Born To Be A VandyBoy
Thank you Teddy and Susan—I am honored to speak about your son . . . and our teammate.
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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.’”
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.
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.
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.’”
“Donny, what do you got?”
That phrase is common coach speak from me to one of the players. I ask, and they respond—how they respond, you never know. I am essentially asking them, “How are you? What are you doing? What are you working on today? What do you got?”
For Donny, it was rhetorical.
“Donny, what do you got?”
He would just look at me with that crooked smile that leaned to the left and say, “What do YOU got?” and then just dance off with that lumbering jog of his...
Sitting behind home plate in late January, inside the offices at Hawkins Field, Collin Snider points to his left hand, tracing the area of his palm where his thumb and left index finger connect.
“My hand was bruised all the time,” Snider says, with a chuckle. “Right up in this area.”
A few inches below that area, on his wrist, is a tattoo: “DE41,” along with a date, in Roman numerals. June 2, 2016.
Snider remembers the day clearly. They all do. How could they forget? They can’t. They won’t.
June 2, 2016 was a sunny day in Nashville, with a high of 88 degrees. A practice day. Vanderbilt was getting ready to host UC Santa Barbara, Washington and Xavier in an NCAA regional—slated to begin the next day. A little before 10:00 a.m., Vanderbilt pitchers gathered on the turf football field next to Hawkins Field to get loose and participate in long toss, Snider included.
Snider, then a sophomore, loved Donny Everett as a teammate, as a friend, as a person—but he hated catching him. “(It was) the scariest thing I did every single day,” he said, laughing. Snider had the bruises and battle scars to prove it. Donny threw so hard and with so much movement, Snider, at times simply couldn’t see it, especially once they got to the portion of the drill when they were 60 feet apart and Snider had to squat down like he was a catcher. One day, Snider was so rattled, he stood up and said he couldn’t catch Donny anymore. Pitching coach Scott Brown (colloquially known as ‘Brownie’), told Snider to get back into his squat, then turned to the 6-foot-2, 230-pound freshman across from him and said, “Donny, that tells you everything you need to know.”
On June 2, 2016, Snider took extra precautions. He asked junior catcher Jason Delay if he could borrow his catcher’s mitt—just for a little extra padding—and Delay obliged. Even still, Snider squirmed uncomfortably in his simulated catcher’s squat. Near the end of the workout, about an hour and 15 minutes later, Donny held up two fingers, as if to say, “two more fastballs, then I’m done.”
As he walked up and down the field to monitor all of his pitchers, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin saw Donny’s two fingers out of the corner of his eye and decided to move closer to the comically mismatched Snider-Everett battery. As Corbin inched closer, within batter’s box range, Donny threw one high and tight—very close to the coach’s body. Corbin glared at him, but Donny never made eye contact.
Fastball No. 1.
Now, Corbin was curious. He stepped even closer to Snider—standing firmly within the hypothetical batter’s box. Snider’s thinking, “Is Donny actually doing this to him right now?’ but Corbin just smiled. Donny threw this next one even harder—and closer—just under Corbin’s chin, and the head coach flinched and fell back on his heels.
Fastball No. 2
Workout over. Donny walked up to Snider and shook hands, still not making eye contact with Corbin—out of a sense of masculine pride. Then, Corbin asked Donny his signature question, the question he asks every player, every day, and the question Donny rarely took seriously.
“Donny, what do you got?”
Donny looked at Corbin with a sly smile and winked—a look Corbin will never forget.
“You got nothing, coach.”
Corbin loved it—the confidence, the self-assurance, the competitive edge. In his eyes, that was a moment of growth, and it was the last moment the coach and his freshman phenom would share.
Around 11:15 a.m., practice ended and the team dispersed, players free to spend their afternoon however they chose, as long as they were back to their dorms by curfew.
Donny, fellow freshman righthander Chandler Day, redshirt junior lefthander Ryan Johnson and two of Donny’s Clarksville friends went to Chipotle for lunch, then went back to their dorms, gathered their fishing gear and drove about 70 miles southeast to Normandy Lake, near the city of Tullahoma in Coffee County.
Corbin stayed put, preparing for the next day’s postseason action. At about a quarter to eight, when he had finished his NCAA meetings and was done pouring over film, Corbin picked up his wife, Maggie, and the couple started driving toward Sam’s Sports Grill for dinner.
As they drove, Corbin’s phone began to ring. It was junior ace Jordan Sheffield. That was odd. Corbin’s players rarely, if ever, call him at night.
Corbin answered the phone.
“Coach, I just want you to know something. I’m not trying to alert you, but—”
It was too late for that.
Every pitch, any thrilling play or moment, even some routine plays, just for laughs—“Write it down, Donny!”
For the first two months of his freshman season at Vanderbilt, Donny was sidelined by a lat injury—nothing terribly serious—but serious enough to keep him off the mound until April 12. He ended up making just six appearances all year—two starts—going 0-1, 1.50 in 12 innings. As such, Donny had to find other ways to integrate himself with his new teammates, to be of some use. One way was through pitch charting; he became an avid pitch charter. Every day, whoever had the charts in his hands, Donny would come up to him and take them, and he’d write down every small detail during games. His teammates soon caught onto this. Even his coaches.
“‘Write it down, Donny!’ They loved that because it just became an expression,” pitching coach Scott Brown said, laughing. “Someone would get a time on (a baserunner), and they’d just be like, ‘Write that down, Donny!’
“They loved to tease him. And he would just take it and kind of smirk it off and laugh. It was almost like he was saying, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But he would laugh about it, and they knew it was getting under his skin just a little bit, so they just continued it . . . He was at the center of poking fun because he just had that teddy-bear type personality.”
The VandyBoy veterans all made sure Donny’s head never got too big—not that that was ever a problem, anyway.
“We would never let him know that he threw hard,” joked junior righthander Kyle Wright. “We would always make sure that he knew that we threw a pitch harder than him . . . If he hit 95-plus, we’d say the gun was hot or he hit the hot spot.”
A couple of Vanderbilt flamethrowers would always gather at the end of the stretch line, in a sort of exclusive club. They’d call it “Velo Valley.” For months, they didn’t let Donny join; at least, not until he threw his first collegiate pitch. He touched 97 mph in his first appearance, against Middle Tennessee State in April. Only then was he allowed in the Valley. Reluctantly.
As much as Donny’s teammates would make fun of him, they truly did relish his company. His lightheartedness was a form of social glue, even as a freshman. He’d routinely go fishing with teammates—Day, Johnson, Penn Murfee and others. An avid Tennessee Titans fan and a season-ticket holder, he brought Wright with him to a couple of NFL games. If any player on the team had an issue with his car, Donny would happily be there to repair it. A group of players often played Call of Duty on their PlayStation 4s online, and Donny would jump into those online matches from his dorm room—sometimes to their confusion (“Who’s this Sweaty Goat guy who keeps wanting to get into all our games?”).
Perhaps Donny’s greatest cultural impact, though, was one the coaching staff wasn’t aware of for some time. The Fast Food Crew.
Donny, Snider, Wright, Day, Johnson and Hayden Stone (on occasion; he’d never admit to being a member) would get together on the weekends after a team workout and eat fast food—Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A. “Sometimes Sonic—on special occasions,” Snider said, laughing.
“We used it as an excuse for velo,” Wright added with a sly smile. “‘This is how we’re going to throw harder.’”
The specific term that the Fast Food Crew loved to use was “velo pouch.” They’d eat to build up their velo pouches.
“That doesn’t come from me,” Brown said. “I think they all took the old ‘mass times acceleration equals force,’ and I think they took the ‘mass’ part to heart, where they were like, ‘I can put a little extra mass right down there.’”
While not every member of the group participated every time, Donny always did. Sometimes, he’d even go by himself. Together with Day, a subcommittee of the Fast Food Crew was soon formed.
The White Castle Clan.
“In the spring, we started a Sunday tradition of going to White Castle,” Day wrote in a Twitter tribute to Donny last June (Day was not made available for comment). “We ordered six cheese sliders, five-piece mozzarella sticks and a large Big Red creme soda.
“The best part was you (Donny) setting your retainer on the counter and the looks you would get. Still had the most affectionate smile without those two teeth.”
Donny loved Day; he had met the Granville, Ohio native before college, on the showcase circuit. He loved his teammates. He loved Vanderbilt. He only threw 12 innings due to his injury, but there were no regrets for his decision not to sign. He rarely came home, which is what his parents had wanted; they wanted him to find a place where he was happy, where he could truly thrive. Even though he was there for only a few months, they marveled at how quickly their 19-year-old son grew into a man.
“I’d say, ‘You can bring your laundry home!’ Because I’d miss just doing stuff for him,” Susan said. “And he’d say, ‘I got it. It’s my responsibility.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t mind, bring it home!’”
One time Teddy and Susan came to Vanderbilt to visit, but they made the mistake of coming on a Sunday. A White Castle Sunday.
“No, mom,” Donny said, “I can’t go to eat with you. I’m going to eat with Chandler. It’s our date.”
“Donny loved Chandler so much,” Susan said, tearfully. “I texted his mom a picture, and I’ll never forget because she said, ‘They’re going to make great memories together.’”
Jordan Sheffield wasn’t trying to worry his head coach. But he did.
As Corbin continued driving with Maggie by his side, Sheffield told Corbin that his mom had heard something disturbing on the police scanner—that a Vanderbilt baseball player had gone fishing and drowned in a lake near Tullahoma.
“But I don’t see how that can be, coach,” Sheffield said. “It can’t be a Vanderbilt player. It must be a mix-up.”
“Everyone’s back, right?” Corbin responded.
Sheffield proceeded to tell Corbin that Donny, Chandler and Ryan had gone fishing after practice, but they had said they’d be back at the Towers—the dorm where the players were staying—by 8 o’clock.
At this point, a twinge of panic set in. More than a twinge.
“Can you try to find out where Donny is, and the rest of the boys?”
Corbin hung up the phone and immediately called the sheriff's office. He got the dispatcher.
“Can I speak to the sheriff there?”
“I’ll have him call you back. What’s your number?”
Five minutes later, Corbin and Maggie were in the parking lot outside of Sam’s, sitting in the car. Waiting. It was about 8:30. They hadn’t eaten.
The phone rang.
The sheriff, in as calm a voice as he could muster, began speaking on the other line.
“Coach,” he said, introducing himself. “I just want to let you know that Donny Everett was found dead tonight in 15 feet of water.”
Time stopped. Earth stopped spinning. Corbin stopped listening. Maggie could hear the sheriff’s voice from the passenger’s seat. Silence. Cold silence. What do you do? What do you say? What do you feel? What can you do?
Corbin called Sheffield back.
“Could you please gather the kids in the dorm?”
Deputy Charles Taylor of the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department received a call just before 5 p.m. on June 2, 2016. Another deputy, Brandon Reed, soon joined him on the scene.
Five young men—Donny Everett, Chandler Day, Ryan Johnson and two of Donny’s Clarksville friends were fishing at Normandy Lake near Fire Lake Bridge on Mt. View Road, according to a release from the department. Everett’s four fishing companions told police that Everett was on the west side of that bridge and had decided to go into the water in an attempt to swim to the other side.
Everett made it halfway across before he started to ask for help. He was smiling, and his friends thought he was “joking around,” according to the report.
At one point, one of the boys jumped into the water and pulled Everett several feet, but he told police he wasn’t a good swimmer and was struggling to stay afloat. When it seemed like Everett was no longer struggling, the boy let go and swam back to shore. The group, as a collective, still thought Everett was joking.
When the boy looked back, Everett had gone underwater. He didn’t resurface.
“He went fishing with those rods I gave him,” Forney Abbott said. “And he decided to swim, and not being familiar with cold water and mountain lakes, he was thinking summertime, it was warm, he could get in the water and go across. Well, I’m sure that cold water shut him down. Because it’s 50-degree water and his muscles just didn’t work, and the others didn’t understand what was happening to him.”
When Reed arrived on scene a little after 5 p.m., he went into the water and tried to locate Everett, with no luck. The sheriff’s department launched a boat to help with the search. Divers from the Coffee County Rescue Squad entered the water at 6:38 p.m. to search for Everett, according to the report. At 6:47 they dove again, and at 6:49 they found Everett’s body in 25 feet of water, about 15 feet from the shore line.
“People say, ‘Why the heck did he try to swim across?’” his old high school coach, Brian Hetland, said. “He was carefree. He was Donny. It was in the late afternoon, getting ready to close it up and go on back and get ready for the game. It wasn’t like he was there at midnight, or swimming at 1 in the morning, all crazy and messed up.
“It wasn’t nothing like that. It was just being a normal teenager. Doing normal stuff. Doing what he liked to do.”
Teddy Everett had to work in the morning. He’d always get up at 3 a.m., make the 45-minute drive to the post office in Nashville and work the early shift. He and Susan were already in bed when the sheriff knocked.
It was 9:30 p.m. The sheriff kept knocking. And knocking. And knocking. And knocking. And knocking.
Susan remembers every little detail from that day, June 2, 2016. She remembers calling Donny. She remembers texting him. She remembers not hearing back. She remembers telling Teddy she thought something was wrong. She remembers thinking something had to be wrong. She remembers the sound of the knocking on the front door. She remembers the feeling of dread.
Teddy remembers nothing.
Corbin and Maggie never got out of their car. Tim pulled out of the parking lot outside of the restaurant and started driving back toward Vanderbilt’s campus.
As he drove, Maggie’s phone rang. Tim could hear the wailing on the other line. It was Chandler Day and Ryan Johnson. They were standing in Tim and Maggie’s front yard.
“Tell those boys to get over to the dorm,” Tim said to Maggie, “and we’ll be waiting on them.”
As Corbin prepared to enter the Towers, he had flashbacks to the early 1990s, his final season as the head coach at Presbyterian. One of his players, Marcus Miller, died in a car accident. He remembers bringing his players into his apartment and telling them the news. That doesn’t help. Experience doesn’t help. There’s no preparation for this. There’s no 10-step guide for Dealing with Devastation. It doesn’t get easier the second time. Not in the slightest.
“It’s so toxic because you don’t know what to do, what to say,” Corbin said. “Because at that point right there, when you share that news with them, they’ve gone somewhere else. They’ve just gone to their emotion.”
Corbin didn’t even need to say a word as he entered the lobby of the Towers. They could tell from his body language.
“Corbs comes in,” Snider said, “and I don’t remember if he even said anything.”
“He knew that we had all kind of heard rumors as to what possibly happened,” Wright said. “He came in and basically said one thing, ‘Yeah,’ and that was pretty much kind of it. And then from there, guys just kind of broke down. There really wasn’t a whole lot of talking. It was more just silence. Because it was still just a disbelief-type thing. We were with him literally six hours earlier in the day, practicing and getting ready for the regional.”
No one wanted to sleep that night. No one wanted to be alone. No one wanted to talk. No one wanted to think about the regional the next day. No one wanted to think about the NCAA tournament. No one wanted to think about the postseason. No one wanted to think about baseball. No one wanted to think about a game.
Finally, at 4 a.m., Corbin told his players to get to their rooms. Try to get some sleep. If some of them wanted to sleep in the same room, they could. Many players did just that. Some didn’t sleep at all.
The next morning, the Commodores boarded a bus and made the 45-minute ride to Clarksville. Teddy and Susan were waiting in their front yard, arms open wide, a Vanderbilt flag displayed proudly in front of their house. Players circled around them, hugged them, cried together, mourned together.
At one point, Teddy and Susan approached the two teammates who were with Donny at the lake—Chandler Day and Ryan Johnson. They embraced them. They didn’t want them to carry an unnecessary burden. They didn’t want them to blame themselves. They knew this was Donny’s decision.
The first words out of Mr. and Mrs. Everetts’ mouths:
“This wasn’t your fault.”
“No words can express how I feel for the Everett family,” Chandler Day tweeted at 5:22 p.m. on June 3, 2016.
“I met Donny at Team USA and East Coast Pro. I only knew him as a ballplayer then. When we first came to Vanderbilt, I started to know Donny as a person.
“In the fall we had English together, and we sat next to each other every day. I always hated that class, but you made it go by fast with your attitude and personality.
“In the spring we started a Sunday tradition of going to White Castle. We ordered six cheese sliders, five-piece mozzarella sticks and a large Big Red creme soda. The best part was you setting your retainer on the counter and the looks you would get. Still had the most affectionate smile without those two teeth. You bet your ass I’m ordering seven whenever I go, and that one will be for you.
“Our fishing trips, hanging out in the dorms, our drives together. Those are the things I will cherish the most. Life was too short for you, but I will live both of ours to the fullest.
“I miss you. I will continue to miss you, and I love you forever, man.
“White Castle Clan out. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Corbin called three team leaders—Ro Coleman, Tyler Campbell and Kyle Smith—into his office on the morning of June 3, 2016. The morning after.
“Fellas,” he said, “we’re going to go on and we’re going to play, because I think at this point the baseball field and the locker room is a safe haven for you guys. If we’re going to mourn, let’s mourn together. If we’re going to grieve, let’s grieve together, but let’s do this.”
Fate intervened. The Nashville skies opened and rain washed away Vanderbilt’s NCAA regional-opening game against Xavier. It was hardly a reprieve. Another sleepless night. Another night of mourning. Saturday, June 4, was just as gray. Saturday, June 4, was just as rainy.
The flags at Hawkins Field flew at half-mast. Donny’s No. 41 jersey hung in the home dugout. The Commodores left a space for Donny down the foul line as they lined up for the national anthem. Every player wrote “DE41” on his hat.
Corbin and his coaching staff did their best to manage their players’ emotions—to lend them some morsel of strength. But it was still all so raw. The tears still flowed freely. There was still that sense of disbelief, that excruciating grapple with reality.
“Hey, listen,” Corbin told them, trying to alleviate at least some of the pressure, “don’t be afraid to smile or laugh. You’re not being disrespectful. There’s a human side to this where your emotions have to play out a little bit. You’re in competition now. So whatever emotions come through competition, let them play out. Don’t be afraid.”
When freshman Ethan Paul singled in Vanderbilt’s first run of the game in the fifth, to tie the score at 1-1, the Commodores ran out of the dugout to celebrate, like he had just hit a walk-off grand slam. At that moment of exultant catharsis, the Commodores bore some resemblance to the Vanderbilt team that had won 43 games in the regular season. But the illusion quickly shattered. Behind ace Jordan Sheffield, Vanderbilt made an uncharacteristic four errors, fueling an explosive 13-run seventh inning. The Musketeers won, 15-1. The shaken Commodores suddenly were staring at an elimination game. Cruelly, they’d have to play for a second time that day.
When Kyle Wright took the mound that night against Washington, he had barely slept, going to bed at 4 a.m. the previous two nights. He was running on pure, unadulterated adrenaline. Through the first three innings, that seemed to be enough to carry him. He kept the Huskies off the board, while Vanderbilt established a 1-0 lead. Then it began to unravel.
“My first three innings, they were really good, and then I found myself drifting back and forth between the game and thinking about Donny,” Wright said. “It was kind of an emotional roller coaster for me. I was very emotional. I was yelling more. I was all over the place more.
“Usually, I’m a very calm pitcher. I don’t let a whole lot of things affect me. But that game, I specifically remember being out of whack, just because I wanted to win so badly for him, but at the same time, the mindset wasn’t right.”
Down 8-2 in the sixth, the Huskies led a spirited comeback, knocking out Wright in the seventh inning and taking a 9-8 lead in the eighth on a two-run home run by outfielder Jack Meggs.
That score would hold.
Vanderbilt’s season ended. Abruptly. Painfully.
“It sucked, because I think I gave up seven runs,” Wright said. “I didn’t feel great about myself because the hitters gave me a great chance to win the game and I was kind of lost a little bit . . . But at the same time, after the game was lost, we all kind of realized that it’s bigger than baseball, and that kind of helped me get over the fact that I could’ve pitched better.
“All the guys were so great. I specifically remember (reliever) Ben Bowden put his arm around me after the game and told me, ‘It’s not your fault.’ That kind of helped make me feel better about it.”
After that final game ended, no one said a word in the Hawkins Field dugout. The Commodores sat there for an hour, silent, encircling coach Corbin. Snider remembers looking up at the No. 41 jersey hanging on the jacket rack and crying. He had wanted to win with every fiber of his being. They had all wanted to.
But the truth was—as Corbin later shared with his team—Vanderbilt wasn’t meant to win that day. This was life’s way of saying they needed to direct their attention and love elsewhere—completely and fully toward Donny.
“We were thinking about Donny the entire day. I think the kids are probably saying, ‘Did this really happen? That really happened?’ It’s replay in your mind,” Corbin said. “And we’ve all had dreams and we’ve all had nightmares, and you wake up and you say to yourself, ‘Boy, that dream was so real, and I’m glad it never happened.’ And then you continue to try to wake up from this, and you’re up, or at least you think you’re up because—what is life?
“Life might be one huge dream for all I know, but whatever we’re doing at the time, you wake up and it keeps replaying itself, ‘Yes, this did happen; yes, this did happen; yes, this did happen; but I have an at-bat here. Yes, this did happen; yes, this did happen; yes, this did happen; but I’ve got to throw a pitch here, but yes, this did happen.’ And it just keeps coming.
“People outside go, ‘That must be so difficult to do.’ Difficult is not the word. It’s not doable. The game of baseball was not overpowering. That was not our opponent. Grief was our opponent. And grief just says, ‘I don’t care what you have for me, I will eat you up, I will move you to the side, you can throw anything my way,’ but grief always wins. Grief’s undefeated—unless you don’t have a heartbeat.
“Quite frankly, when grief ate us, it just did the best thing it could’ve done for Vanderbilt baseball at that moment. It just made us stop playing a sport and then turn our attention to Donny, and that’s what we needed to do, and that was healthier than winning two baseball games.”
Three days later, Vanderbilt’s team bus unloaded outside of Faith Outreach Church in Clarksville. The community poured into the church to honor Donny Everett—every person he had ever touched filled its expansive interior. Even Vanderbilt players Donny never played with—Dansby Swanson, Carson Fulmer, Rhett Wiseman—came to offer their condolences. Eight players served as pallbearers, Snider and Wright included. Representing his teammates, Snider made a touching eulogy, describing Donny as the “ultimate VandyBoy.”
“Everything you think about Vanderbilt baseball,” Snider said, “Donny had.”
Tim Corbin made his own eulogy, a moving reflection on Donny’s carefree Midwest American values, his positive life force and his biting wit.
Corbin still has that eulogy saved in a Word document on his office computer. It’s 10 pages long.
Regionals Roundup: Difficult Day for Vanderbilt
The season ended for Vanderbilt—abruptly, unexpectedly and cruelly
As much as we all want to live well, we rarely ever think about increasing our chances of dying well.
Rarely do we have the chance to manage that. Dying typically manages us.
How could we help a loved one have the end of life that they would want? We were all participants in helping Donny with his end-of-life experiences.
His parents gave him love, compassion, values and a strong foundation.
The town of Clarksville gave him a home to explore, nurture and grow his talents. Clarksville High School and coach Hetland gave him a proving ground to polish his pitching abilities.
Scott Boras and his assistants provided advisement that would help stabilize the young man’s path into college.
Vanderbilt gave him a home to develop mentally, physically and socially. His teammates gave him comfort. Brownie gave him guidance.
Donny died so very well. Donny had a great end-of-life experience.
Last Thursday morning, the sun was out. It was 85 degrees. Donny was on the baseball field training and preparing for our regional game. He was throwing baseballs with his teammates, running around the field and catching ground balls with a smile ear to ear.
After we finished, it was onto Chipotle with two teammates and two friends from Clarksville to eat lunch. Then back to the dorm to grab their fishing gear. Then onto the lake with his friends, his fishing rod and the song “E” by Matt Mason blaring through the speakers in his Silver Ford Edge.
His best friends. Baseball. Fishing. Happiness.
This is all you would ever want for your child.
This is all WE ever would want for HIM.
His office is geometrical perfection, neatly arranged and thoughtfully decorated. The view outside his balcony window in late January is one of construction—the $12 million renovations to the left-field complex won’t be completed until spring of 2018. The sky is gray; the ground cold, wet.
On the wall adjacent to his desk, closest to the door, is a collection of trophies, awards, relics. Memories of euphoric times, a national championship in 2014, the first in Vanderbilt history.
Life lessons—human emotion—preserved behind glass.
“The part of winning a national championship and the part of death, those emotions are so extreme that they’re almost similar in some ways,” Tim Corbin says, glancing at the mementos in front of him. “Because they’re almost so not how you live your life.
“Winning a national championship, after a couple of days, you want to get back to some normalcy. And after a death, which is far different than a game, you want to get back to some normalcy . . . But normalcy from Donny’s death—that seemed so far removed. I didn’t think we’d ever see normalcy again, at least at that time. I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, we’re never going to get there again.’
“It’s starting to feel more like normalcy now.”
Corbin is a creature of routine, known for his organizational skills and fine-tuned control over every aspect of the Vanderbilt program. Walk a few steps down the hall from his office, and you’ll enter a classroom, complete with a whiteboard, overhead projector and several rows of desks. The rows are perfectly level, forming 180-degree, mathematically parallel lines. Every chair is carefully pushed in, and every desk has a thick white binder on top of it, placed precisely and evenly along the desk’s right edge. On the spine of every binder is the typed last name of every player and his number, “44 WRIGHT,” “40 SNIDER” and so on.
On the back row, near the middle, is a binder whose spine simply reads, “EVERETT.”
That isn’t Donny’s binder.
It’s his father’s.
After the season had ended, after the exit meetings were through, after the players had dispersed, after Tim and Maggie Corbin were done putting the grief of 18- to 22-year-olds ahead of their own, they retreated back to their own private space and allowed themselves to feel it all, fully, for the first time.
“‘I can’t think about laughing. I can’t think about smiling,” Maggie told her husband one day, “because I know they’re not.”
Tim and Maggie had been in consistent contact with Teddy and Susan, checking in with them, not asking them how they were doing—they already knew how they were doing—but asking them, hey, what can we do?
About three weeks after the funeral, Tim called Teddy.
“Can we come over and see you?”
“Let me check with Susan,” Teddy responded.
“Maggie and I would like to take you out to eat.”
The call ended, then Teddy called back.
“Well, we haven’t left the house since three weeks ago.”
“Would you consider it?”
The Everetts accepted. Maggie, Tim and their oldest daughter, Molly, drove to the Everetts’ home in Clarksville, then went a few miles down the road to Ruby Tuesday’s for dinner. They talked for two hours, exchanging lighthearted stories about Donny—the Corbins trying to lift Teddy and Susan’s spirits as much as possible. At the end of dinner, the Corbins extended another invitation.
Tim and Maggie were preparing to head up to the Cape Cod League to watch all of the VandyBoys who were playing summer ball. They knew Susan and Teddy had bought tickets to watch Donny pitch in the Cape, and they knew they had canceled those plans. But would they consider going regardless? Just to get out of Clarksville for a few days?
The Everetts were hesitant at first, but a week later, Teddy called and said they would go. Over three days, Tim, Maggie, Susan and Teddy went to summer league games, visited with Vanderbilt players, got dinner, got beers—breathed, lived.
“We watched innings of games quickly, but it was more about getting there early to see the kids,” Corbin said. “And where I really credit the kids—and this is what I think makes these boys special—is they were completely natural and immersed themselves in the Everetts when they came up. There was no awkwardness. Our kids just ran up to them, grabbed them, and just spoke to them as if, ‘Glad you’re here.’ Not fumbling with words, not looking for what to talk about. I don’t want to portray our kids as any more special than anyone else, but that’s where I thought they separated themselves—their communication skills within a tough situation were overriding.”
One night in the Cape, the two couples ended up at a tavern. The topic of work came up—Teddy hadn’t yet returned to his job at the post office in Nashville. During the 2016 season, he’d drive to work at 3 a.m., get off at noon, sleep in his car and then go to Hawkins Field to see Donny and the VandyBoys play.
That gave Tim an idea.
“He had asked me then what I felt about after I got off work coming and hanging out with the guys,” Teddy said. “And I didn’t know at the time what I should say and what I should do. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know if I could do it at first.
“And then I told him I’d like to do it. And I’ve been coming ever since.”
It’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. At this point, Opening Day 2017 is a little less than a month away. The Commodores are in the underbelly of Vanderbilt’s athletic facilities, wrapping up their workout for the day, their gray T-shirts drenched with sweat, their hair wet and disheveled. Corbin, wearing a light gray Vanderbilt sweatshirt, addresses the group in the weight room, then sends the players funneling out of the room and into the hallway.
On one side of the hall stands Susan Everett. Opposite her is Teddy. They’re both wearing clothes with black-and-gold hues. Teddy’s wearing a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the school’s signature “V,” the color scheme nearly matching his short blond hair and dark-rimmed glasses.
The players begin to walk by them, not quite single-file, but almost. Each one stops when they see the Everetts and offers a handshake or a fist bump or a high five or a warm hug—each and every man on the roster. They say, “Hey, Teddy!” or “Hey, Susan!” and some linger for longer conversations.
Somewhere in the middle of the pack is Chandler Day, now a sophomore. He’s ecstatic when he sees Susan in the hall. He’s shirtless, black ink sprawled across the left side of his rib cage, in honor of No. 41. Day hugs Susan, then playfully teases her about her perfume. She smells nice.
“Teddy!” Day yells from across the hall. “Did you buy Susan this perfume?”
There’s laughter and warmth. Smiles and genuine conversation. None of this feels manufactured. None of this is forced. For Vanderbilt and for the Everetts, this is simply everyday life.
Susan and Teddy had tried therapy, and it had gone OK, but like nearly every person in Clarksville, the therapist had a connection to Donny. His son had played baseball with him. That only made it harder.
“The best therapy has been being around the boys,” Teddy said. “That’s been the best medicine for me.”
Teddy goes to Hawkins Field every day, making the brisk six-mile trip from the post office. While Corbin couldn’t give Teddy a position in any sort of official capacity, he’s bestowed upon him the title of Honorary Dad. Teddy’s there for the workouts, the practices, the team meetings, the scrimmages.
“I sit in the classroom and take notes,” Teddy said. “I’ve learned some pretty good life lessons I wish I learned when I was 19 or 20. I had to learn it the hard way.
“The lessons that these boys learn, when they have children, they’ll look back and be like, ‘I understand what he’s talking about now.’ They may not get it now, but someday. There will be a day it clicks with them.”
Susan doesn’t go to the ballpark every day like her husband does, but she’s a frequent visitor, and Maggie has made it a point to connect with her. Maggie has told Tim that her sole goal every day when she sees Susan Everett is to make her laugh—and she has a knack for it. Tim often looks up at the stands and sees Susan laughing, knowing his personable wife must’ve found just the perfect words to say. She does that.
For any team activity, it’s already understood that the Everetts are invited. No questions asked. In December, they came to the team’s Christmas outing in the mountains, and Teddy even led some of the group’s games. He was the life of the party that weekend—just like Donny always was.
More than parents, Teddy and Susan have become teammates. Their names might as well be listed on the official roster. And that hasn’t only been therapeutic for them—the Commodores, too, have benefited.
“The first day back on campus, you could tell everyone was thinking about it,” Snider said. “There was kind of a missing piece. ‘He should be here now. He should be up in the dorms hanging out with us.’ But coach Corbin has done a really good job of making us feel like we don’t have to hide that or push it off to the side. He wants us, if you’re struggling, talk to someone, talk to him.
“Teddy and Susan have been really interactive with us this last semester. They come up to our scrimmages, they were at our team Christmas party, we’ll go out to eat with them sometimes. We’ve been over to their house sometimes. The process I think has been really helpful for me and for the team as a whole.”
Snider, Wright and other teammates have gone golfing with Teddy on a few occasions. One time, Susan came, too, and drove the golf cart.
On a particularly special occasion, six Commodores went to the Everetts’ house and had the opportunity to drive Donny’s truck—the mint-green 1979 Ford F-100 that Teddy and Donny had restored together when he was a teenager. The players hopped in the truck two at time—and drove very, very carefully.
“Me and Ryan Johnson, we were driving at the time,” Wright said, “and I remember R.J. said, ‘Donny’s probably looking down and saying right now, ‘What in the hell is he doing to my truck?’
“That was his baby.”
Vanderbilt has and will continue to honor Donny Everett in all of the proper, conventional ways. The Commodores will retire his No. 41 in a mid-April series against Florida, which takes place just before what would’ve been Donny’s 20th birthday on April 16. Clarksville High will retire Donny’s high school No. 14 in its own ceremony this spring, as well.
But truly honoring Donny’s legacy means more than retiring his jersey number. It goes far deeper than that. The Commodores still talk about Donny every day. Almost a third of the team has gotten a tattoo in remembrance of him.
“We honor him on a daily basis, I think, by talking to Teddy—and that’s real,” Corbin said. “We open up with Teddy about Donny. And we’re not playing for Donny. We’re playing with him still. He’s still with us in some capacity. It may be his spirit; it may be his soul. But how we try to honor him is we don’t need to put a number that was assigned to him on our hat to make us feel better about honoring Donny. I mean, we did immediately at the time, but honoring him is eternal, and it’s relationship-based. Now we turn our attention to the people who he gave to us, and that’s his parents. And that’s how we honor him.
“To us, we’ve been given that gift. Often times, when you lose someone, you don’t get the gift of a brother or a sister or a set of parents to continue communicating about them. We’ve been given the gift of Teddy and Susan to continue communicating about Donny. We hope that gift has helped them in some ways because it certainly has helped us. This isn’t one-sided, I think. This is reciprocal.”
Teddy and Susan are still grieving. That process doesn’t just end—it only becomes more manageable. It does still hurt, some days more than others. But there are pockets of happiness, moments of solace and moments of laughter—and Vanderbilt has supplied many of them.
“They’ve been more than generous with their time and care level with us,” Teddy said. “It’s just been unbelievable. It really has. I can’t imagine many other coaches in the country taking that much time to make sure we’re included in what’s going on.”
“It’s been a blessing,” Susan said. “I’m a Vandy fan for life. They’ll always be in my heart.”
More than anything, the time at the ballpark, around the VandyBoys, has allowed the Everetts to maintain a closeness to Donny. For Teddy especially, as he jokes with Vanderbilt pitchers during long toss or goes golfing with Collin Snider or hunting with Rhett Wiseman, he can just feel his son’s presence. In a sense, he’s living out Donny’s college experiences.
“It made me understand,” Teddy said, fighting back tears. “I know Donny was only here a year, but it made me understand some of the reasons why he did what he was doing here—which we didn’t understand.
“But I understand now.”
Beloved son. Grandson. Nephew. Cousin. Friend and teammate. Taken too soon but not forgotten. Remember him for his kindness, generosity, and most of all, his ability to make you laugh!
The grave is located at Sango Cemetery, a few-minute drive from the purple-tinged Clarksville High baseball field, where a light-hearted, easy-going country boy had become something greater. Something mythical.
If you’re walking to it from the church, aim for the northwest corner, as far as you can go, away from the street. The tombstone is almost isolated there, as if staring out at the grassy, open field in front of it. Except for a red barn off in the distance, there’s nothing but green on the horizon. He would’ve liked that.
The items left there by his friends and family coalesce into a narrative. They tell a story, not a complete story, but a story brimming with love. There are flowers and religious articles, a clear glass cross, a circular stone plate adorned with a golden border and the words, “In memory of a life so beautifully lived.”
There’s a Tennessee Titans banner draped across an adjacent bench, a gold Vanderbilt baseball flag pinned firmly into the ground. There’s a bottle of Big Red soda—the kind he used to order at White Castle every Sunday—leaning against the stone. There’s a can of Natural Light beer—a college kid staple. Two cans of chewing tobacco. One Cuban cigar, half-smoked. Three baseballs, one older and more worn than the other two. A pencil-drawn sketch—laminated—of a Clarksville pitcher with his back turned, wearing No. 14 and tossing a ball in the air.
Etched in the stone itself, on one side, is the No. 41, a Vanderbilt “V” and a baseball. On the other side, on the bottom left and bottom right, respectively, is “CHS #14” and the image of a fisherman, standing on a boat, reeling in a fish out of the water. It’s a big one.
But the part that will catch your eye first as you inch closer to the stone in the northwest corner—the part that you couldn’t possibly miss—are the two words stretched across the top of the grave. Two words spelled out in all-caps, bolded in deep, black font. Two words that tell the story of Donny Everett more succinctly and more powerfully than any one person could ever hope to. Those two words: