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.
He cheered everyone and everything. He was always smiling. He was always encouraging.
If Rick told the girls that they needed to go a certain way on the soccer field, Hugh would echo the instructions, mimic his dad and point in that direction. Sometimes, he was so into the game that he would end up on the field. Rick would have to pull him back for fear he'd get run over.
But when Hugh joined Wolves last spring, no one was pulling him off the field.
“Playing T-ball was the first time where he actually got to walk on the field,” Rick said. “He got to run the bases. He got to be out in the field when the ball was hit.
“It was just a dream come true.”
Fred Weber coached the team, and during the first practice, he noticed that Hugh had some physical challenges. Rick explained Hugh's background after practice, but Coach Fred didn't see it as a problem.
Hugh wanted to play, so he should be able to play.
“Really, we didn't do anything different,” Coach Fred said. “He got out there and played with all the other kids.
“It really wasn't that big of a deal.”
But it was a huge deal to Hugh.
He often played catcher, and he loved wearing the mask. Because of his brain issues, his parents loved seeing him wear it, too.
Even though there was no one pitching, Hugh would get down in a catcher's squat before each batter swung. And if they happened to miss, Hugh would grab the ball and put it back on the tee.
But as much as he liked playing in the field, he really loved hitting the ball and running the bases. Hugh had a little waggle when he lifted the bat off his shoulder, and when he swung, he swung for the fences.
As the season wore on, Hugh ended up in the last spot in the batting order. Because everyone got to bat once an inning, he was the last batter no matter what.
That meant he always got to run the bases.
His run wasn't the fastest, but he eventually made it around the bases. When he crossed home plate, he would raise his arms in the air.
A few times, he even tried to slide.
“To see him to actually be part of a team and not be on the sidelines ... ” his mom said, “he was just full of life.”
Rick and Lauren sat in the bleachers at Mitch Park with tears in their eyes so many times. After all those years of Hugh cheering for so many other people, they finally got to cheer for him.
* * *
A week ago Friday, Hugh had a stomach ache. Overnight, Rick and Lauren had to get up every few hours with him, but it just seemed to be a bug.
Then he stopped breathing.
That morning, he died.
A man showed up at the funeral home during the viewing, and Rick thought he looked familiar.
“I don't know if you remember me,” the man said, “but I sat by you at the OU-Tulsa football game.”
Rick and Hugh had gone to the game that day. After a quarter or so in the afternoon sun, they sought some shade and ended up sitting by a man who got a kick out of watching Hugh watch the Sooners. Hugh was so excited that Rick had to grab the back of his shirt a couple times to keep him from tumbling down the bleachers.
“I saw your son's obituary in the paper,” the man said, “and I said to myself, ‘I know that kid. I sat next to him at the Tulsa game.' He was so passionate. He was so excited. I just had to come pay my respects.”
Like several others, the man signed Hugh's small, white casket with a brightly colored Sharpie.
OU vs. Tulsa.
Thanks for the smiles.
Hugh, who was buried in his No. 10 Blake Bell jersey, made lots of people smile, but never did he smile bigger than when he was on the field with his T-ball team. As much as he loved watching his Sooners and his Thunder and his sister, he loved playing even more.
That's why Rick sat down amid the worst grief that a parent can feel and wrote that email to the parents of the kids on Hugh's T-ball team.
He wanted to thank them for the gift that they'd given their family.
He loved sports, so being part of a team was something he always wanted. Even though he was the best cheerleader for his sister, cousins and friends when they played their sports, it was really special for him to have everyone be able to watch him on the field for a change.
Hugh had the best time last summer, and we will cherish the memories forever.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.