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How Vanderbilt rose from the depths of grief to the College World Series

Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin helped his team cope with the death of pitcher Donny Everett by including Everett's parents in the program. Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports

OMAHA, Neb. -- They will sit in the stands tonight like the rest of the baseball parents, a collective ball of hope and nerves, and who knows what Teddy and Susan Everett will be feeling when it's over.

Teddy was so excited when Vanderbilt rallied to beat Louisville on Friday that he slapped hands with coach Tim Corbin, hugged him and almost ripped his arm out of its socket. But this is different. It's the College World Series finals, the end of an era and a career that never really began.

These are the final games for Donny Everett's class, five seniors and two redshirt juniors who were there on a June night three years ago when word came that the freshman phenom had drowned. Everett's death was so devastating that Corbin said he considered quitting coaching -- or at least leaving Nashville for a change of scenery.

It took a year to stop the mourning and even longer for Vandy baseball to feel remotely near its old self. To watch the No. 2 Commodores play with such verve and joy is really the culmination of three years of pain. And it never completely goes away. Tonight, while his team stretches, Corbin will walk to right-center field at TD Ameritrade Park and touch the wall in the spot where Everett's No. 41 would be at Vanderbilt's home stadium.

If there was anything positive to come out of Everett's death, Corbin said, it's that when they lost Donny, they gained a family. One of the first things Corbin did when his team won its super regional earlier this month was ask Teddy and Susan if they'd accompany the Commodores to Omaha.

"Life doesn't always give you what you deserve," Corbin said. "But if any group of people ever deserved something special for them, it was to get to Omaha. I don't think I would've been able to live with myself if I felt like they couldn't get here. I just felt like all along this is where they needed to be.

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Vandy playing for a fallen teammate

Vanderbilt's run fueled by the loss of teammate Donny Everett who died in 2016.

"I think Teddy's having a great time. Now, I think there are times when, if you lose a child, I can only imagine ... There's moments of this trip where he probably goes in his room, shuts the door and cries. I think I would. But I think the majority of the time he's having a ball."

Teddy Everett declined to do an interview for this story. Through a Vanderbilt media relations contact, he said he wanted the focus to stay on the players. But Corbin spent about 45 minutes Saturday in a quiet place at the team hotel talking, at times very emotionally, about the Everetts' impact on his life and this 2019 team that is two wins away from the school's second national championship.

The fact that Teddy and Susan are in Omaha is no small feat. Teddy is battling cancer, Corbin said, and though he was a fixture at games in past years, this season has been especially hard for Teddy because it would've been his son's last one in college. But they are here, hanging on to every pitch as if Donny were throwing it.

"Teddy told us he lives through us," Vandy senior infielder Julian Infante said. "We just want to be there for them, be their kids as much as we can. It's great having them around. Their strength and love for us is inspiring."

'The next great one'

The truth is, had Donny Everett lived, he probably wouldn't be on this team. He'd probably be pitching in some packed minor league ballpark right now, a high selection from the 2018 draft.

In the final pitch of his life, at the 2016 SEC tournament, Everett touched 101 on the radar gun. He was a mythological figure in Tennessee high school lore. There's a well-told story of a game against Soddy Daisy, when his Clarksville baseball team was down 3-1 and Everett smashed a three-run homer, then ran back to the bullpen. He was the team's ace. But he came in as a reliever the next inning, striking out the side while his opponents watched in amazement.

"Their coach comes walking out of the dugout," said Brian Hetland, Everett's high school coach. "He's carrying four new baseballs. He says, 'Do you guys just want to get his autograph right now?'"

Donny, the Everetts' only child, was a 6-foot-2, 230-pound lovable lug. If something fun was about to happen, he was usually in the middle of it. He did not get bogged down with the pressures that come with otherworldly talents. One of his favorite things to do was eat cheeseburgers and mozzarella sticks at White Castle with former Vandy pitcher Chandler Day. Everett would place his retainer with two false teeth on the table and dig in. He was a big, strong country boy, even though his hometown of Clarksville has grown to more than 150,000 people. He was so good that he was reportedly offered a $2.5 million signing bonus to play professionally out of high school.

But Everett wanted to walk before he ran. He bet on himself -- that in three years, he'd be the best one in the draft.

"He was, if I can say this, he was the next great one," Corbin said. "That's not speaking emotionally. That's speaking in terms of who he was."

A lat injury sidelined Everett for the first part of his freshman season, but he came back strong, posting a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings. Days before the NCAA tournament started, Corbin sat with pitching coach Scott Brown and went over the team's starters for regionals. "Brownie" told him, "We're going to start Donny one of those games."

Vanderbilt was set to host a regional on June 3, 2016. The day before that, the Commodores had an early practice and the rest of the day off. Everett, Day and Ryan Johnson, all members of the Vandy pitching staff, decided to go fishing along with two of Everett's friends from Clarksville. They got Chipotle and headed out to Normandy Lake, about an hour away in Manchester, Tenn.

The boys did not have much success catching fish. Everett tried to swim across the lake and was halfway there when he called out for help. At first, his friends thought he was joking. One of them swam out to Everett and pulled him for a bit before letting go. He still thought Everett was joking. When he looked back, Everett was gone.

'You're going to get through'

Vanderbilt had beaten Xavier, its next opponent, three times that season, but Corbin didn't leave anything to chance. He stayed late in the office the night of June 2 to watch film, then headed to one of his favorite places, Sam's Sports Grill, for dinner with his wife, Maggie.

They were in the parking lot when the phone rang. It was pitcher Jordan Sheffield. He said his mom had heard over the scanner that a Vanderbilt baseball player had died.

"Well, everybody's back at the dorm, right?" Corbin asked.

Sheffield said no. They were missing three. At that point, Corbin knew something had gone terribly wrong, and he started shaking. He eventually got a hold of a sheriff, who said they found Donny Everett in 25 feet of water. At that point, he stopped listening.

His wife's phone was ringing, and it was Chandler Day. From his passenger seat, he could hear Day screaming over the phone. Corbin told everyone to meet at the dorm, and when he arrived, his team was sitting on the floor, in silence, looking straight down.

"It was just extreme emotion," Corbin said. "You could cut it with a knife, it's so thick. It was just so tough to watch, and I was just really clueless on what to do."

They'd play in the regional with the hope that it would be a safe haven. But first, the team loaded a bus and headed to Clarksville to see Teddy and Susan. The 45-minute ride, Corbin said, was "an anticipation of sadness." The Everetts were walking around the front lawn, pacing. Hanging on their house was a Vanderbilt flag.

There wasn't much talking, just a lot of crying. The game was rained out that night. The next day, Vanderbilt played in a fog of awkwardness. The crowd didn't know whether it was appropriate to cheer. It didn't matter because Xavier beat them 15-1.

The second game was against Washington. Corbin was struck by the Huskies' exuberance when they won and the sinking and surreal feeling of it all. These last three days cannot be happening.

"Life doesn't always give you what you deserve. But if any group of people ever deserved something special for [the Everetts], it was to get to Omaha."
Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin

When it was over, the team sat in the dugout for about an hour and a half, and no one said a word. A smattering of fans sitting in the stands didn't leave either. "It was eerie," Corbin said. "The lights were on, and no one was moving."

Corbin said it was probably better that they lost. They could put all of their energy into helping the Everetts. They had a final team meeting. Baseball wasn't mentioned.

"These next two days are going to be the toughest days we've ever had in this building," he told them. The Commodores prepared for Everett's funeral.

Teammates served as pallbearers. Clarksville's Little Leaguers lined the streets to salute Vanderbilt's bus as it drove through. The players were supposed to lay funeral coins on Everett's casket, but Day held on to his.

Summer turned to fall, and the sadness did not go away on Vanderbilt's campus. For the first time in his 17 years at the school, Corbin canceled the black-and-gold game. The energy of the team wasn't good, he said. It was going sideways.

"Maggie, this might be it for me," Corbin told his wife. "I don't know if I want to do this anymore. This is too tough."

A time to heal

Chandler Day convinced himself that he was fine. He pitched in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2016 and lost it maybe once, when he called his mom at 1 a.m. bawling. He said he didn't want to go back to Vanderbilt in the fall, didn't want the memories to rush back. He even said he didn't find baseball fun anymore.

But Day figured he'd be OK. His teammates seemed to treat him differently, almost with pity, and it bothered him. So did the nightmares. But he didn't want to pour his heart out in a therapy session with a stranger.

His first game back in 2017 was at San Diego in February. He put Everett's funeral coin in his back pocket and stepped onto the mound. He hit two batters, walked another two and didn't record an out.

"There was definitely a darkness inside me that would come out," Day said, "whether it be anger or frustration or days where I didn't want to do anything, which is impossible to do as a student-athlete at Vanderbilt. If you take a day off and do nothing, you're behind two days."

When the team got back from the San Diego trip, Corbin wanted to talk.

"Hey, Chandler, how are you doing?"

"Fine," Day answered.

Unsatisfied, Corbin asked the question two more times before Day relented. He was not fine. He needed help. He agreed to see a psychologist in Nashville. After the first session, he said, he felt the weight falling off his 6-foot-4 shoulders.

He still dreaded the anniversary; everyone did. The Commodores earned an NCAA tournament berth and were sent to Clemson. Corbin got the team together. He told them when they get to June 2, he wanted everyone to start celebrating Everett. They'd mourned him for so long. Now it was time to play with him instead of for him.

Always a part of the team

The relationship between the Everetts and the baseball team started on sort of a whim. Every year, Corbin and his wife go to Cape Cod to take a vacation and watch his players in the Cape Cod League. About six weeks after Donny's death, Corbin figured he'd ask the Everetts if they wanted to come. He figured they'd probably say no; it was far too soon.

But the Everetts decided to go. They hadn't really been out of their house in Clarksville, and they needed to get their mind off things. Corbin did whatever he could to get the couple involved with the team. He put up a locker in the staff room for Teddy. Their visits weren't therapeutic just for the family. They helped Corbin too. Teddy is a fun and gregarious man, much like his son. In some ways, it's like having a piece of Donny there.

Teddy's reaction to Vandy's win last week over Louisville -- the win that propelled the Commodores to the CWS finals -- was probably similar to the way Donny would've celebrated. Halfway across the country, Chandler Day was celebrating too. He was drafted by the Washington Nationals last year and is pitching for the Hagerstown Suns, a Class A affiliate.

Day was in the bullpen when the Commodores were fighting to make the finals, and he pulled out his phone to watch. He knows he could've gotten fined, but he figured the $50 would've been worth it.

He watched a team that has been through so much celebrate in front of a packed stadium. This was the Vanderbilt he committed to years ago, and now they were back. Day still keeps Everett's coin and says that his best friend's death gave him perspective to know that a wild pitch isn't everything.

It was a few hours before the Suns played a game against Hickory on Monday, but Day wanted to talk. Anytime he can tell people about Donny Everett is a good day, he said.

"If you could," he said, "throw in a good luck to the boys. I'll be watching."