcats down, 3-1, to the Trojans. Standing in the hole, Everett saw his head coach Brian Hetland, who was coaching third base, motion for him to head toward the bullpen. Hetland and his senior star had discussed the possibility of Everett, the Clarksville ace, making a relief appearance in this game in lieu of a standard side session; now, Hetland was pulling the trigger.

Everett took his bat to the bullpen, running past the astonished Trojans dugout, and only managed to throw eight or 10 warm-up pitches before he heard Hetland yelling, “Donny, Donny, come on! You gotta go! You gotta go!” Two batters had reached. There was a helmet waiting for Everett at home plate. It was his turn to bat.

Everett ran back onto the field, dug into the batter’s box and didn’t waste a single breath. The righthanded hitter muscled the very first pitch he saw well over the left-field fence. A no-doubt, go-ahead three-run home run. Everett trotted around the bases, stepped on home plate, pivoted and immediately sprinted back toward the bullpen. This time, every player in Soddy Daisy’s dugout was on his feet, staring in awe at the titan who thundered by them. Soddy Daisy coach Jared Hensley grabbed three baseballs out of a bucket in the dugout, waved them tauntingly at his players and yelled, “Hey, do you want him to sign these balls for you, too?”

The next inning, Everett took the mound. Three batters faced. Three strikeouts. A fastball touching 98 mph.

That’s just one Donny Everett story, of many. The very next game, he touched 101 mph.

“I’ve been in this area for 28 years,” said Hetland from his office along the first-base line of the Clarksville High baseball field. “He’s definitely the best high school talent and player and pitcher that’s ever come through Clarksville in that time period, for sure—and maybe forever.

“Because there’s not many who can throw 100 miles per hour, and know where it’s going.”

Hetland remembers the 101 mph game clearly—March 23, 2015, on a cool night at nearby Northwest High in Clarksville. There might’ve been more Stalker radar guns than fans in the stands that night.

Everett shoved, striking out 14 and allowing two runs (one earned) in six innings. The Herculean righthander never liked coming out of a game—that night especially. Hetland remembers his mound visit being like a Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight when Everett finally reached his pitch count.

All night, the stands were buzzing. The fans couldn’t help but see the numbers flashing on the guns in front of them. At one point an alum in the crowd went up to the Northwest High coach between innings and said, “You’re not going to believe what I just saw.”

Some guns had 99. Some had 100. Some had 101. It was all the same to Northwest hitters. They couldn’t touch it.

Mike Wagner, an area scout for the Yankees based in Tennessee, had seen Everett the week before throwing four to five mph slower. Wagner had followed the righthander closely, had done a home visit, gotten to know him and his family intimately. Wagner wasn’t in the stands that night. But his bosses were. Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and national crosschecker Brian Barber.

“As an area scout, that’s as good a feeling as you can have—on your scouting director’s radar gun, the prospect that you like and they’re there to see, is up to 100 miles an hour,” Wagner recalled, laughing. “That was a great night. It was one of those nights I won’t forget.

“Because I had just seen him in Alabama the week before and saw him pitch 94-96, and I thought I’d seen him throw about as good as a high school prospect can throw a baseball, and my director went in and saw him throw better. We don’t get many of those nights.”

That kind of night became routine for Everett in his senior year. He went 9-1, 0.94 that season with a PlayStation-like 125 strikeouts to eight walks in 67 innings. He won the Gatorade Player of the Year Award in the state of Tennessee. Hetland still has that see-through trophy sitting on the upper-most shelf in the corner of his office.

In truth, Everett’s entire high school career was video game-like. He came to school as a precociously strong, physically mature freshman—some opposing coaches joked he looked more like a junior. The righthander pitched in the upper 80s then, but he quickly earned the trust of his coaching staff, starting on the mound against rival Rossview High as a freshman—the most important game of the season. Hetland remembers Everett starting in the first game of the district tournament later that year and—unbeknownst to him—Everett played with the flu. He threw five no-hit innings, then hit an inside-the-park home run off the top of the center-field wall in the bottom of the fifth, crossed home plate, ran behind the dugout and vomited. Everett sat out the rest of the tournament, and Hetland made the rest of his players all get flu shots.

Over the next few years, Everett’s stuff progressively ticked up. He worked in the low-90s his sophomore year, routinely touched 95-plus as a junior and flirted with triple-digits as a senior. His breaking ball began to show flashes of becoming an effective pitch that senior year. His command improved, as well.

The Wildcats lost only two games Everett started his junior and senior year—both 1-0 games. One loss came in extra innings, in the other, the lone run scored on a balk.

“You get so many players who give you one inning here or one inning there. What I loved about Donny is he never gave you one inning—he gave you everything he had,” said a national crosschecker whose club had significant interest in Everett. “It doesn’t mean he was good every time. It doesn’t mean he was the best. It doesn’t mean he dominated for seven innings. I think it probably spoke to what was going on in the inside that he wanted to give you six or seven innings. He never took the ball thinking, ‘I’m just going to go out for one inning and go home.’

“He went out there for his team and he gave it to you . . .There was no pitch count. He just said, ‘It’s my time to pitch, and I’m going to give it to you.’ And I loved that about him.”

(Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

***

“Donny, I can help you,” Mr. Forney told the 11-year-old golden-haired boy in his backyard, after Abbott had watched him throw for a few minutes.

Even at Donny’s young age, Mr. Forney could see the quickness of his arm and the untapped potential in his highly projectable body. He had a future, although he had no way of knowing just how bright.

“If your goal is to be a major league ballplayer, you have to do everything we tell you to do,” Mr. Forney told Donny. “And this is going to be a six-day affair. You’ve gotta work out six days a week, and one day you have to take off because that’s how God made our bodies to work.

“If you understand that, we can keep going.”

Donny nodded his head.

“The other thing you have to do is your dad has to agree to be with you until you get into college,” Mr. Forney continued. “Somebody has to be with you to help you with this stuff, because it’s a lot of movement and a lot of different things that’s going to accumulate and allow you to be a major league ballplayer.

“Are you sure your dad’s going to be with you every day?”

“Yes, Mr. Forney.”

“Now then there’s one more thing to this equation,” Mr. Forney said, “and that’s your mother.”

“My mother?”

“Yes. She’s got to agree to cook everything you eat from now until you graduate high school. If she don’t agree to cook and feed you what you need to eat, then you’re not going to be able to do what you want to do, so all of this is off.”

Donny didn’t hesitate.

“My mother will do that.”

***

(Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

Susan met Teddy in a public park in Clarksville in 1987.

Growing up with a father in the military, Susan had spent most of her life in Clarksville, near Fort Campbell. Teddy was born and raised in Louisville, Ky., but after joining the Army, he was initially stationed at Fort Campbell, too.

After that first meeting in the park, Susan and Teddy dated for three years, married in July of 1990 and have been together ever since. Teddy Everett was a sergeant, a crew chief on a CH-47 helicopter—a large copter with tandem rotors. He spent 10 years in the military, serving in Korea, Desert Storm, Desert Shield and more. At one point, he was stationed in Italy, where he and Susan lived together until they moved back to Clarksville in 1995.

All the while, Susan and Teddy were trying to have a child. They tried for seven years. “We didn’t think we were going to have children, actually,” Teddy said. “We had pretty much given up.”

Then, on April 16, 1997, Donny Everett came into the world—born into a home that couldn’t have possibly been more loving.

“I was very, very excited,” Teddy said. “Very, very excited. I was.”

Even as an infant, Donny rarely gave Susan or Teddy any problems. He’d sleep through the night without much of a stir. In high school, he’d still go to bed around 8 p.m. most nights and wake up at the crack of dawn.

“We’d never have to go upstairs and be like, ‘Get up!” said Susan, laughing.

From a young age, Donny also displayed a clear affinity for sports.

“Even from the time he was just a baby—couldn’t even walk yet—he’d throw a ball,” Teddy said. “I told Susan, ‘Well, he’s going to grow up and throw a ball. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it’s going to be a ball of some sort.’

“We would spend hours. I’d be on a chair, and he’d be on his knees and throw a ball to me, and I would just catch it and throw it back to him, and it would go forever and ever and ever, and then I would take it and chuck it through the house and he’d go crawling off and getting it and coming back, and then we’d go again. We’d do that for hours.”

As he grew older, Donny channeled that love for throwing into a love for baseball. He’d spend many days over at Susan’s father’s house and help his grandparents with yardwork and various chores. He’d also watch Red Sox games with his grandpa. His grandpa explained to Donny the intricacies of the game.

When Donny started playing organized baseball, he separated himself almost immediately. His Little League and middle school coach Rod Streeter remembers how ecstatic he felt when he had the opportunity to coach Donny. And that excitement was based solely on seeing Donny play in Pee Wee baseball as a 7-year-old.

“It’s just something you feel about a certain kid,” Streeter said. “He was bigger than everybody for his age, but he was one of the youngest of his age group. And when I say ‘big,’ I mean tall. You look at a kid and you project what he’s going to look like in the future, that was one thing. And then as he got older, the work ethic he put into it. The wanting to stay longer after practice. The wanting to get there early.

“Somedays when you’re done with practice, you want to go home. When he got to be 11 or 12, he just had that motivation. You knew that he was going to work to get to where he wanted to be. To me, I could just tell that you weren’t going to stop him. He was going to get to where he wanted to go.”

It was also around that age when Teddy realized Donny had advanced to a point where he couldn’t help him any more—at least, not with baseball.

“I was like, ‘Rod, do you know anybody I can send Donny to work with?’” Teddy said.

Streeter did know someone—the same man in Clarksville who had helped him more than 20 years prior, when he was a pitcher at Austin Peay, and the same man who had helped almost every aspiring young pitcher who came through Clarksville.

“Yeah,” Streeter replied. “This guy’s a little older—but he knows what he’s talking about.’”

***

(Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

June 8, 2015. Draft night at the Everett house.

Teddy and Rod Streeter were sitting in the bonus room, back behind the couch, where Donny was sprawled. They were watching MLB Network, listening to the names called—Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson was the first player off the board that year. They knew that, at any point, one of the names out of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s mouth could be “Donny Everett.”

Suddenly, Donny’s phone rang, and he stood up from the couch and left the room. He returned 30 minutes later.

“Well,” Donny told them, almost matter-of-factly, “I just turned down $2.5 million.”’

Teddy and Rod exchange a glance, eyes wide.

“It was like ‘wow,’” Rod remembered, nearly two years later. “This kid—it made me have even more respect for him . . . I just remember thinking, ‘Who would turn that down as an 18-year-old kid?’ And what parent would allow their kid to make that decision?’ I think a lot of parents would be like, ‘Take it, take it! Go!”

“But they left that decision up to Donny, and I have so much respect, even more respect, that he wanted to go to school and get that college experience, and that money wasn’t everything.”

Money was not everything. In fact, Donny’s very next move that night, mere minutes after turning down the offer, was to start playing games with Rod’s then-8-year-old daughter Tessa.

“He went from making that decision to, ‘Do you want to play foosball?’” Rod said, laughing.

But that was Donny. And that was the Everett family. Donny always valued relationships over finances, the collective over the individual, and Teddy and Susan valued their son’s independence. Certainly, both of them weighed in and were heavily involved throughout the draft process; they wanted nothing but the best for their son. But they left the final decision—the most important decision of Donny’s young life—up to the person who’d have to live with it.

Scouts in the area said that even during in-home visits, Donny would do the majority of the talking—he’d run the show—while his parents played a more complementary role. Usually it’s the other way around. Donny’s ability to handle himself, his maturity, garnered him even more respect among the scouting community. His makeup might’ve ultimately graded higher than his fastball. The club that offered him $2.5 million on draft day (the club wished to remain anonymous out of respect for the family) took that gamble, in part, because of its faith in Donny’s mettle.

Had he accepted, Donny would’ve been drafted in the latter half of the first round. But Donny had a number in his head going into draft day, and the $2.5 figure fell just short. He slid, instead, to the 29th round to the Brewers. But he wasn’t going to sign.

“He finally said, ‘I made a commitment, and I want to keep it,’” Susan said.

Added Teddy: “A big thing he always harped on was players not wanting to make a commitment, and he always felt like he wanted to do that.”

That commitment was to Vanderbilt, a school about 45 minutes down 1-24 East.

Donny fell in love with the program when he was 10 years old, playing in the same youth tournament as future Commodores ace and Dodgers draftee Jordan Sheffield. Commodores head coach Tim Corbin made a speech at that tournament, and when Donny heard it, he told his parents right then and there, “I’d really like to go to Vanderbilt.”

Vanderbilt fell in love with Donny a few years later, when the Commodores hosted the Kansas City Royals Scout Team for a game at Hawkins Field. Then-recruiting coordinator Travis Jewett was sitting in his office at the ballpark when he saw a kid larger than any other on the mound. When he heard the ear-shattering pop of the catcher’s mitt, Jewett knew he needed to act. Fast.

“They FBI’d us in the back parking lot,” Teddy said, laughing. “Donny was driving and he went to put it in reverse and a black SUV pulls up and all four doors open up, and all these people were getting out, and we’re like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ It was all the coaching staff here at Vanderbilt.”

Thus began Vanderbilt’s recruiting of Donny Everett—not that it was a tough sell. Donny wore a Vandy sweatshirt on his first official visit.

Still, the admiration was mutual. Both Jewett and Corbin could see quickly that Donny had the kind of character they look for in recruits. He didn’t just fit the VandyBoy mold—he was the embodiment of it.

“I think those people who are inside the walls, they understand what a VandyBoy is,” said Jewett, now in his first year as Tulane’s head coach. “People who have that kind of character—people who are selfless, serving others, good teammates, humble. This kid was a heck of a good competitor, but even at a young age, you could see him fitting in.

“Everyone liked him. He had an infectious smile. Obviously, he was big and strong and all of those things, but yet soft and nurtured in terms of who he was as a person.”

Added Corbin: “He was just a real, in my opinion, Midwestern, American kid with tremendous values but happy go-lucky and just went through life as if it was a game and he was having fun with it.”

Donny had this joyful, carefree aura about him; he was brimming with life. He collected nicknames like baseball cards: The Don, Big Bird, Sweaty Goat (he earned that one in middle school, when he had the dual habit of sweating profusely on the mound, while also chewing peanuts with the shell intact). Donny could take a ribbing in good humor, but he could also dish it out, with his trademark dry one-liners. He wasn’t afraid to be self-deprecating. The two teeth inside his eyeteeth never came in; he had to wear a retainer, with two false teeth, until he was old enough to get dental implants. He’d always play around with people when he first met them, especially during meals. He’d pop out his teeth at the restaurant and place them right on the table—often to the surprise of his eating companions.

Donny paired his jovial nature with a voracious work ethic. He was blue-collar in his love for hard labor; for creating things with his own hands. He was never the type to lose days in front of the TV. One of Donny’s favorite hobbies was building model trains. In fact, the Everetts turned the spare bedroom of their house into a display room for those trains; the homemade platform fills the room. Donny would spend entire winters—when he had to take a break from throwing—in that room, constructing and tinkering; sometimes his parents wouldn’t see him for hours.

When Donny was 14, he convinced his father to restore a 1979 Ford F-100 truck that Teddy had purchased for $150 from a coworker—solely for the engine. Teddy and Donny worked on that truck for nearly a year, refurbishing it from a junkyard shell into a mint-green beauty. Donny cherished that truck like it was his offspring. He always hated to see his classmates get new cars, only to mistreat them.

Donny had an appreciation for the intricacies of life, for the effort behind the results, for his roots. Even when he went to Vanderbilt, Donny never lost sight of where he came from.

Streeter remembers a day in late May of Donny’s freshman year at Vandy—May 28 to be exact—when Donny and Teddy came over to visit. His son Ryan, one of Donny’s best friends, was home, too. The day before, Vanderbilt had been eliminated from the Southeastern Conference tournament in Hoover, Ala. Now, together, the Streeters and the Everetts watched the remaining SEC tournament games on TV.

All of a sudden, while watching the games, Streeter’s youngest daughter, Tessa, walked into the living room and said, “Hey, who wants to play catch with me?”

“I’m sitting there, I don’t get up, my son doesn’t get up, but Donny gets up,” Streeter said. “He doesn’t say a word and goes out and plays catch with her out in the front yard. And it’s getting dark. And I’m thinking, ‘This kid just got done pitching in the SEC tournament, and he’s out front playing catch with a 9-year-old girl who doesn’t play softball, who doesn’t catch very well, but he’s out there, and he doesn’t have to be here doing that.”

Donny had pitched in the SEC tournament four days prior, a scoreless ninth inning against Missouri to close out a 7-0 win. The final pitch of that game was the last pitch Donny Everett would ever throw. On the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium scoreboard, the radar reading flashed three digits:

One. Zero. One.

Donny Everett
(John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

***

A tobacco barn, a wood stove, a cow mat with a strike zone painted on it, a makeshift mound constructed out of plywood—this was Donny’s and Mr. Forney’s playground, their weight room, their boxing ring.

Mr. Forney had warned the boy that this was going to be hard, that this would be grueling, that it would be six days of sheer, brutal, sweat-drenched intensity every week. He wasn’t lying. Mr. Forney made Donny agree that he couldn’t change a single part of the routine—unless Mr. Forney, Teddy and Susan all agreed on it.

“When we get started, everybody’s gonna want to change you,” Mr. Forney told Donny that very first day in his yard. “But we can’t let that happen. You have to continue on the course we start on because you can’t deviate from this or you’re not going to do what you want to do.

“You’re going to lose a lot of friends.”

“I don’t want to lose any friends,” 11-year-old Donny replied. “But if that’s what I gotta do, that’s what we’ll do.”

Mr. Forney’s teachings were less about angles and hand placement and more about feeling, more about getting the ball to where Donny wanted it to go—not just in the strike zone, but in a precise location within the zone. Mr. Forney designed drills to build up Donny’s body, particularly his lower body, to catch up with the strength of his arm. He prescribed him a very specific diet, too, to facilitate growth—which was where Susan came in. She’d make Donny a high-protein breakfast every morning before school, scrambled eggs with spinach, bacon, ham. Sometimes even salmon.

Donny would take a shake to school, mixed with vegetables and protein powder (100 percent protein. Mr. Forney was very particular about that). He kept a giant jar of peanut butter by his bed (creamy, he liked it creamy) and he’d eat it nightly by the spoonful. For good measure, Mr. Forney insisted Susan cook all of Donny’s meals with coconut oil. That diet, combined with Donny’s hard labor, began to yield results.

Even still, Donny would grow frustrated at times, barking at Mr. Forney if Forney tweaked one of their drills or added additional steps. He would say, “Mr. Forney, I gotta go.” He always said that. And then he would leave.

The next day, he’d come back, and he’d work twice as hard.

“He was just such a good kid,” Mr. Forney said. “I know there’s more out there. They show up all the time. But they don’t have the will that he did—to fight through all the pain and struggle that it took to get him where he had to go.”

Mr. Forney and Donny remained connected through middle school, through high school, even when Donny went off to Vanderbilt.

Whenever Donny experienced any sort of problem, if he was ever struggling or aggravated or stressed, he’d call Abbott and say, “Mr. Forney, can I come by?” And the two would sit on the swing outside of Mr. Forney’s carport and talk about life, just life, rarely anything about baseball. They would talk the most about fishing—Donny loved to fish. And after hours on that swing, Donny would get up and say, like he always did, “Mr. Forney, I gotta go.”

Mr. Forney would usually respond, “But what about the problem?”

One day, in the middle of Donny’s freshman season at Vanderbilt, he came by Mr. Forney’s place seeking advice. Donny hadn’t pitched a single inning with the Commodores—sidelined with a lat injury—and he had begun to worry. Mr. Forney assured him it was only a minor setback. He would be fine.

“Donny, you like to fish and all that?” Mr. Forney asked.

“Yeah.”

Mr. Forney grabbed a couple of rods and some reels, handed them to Donny and told him to go fishing with his father, to take his mind off of baseball and his injury. No stress. No pressure. Just a boat, a rod and the open water.

“To me,” Mr. Forney says now, “it’s the worst thing I did.”

Months later, at Donny’s funeral in Clarksville, Teddy and Susan asked Mr. Forney if he would be willing to say a few words about their son, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. All he could muster was a single sentence, something private and personal—something he knew Donny would hear and would understand.

“Donny,” Mr. Forney said, “It’s my time to say ‘I gotta go.’”

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