The day after his 8-year-old son died, Rick Howard sat at his computer in the wee hours of the morning when sleep would not come and wrote an email.
Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013
Dear Coach Fred and the rest of the 2013 Wolves,
I just wanted to let you know that my son Hugh unexpectedly passed away on Friday morning. I just wanted to let everyone know that playing T-ball last summer was probably one of Hugh's favorite activities he ever participated in.
With all his physical challenges, it was the one and only time he was an actual member of a sports team.
For sports fans in a state eat up with Sooners and Cowboys and Thunder, a 6-and-under T-ball team at the Edmond YMCA is way off the radar. But for a little boy who loved sports but never got to play and for a family now coping with the pain and sorrow of losing a child, that team meant the world.
They had the best season ever.
* * *
Hugh James Howard weighed over 9 pounds when he was born, but he was not the healthy baby boy that Rick and Lauren Howard had prayed for.
He was born with no soft spot on his head. The sutures of his skull fused together while he was in utero and created numerous issues. Chief among them was the fluid that would collect on his brain.
Doctors inserted a shunt that drained the fluid, but the shunt failed several times and had to be redone.
There were other procedures that had to be done, too. By the time Hugh was 1, he'd been through nearly a half dozen surgeries.
There would be more as he got older.
Hugh also had a Chiari malformation, a defect in the part of his brain that controls balance and depth perception. He didn't walk until he was 3 years old. The defect caused sleep apnea and breathing problems, too.
But none of that stopped Hugh from becoming one of the biggest sports fans on the planet. He loved the Sooners and the Thunder, and when their games were on, he'd station himself directly in front of the TV. He'd yell and clap and fist pump, and whenever someone made a big play, he'd re-enact it.
He would become Blake Bell. Or Kevin Durant. Or Russell Westbrook.
But his love wasn't limited to Sooner crimson and Thunder blue. He'd watch anything — baseball, WNBA, tennis — and be totally into it.
If the sport involved a racket, the spaghetti spoon was a perfect substitute
A couple years ago, Hugh got a beginner's baseball glove from his granddad, and Hugh took that glove everywhere he went. He had it with him last May when he and his dad went to Camp Classen near Davis for a father-son weekend retreat. Regardless of what activity they were doing, Hugh had his glove.
Fishing? He had his glove.
Hiking? He had his glove.
“He carries that mitt everywhere,” another dad said to Rick. “You should get him in T-ball.”
“I don't think he can play with the 8-year-olds,” Rick said.
Rick worried that Hugh wouldn't be able to keep up. He couldn't run as fast. He couldn't throw as well. The other kids might get mad, or Hugh might get discouraged.
“Just ask the YMCA if he can play down an age and do under-6,” the other dad said.
The next week, Rick called the YMCA in Edmond. He told them about Hugh's physical challenges and baseball passion. Was there any way he could play T-ball with the younger kids?
The folks at the Y said yes.
“But we'll watch him,” they said. “If he's too good, we'll have to move him up.”
Rick said, “I don't think you're going to have to worry about that. I think he'll be right at his level.”
When Rick and Lauren told Hugh that he was going to play T-ball, he couldn't wait.
“When do I get to practice?” Hugh asked.
He got a new glove and new cleats. He got his own jersey, too.
It was better than Christmas.
* * *
Hugh spent his life on the sidelines watching other kids play.
Because he was always developmentally behind kids his age, playing organized sports really hadn't been an option. His older sister, Hannah, played all sorts of organized sports, and with Rick often coaching, Hugh could often be found on the sidelines.
No one was a better supporter.