Pitcher Donny Everett Was Headed for Stardom Until Life Tragically Intervened

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJune 1, 2017

Vanderbilt players stand during a moment of silence for teammate Donny Everett before an NCAA college baseball regional tournament game against Xavier Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. Everett, a freshman pitcher, drowned while fishing Thursday, June 2. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics

Maybe if you're lucky, someone comes into your life a few times over the years and lights it up like a birthday cake. Someone who takes you from the dumps to the penthouse in seconds flat, a walking party, someone who fills a room and makes you laugh, think, care, live. Someone who effortlessly can coax a smile even in your worst moments.

For a few dozen baseball players scattered across the country today, Donny Everett was that guy. And then, he went fishing one day and never came back.

They'll tell you he was a big ol' teddy bear, a kid in a grown man's body. He was only 19, but his legend stretched taffy-like well beyond his brief reach. They'll detail his beloved hillbilly-themed baseball caps that screamed "country boy!", his appetite for buffet restaurants and the way he absolutely delighted at removing his two fake teeth at the most entertaining of times.

Donny Fastball, they called him. Among his tools were a big arm and a bigger personality. Vanderbilt, where the Tennessee-born Everett played as a freshman, is the epicenter of his story. But one year after his tragic death, emotions continue to ripple across the country like so many aftershocks.

Ben Bowden, a left-handed pitcher in the Colorado system, sat in a room this spring at the Rockies' complex in Arizona and stared into his cellphone. His lock screen is a photo of Everett.

"I keep him with me," Bowden, the Rockies' second-round pick in the 2016 draft, said quietly. "It's because I know how much baseball meant to him. And how bright his future was."

Bowden paused, sniffed and, nine months after the loss of Everett, still needed a moment to compose himself.

"I'm sorry," Bowden continued, voice cracking. "This is the type of stuff he should be doing. The kid had first-round offers out of high school, and he said, 'I want to go to Vandy. I want to be a part of that family.'

"This is the lifestyle that he should be living. But, unfortunately, life happened."

Life happens, and you pick up the pieces. What else can you do, except hope for better pieces and more attractive options? But sometimes, there are none.

Across the country in Atlanta, a rubber bracelet encircles Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson's wrist. "Go Vandy 41 What you got?" it reads, the etching including Everett's Commodores number.

What you got? It was one of the go-to questions in the Vanderbilt program, one that surely crosses the mind of first baseman Kyle Smith, signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks as a non-drafted free agent last June, when he climbs behind the wheel of his Nissan Titan, looks into his rearview mirror and sees the picture of Everett pitching for Vanderbilt he affixed to it. When Smith is done glancing at that, before he shifts into drive, sometimes he fingers the bronze coin he keeps on his dashboard, the one Everett's mother, Susan, presented to the Vanderbilt players at the gut-wrenching memorial service.

"Let my memory be the light of the world," reads the inscription on that coin.

"So he's there," Smith said. "I see him every day."

  

HE WAS 6'2", 230 pounds, a no-doubt major leaguer one day who was a 29th-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school and reportedly turned down as much as $2.5 million, according to Jon Heyman, writing for CBS Sports, so he could fulfill his dream of pitching for Vanderbilt.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

"We didn't even know if he was going to get there, he was that special of an arm," said Walker Buehler, the Los Angeles Dodgers' first-round pick in 2015, who was pitching for Vanderbilt while Everett was being recruited. "For the 50 people involved in that program, he was a very important part of it for a year."

Life happened last June 2 during what should have been the high point of Everett's freshman season: Vanderbilt's appearance in the NCAA Regionals. It was an off day and, as Vandy baseball players have done for years, several went fishing. The beautiful lakes surrounding Nashville offer a peaceful, quiet place to bond and enjoy nature.

On this afternoon, a small group drove to Normandy Lake in Coffee County and, according to the Coffee County Sheriff's Office report, Everett tried to swim across the lake while fishing with two teammates and two other friends. Everett encountered trouble and called for help but, according to the report, his friends thought he was "just joking around because he was smiling and did not seem to be in distress," (h/t Adam Sparks of The Tennesseean).  

One of the friends swam out to Everett, realized the gravity of the situation but told the police he struggled to stay afloat and had to let go of Everett and swim back to shore.

"When he looked back, Everett had gone under and did not resurface," the report reads. An autopsy conducted shortly afterward confirmed that the drowning was purely accidental and revealed that at the time of his death, Everett's body tested negative for alcohol and drugs.

That weekend is seared into memories for life. The mother of Jordan Sheffield, a right-handed pitcher who was a Los Angeles Dodgers' pick last June (36th overall), works at the local hospital and was on duty on that Thursday night when she began hearing rumblings that a Vanderbilt baseball player had drowned. She reached out to Jordan, who immediately sent a group text to the team to the effect of, "I heard something scary, I hope everyone's OK, please let me know."

The team pulled together as details filtered in, confirming they had lost one of their own. As word spread overnight into Friday, few players slept. Many cried through the night. The team met at a residence hall on Friday, a day of rain. The Regional game against Xavier, which No. 1 seed Vanderbilt was hosting, was postponed until Saturday.

Such was the force of Everett's personality that Swanson and Carson Fullmer, picked eighth overall by the White Sox in 2015, were granted leaves of absence by Atlanta and Chicago to attend the funeral of the young man they had hosted during his recruiting visit in 2014—even though each had already left Vanderbilt by the time Everett arrived. 

"Some of the hardest times of my life," Swanson told B/R this spring. "I didn't understand it. I still don't. Even looking at how it affects recruiting, he would have played a huge role for them this year. You just look at the missing link because of that situation. It's tragic. It's terrible."

He paused, grasping for words.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

"Life's life," he continued, finally. "It's very tender. It's why it is important to take every day as if it's your last, even though you don't want to think like that. It was like, he was fishing. Come on."

   

DONNY EVERETT WAS the kind of guy who let himself into your place while you were away and made himself at home…and when you returned, you weren't mad, you simply were thrilled that Donny was there and comfortable.

"You couldn't not like Donny," Bowden said. "I could get mad at anybody, but him, he's too lovable."

The upperclassmen on the team lived in Lewis House and the freshmen lived in a housing area known as the Commons. Even as a freshman, though, Everett spent much of his time over in Lewis, messing around, playing Call of Duty, just hanging out. Bryan Reynolds, a native of Brentwood, Tennessee, with a molasses-kissed Southern drawl, was a junior outfielder during Everett's freshman year.

"One day I got back from somewhere and he was just sitting in my room, in the common area I shared with a couple of other guys, eating a thing of cookie dough," Reynolds, the San Francisco Giants' second-round pick in the 2016 draft, said, chuckling. "We walked in and he was just chowing down. I said to him, 'Donny, what are you doing, man?'"

"Adding to my velo pouch," Everett shot back, grinning.

That was a big thing for the pitchers, Reynolds recalled. Eating to stock this fictional velocity pouch that would make them throw even harder. They loved that concept.

Everett's fastball averaged 93 mph by the time he entered Vanderbilt in the fall of 2015, and he could hump it up into the high 90s as a freshman. His heater had natural sink, and with a slider clocked at around 82 mph, he produced a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings. He was going places.

"He was one of the most priceless kids I've ever met in my life," Bowden said. "And I only really, really knew him from August until June. I didn't even know the kid a full year, but I loved him like he was my brother."

Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics

It was hard not to, given his lack of ego and the lengths to which he would go to make people laugh.

"The old picket fence," Smith said, chuckling, of the gap Everett would show off when he removed the fake teeth he had where his two upper front chompers once were. "We used to give him a hard time, and Donny loved it. He had no shame. He was completely comfortable with himself, and I think that's why he was so fun to be around."

The story with the teeth was that he got hit in the mouth with the ball during a game in high school. At least, that's the way the Vandy boys understood it.

"He would take his teeth out when we were eating somewhere, and he would literally just not care at all," Bowden said. "He would literally just rip his teeth out, place a napkin out and put them on the napkin. And we're in the middle of a lunch hall. And he could not care less. It didn't bother him that people were walking by looking at him. He was just the type of guy who was always trying to make somebody laugh, make your day better.

"He was goofy as hell. He looked just like a hillbilly whenever he'd take his teeth out, but he was just Donny. Everyone has that type of guy in their life, he just happened to be the one in ours."

   

IN MEMORY, VANDERBILT retired Everett's number this spring and also stenciled a jumbo-sized 41 into the grass area in front of the team dugout.

"The cool part about that, before I was there, before any of us were there, that's where the team's always huddled," Buehler said. "I don't think they could have put it in a better place."

That's the formal, public part of it. The informal part? It comes often, in the quiet moments, both throughout Tennessee and at far-flung fields across the country as those who knew him each carry pieces of Everett forward. Smith remembers facing him in high school before the two wound up as Vanderbilt teammates and noticing from across the field the way the guys in his dugout gravitated toward him.

He was as advertised, Smith soon came to see. They played ball together, laughed together, fished together. They'd catch smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and catfish, and they'd usually toss 'em back. They fished for sport, mostly, 80 percent of the baseball team, Smith estimated. It was a chance to leave behind the baseball and study grind to catch a few hours of R&R. They'd have a good time on the lake, then pack it in and get home.

Smith was not with Everett on that particular Thursday, one of the rare times they were apart. The two lockered next to each other, for crying out loud.

"How do you even describe the locker next to you, his stuff is there but the guy is not?" Smith said. "It's so raw. You show up to play and the guy that's right next to you over the course of the year..."

That Friday, the team bused the hour or so to the Everett family home in Clarksville, Tennessee, bright and early in the morning. Donny's grieving parents, Teddy and Susan, were there with hugs for all.

"Whenever someone passes away, everyone jumps and says, 'He was the nicest, he was the greatest, he was the best,' this and that," Bowden said. "And it was one of those things where you can talk about the kid until you're blue in the face. But unless you got to meet Donny, unless you got to meet his parents Teddy and Susan, his family, you can't understand it.

"They greeted every single one of us. With hugs, kisses. They talked to us. I don't know if my parents could do that, you know what I mean?"

At home in Clarksville, Donny was working with his father to restore a 1979 Ford F-100 pickup truck. They were close to finishing it, and Everett's teammates at school heard all about it. Donny delivered frequent updates. Bowden still wishes he could have taken a ride in that truck with Donny. As it is, Teddy eventually did finish it and has taken some of the players out for a spin.

When so many of them congregated at the school for offseason workouts last winter, Teddy was a daily fixture. He rises early for work five days a week with the U.S. Postal Service, then drives to the baseball field. He has his own locker in the Alumni Clubhouse, and Susan is around quite often as well. Donny was their only child, and he loved the program so much that coach Tim Corbin and his wife, Maggie, have done what's come naturally: They've assimilated the Everetts into their program, and into their lives. 

It should be Donny, though, leaving the biggest mark at Vandy, throwing the hell out of a baseball, running through drills, working out, a big future awaiting that big arm. But life happens, and sometimes breaks your heart as it does. Bowden, Swanson, Fullmer, Smith and others still regularly text with Teddy. Bowden still has Donny's phone number in his cellphone, along with his PlayStation network name, and continues to follow Everett on Facebook and Instagram.

"Everything," Bowden said. "It's not that often that I go and look, but I keep him with me.

"I am beyond blessed to ever have shaken Donny's hand. He was that kind of kid."

Reynolds, too, keeps Everett in his cellphone, preserving a group text message as a living piece of Donny. And that bronze medallion that rests on the dashboard of Smith's truck? It sits on the dresser in Reynolds' bedroom back home in Tennessee.

"He's still with us all," Reynolds said. "I'll catch myself thinking about him every now and then. Like, if I'm at church or praying, I'll mention his family."

Yes, maybe if you're lucky, someone comes into your life and lights it up like a birthday cake. They are gifts.

One year later, in various ways and through a special group of family and friends, Everett keeps giving. Each of those who orbited his world carries with them today a small piece of Donny Fastball.

"If there's one thing, it's that life's too short to get down," Smith said. "There's no time to be down. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep a positive mindset. Make those around you better. That's one thing I think Donny did naturally.

"It wasn't forced, he didn't try to do it, but he lifted those around him up, and that's huge. Going away from Vandy, getting into pro ball, guys have up and down days, and if you can be one of those positive forces who can bring people up on their down days, that's something special."

   

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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