Tag: Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South

A bond beyond baseball

The following story appears in my book Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.

The baseball coach felt as if the pastor was talking directly to him. Sure, there was a congregation full of people, but the message was so pointed, so personal, that it felt like a one-on-one conversation. 

The sermon was about stepping outside of your comfort zone. The coach had always talked to his high school players about doing the right thing, about what he wanted them to do. He did the same when he was the coach at his previous job. He had never really shown them. 

“Baseball is just kind of an avenue for us,” he says.

When the church service was over and he went outside, he told his wife that he wanted to start a Bible study in their home with any player who wanted to come. He then called a friend, who had been a youth pastor at one time. He was all in to help. The next morning, the coach was preparing to tell his players of his new idea when one knocked on his door. He asked his coach if he would be all right with the players starting a Bible study in the locker room. He told the player that he would not believe what happened the day before.

“It was like God’s way of saying, ‘This is what you should do,’” he says.

The Bible study started the following Sunday. It was not mandatory, and players were told that it would not affect their playing time. It was totally separate from baseball. The coach figured on maybe a handful of players showing up. Fifteen of the eighteen on the roster came. Those numbers remained steady. Every Sunday during the baseball season, the players met at their head coach’s home for food, Bible study and fellowship. Sometimes, the studies lasted fifteen minutes. Sometimes, they lasted an hour. Afterward, they would watch the Sunday Night Baseball game on ESPN or play Wii. Players learned a lot about each other. They opened up about family, girlfriends, choices, college. They grew closer.

“It was an unbelievable time of team bonding away from baseball,” he says.

The coach’s favorite memory from those Bible studies is about a player who was selected in the Major League Baseball draft. He decided to instead play football and baseball at an Alabama university. That player came back to his old stomping grounds one Friday night for a football game. The coach stood with him on the sidelines. He asked if he missed the Friday night lights, playing sports at the high school level. The player said that he really didn’t. The coach was floored. How could an athlete not miss high school sports, his glory days? The one thing the player said he missed were those Bible studies.

“It just humbled me,” the coach says.

The coach has continued the Bible studies since becoming the head baseball coach at his third high school. After one of the studies, one of the boys called the coach thirty minutes after everyone left his home. He wanted to come back. They sat on his back porch for two hours, just talking. Without the Bible study, that relationship may have never deepened. 

“I think it’s more than a Bible study,” he says. “It brings kids closer together. To me, that’s the special part. And that’s the important stuff. We are giving them an avenue to talk to us.”

The Bible studies happen during the baseball season, though on some occasions they have begun in December because the kids wanted to start them earlier. The coach says the importance varies from kid to kid, from team to team. Each one has a different personality.

“I just think we’ve seen some kids grow closer together,” he says.

The coach led his current team to its first baseball state championship in school history not long ago. He will not go so far as to say the Bible study was why the team won it all, but it was clearly a factor. That team, he says, just had something different about it. They were close. During the playoff run, at Bible studies on Sundays, baseball was not even a topic of conversation. 

“We love it,” he says.

At a football game about five months after winning that state championship, the baseball team returned for the ring ceremony. There were four seniors on that team, and they had all started college at three different institutions. This was their first time being back together since graduating. The coach watched as they sat at their own table in the stadium’s press box, just sharing their experiences as college freshmen. It took the coach and his wife back to when they originally started the Bible study. 

The coach gestured toward the group and said to his wife, “Look how special that is.”

Pitches and promises

The sophomore pitcher circled the mound before the first batter stepped into the box, and then he bent over behind the rubber. He extended his left hand and began to use his index finger as a pencil for the cool dirt. It was winter, and the high school baseball season was just underway. He was set to face his high school’s arch rival, one of the best teams in the state of Alabama. The sophomore had already won his first three starts as a varsity pitcher, including a five-inning no-hitter, striking out nine batters in a shortened game due to the mercy rule. He was an ace. But against his team’s rival, he should have been nervous. He was a sixteen-year-old pitching against a great team, after all. But he was as cool as he could be. He was pitching with purpose.


Not long before the game, he stood in his coach’s office in the stadium’s press box, and talked about his purpose with a reporter. His mother died the previous October after battling breast cancer for nearly two years. The family found out about her diagnosis on Valentine’s Day when the sophomore was an eighth-grader, in the drive-thru at a Wendy’s. When she died, his mother was fifty years old. Just before she died, her son promised her two things — that he would marry a woman who reflected her and that he would pitch his way to college baseball.

“When people lose family members, some rarely get the opportunity to talk with them and say goodbye,” he says. “Barring the situation, I feel really thankful I was able to do that. When my mom was on hospice care, I got to be around her a lot. While she wasn’t very responsive, you could tell when she was hearing and listening to you. I got the chance to tell my mom how thankful I was to have her as my mom, and she taught me more (about) life than she would ever know. Getting to tell the person who gave you everything in life how thankful you are for it and how much you love them for the sacrifices they gave to benefit your life is something that will give you peace to any situation. I also promised her things in life that I would accomplish for her – in memory of her.”

He left the press box after a fifteen-minute interview and warmed up for the game. Just prior to the first pitch, he bent down to etch his mother’s initials and the breast cancer symbol on the backside of the pitcher’s mound. He proceeded to hurl a complete-game five-hitter, allowing his only two earned runs in the top of the seventh, the final inning. His team won 3-2. He struck out six batters. He finished his first varsity season with nine wins and one loss for a team that won the area championship.

“The support I had from my baseball team that season was something that was beyond special,” he says. “I felt so close to all those guys and I knew they were behind me supporting me through that time.”

His head coach that season was supportive. After the win over the team’s biggest rival, the coach talked about how his pitcher’s tough situation ministered to his team, how instead of the team ministering to him, his family ministered to the team. He called it amazing.

Over his final two seasons of high school baseball, the pitcher compiled twelve wins against just four losses and a 1.88 earned-run average. He struck out more than one hundred batters.

For his efforts, he earned scholarship offers from several college programs around the Southeast. He chose the one closest to home, to be near his longtime girlfriend and son, who was born when he was a high school junior. His plan was to propose to his girlfriend during one of his college baseball seasons. He did so on the first weekend of the 2017 college baseball season. She said yes.

“I feel like it is a promise kept, and I am blessed to be in the situation I am in,” he says. “I will always look back to my coaches and teammates during the hardest time in my life and see the positive impact they had on my life, and where I am now is because of all they did for me during this time in my life.”

As far as his mound ritual, the pitcher no longer etches his mother’s initials in the mound, but they are written across his glove, so that she will always be there for him every time he steps on a mound. He looks back to that sophomore season as a blessed time.

“Going through things like that will always be hard, but when you have people surrounding you and providing love and encouragement, it gives you a peace about it,” he says.

The piano man

A chapter from “Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South”by Gary Lloyd, complete with video of the man playing the piano:

As long as I have known him, he has played the piano.

At Christmas, Mr. Darby would play “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” at my grandmother’s house. He could have played professionally, and there is no doubt about that.

When I moved into my grandmother’s old house not far from Trussville, Alabama, the brown Wurlitzer piano remained. Its top held framed engagement and wedding photos, and its bench often acted as a resting place for bills and other mail. I never played, but there was a time, when my wife and I lived there, that Jessica would sit down on that piano bench and play. Our dog, Abby, sat with her.

When we moved out, the piano again remained. It stayed when a family friend moved in, and after he left. It has stayed since my mother-in-law moved into the house. She likes the piano there, and so do I. It provides a glimpse into the past.

The man who tickled those ivories for so many years is in his nineties now and has lived in a retirement community for a number of years. He has battled severe dementia. When he has called my parents’ house and spoken to me, he has believed I am actually my dad. When I have visited him at the retirement community, he has asked the same questions over and over. He doesn’t remember asking them the first time. Each time, I just answer him, as if it is the first time he’s asked.

This retirement community has a spacious lobby area, almost like a huge living room. There are couches, women at tables playing card games, and a huge, glass case filled with fluttering birds.

There is also a piano.

We visited the Piano Man on September 1, 2014, to see him for his birthday, which was the following week. Mr. Darby wore gray slacks and a teal sweater, and I wondered how in the world people can wear sweaters in September in Alabama.

Somehow, we convinced him to sit down at the piano and play. I wondered how he would know what to play, how he would remember which keys to press. He sat down, and muscle memory took over. He played “It Had To Be You,” not messing up a single time in a video recording that lasted one minute and four seconds. I couldn’t believe that a man who often forgot my name could do this. It was remarkable.

Elderly women stopped dealing cards. Men, aided by their walkers, came to sit closer. The staff looked on. Everyone clapped. Mr. Darby’s cheeks reddened.

That song has been recorded by famous surnames such as Sinatra, Holiday, Charles, Bennett and Stewart.

Call me biased, but I would add Darby to the top of that list.

A rundown on my 5 books

My full house is complete. 

Two fiction novels and three works of nonfiction. 

And due to work and graduate school, I may not be publishing another book for quite a while, despite having several ideas in mind. Who knows, though? Maybe I’ll have another published in the near future. It’s something I love doing.

So, in the meantime, why not provide a quick video rundown of Trussville, Alabama: A Brief History, Deep Green, Heart of the Plate, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South, and Ray of Hope?

In the video, I briefly talk about each book, summarizing the plot and letting you know where you can find each. I even profess my feelings for the Atlanta Braves, a tumultuous relationship that I can’t seem to quit.

Please share this post with your friends!

Check out the video below.

‘I have fought a long fight’

I can count the number of concerts I have attended on one hand.

In high school, I saw P.O.D. in downtown Birmingham with a few friends.

There was the time last year when Colt Ford, Justin Moore and Brantley Gilbert came to Birmingham one warm night. There was the time Morgan Wallen, Nelly, Chris Lane and Florida Georgia Line shared the stage on a cold night at the Oak Mountain Amphitheatre. 

But this week, I tried something different. My wife and I went to Iron City in downtown Birmingham, a venue that fills up an hour before the opening act takes the stage. We went to see Walker McGuire and Kane Brown.

We stood in a line that wrapped around two buildings, among teenage girls with Kane Brown photos used as their iPhone wallpapers, with twenty-somethings who could have used perhaps six more inches of material on their dresses. 

Inside, we smelled enough cheap cologne to singe nose hairs and tried to find a quiet spot on the mezzanine. It was crowded, loud, hot, and I felt as if these types of events had passed me by. I’d be lying if I said I was looking forward to standing for three straight hours amongst the screamers and the beer-drinkers. 

But something great, in addition to the music, happened.

Up on the mezzanine were a dozen or so reserved tables. We stood directly behind one, and I mentioned to my wife, “Must be VIP.”

The table’s occupants showed up close to showtime, both women. One was bald, with gold crosses dangling from her ears. She was there to see Kane Brown, and she was excited. She even brought a small sign that referenced one of the country artist’s songs. It read, “This Is My ‘Last Minute Late Night’ Before My Surgery.” Surgery was underlined. She taped that small sign to the mezzanine railing, hoping the budding country star would see it. 

As the night went on, she asked my wife to take photos of her and her friend. My wife, of course, did.

I found out the woman, named Merin, has Stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer, diagnosed June 5 of this year. She had port surgery just over a week later and has since had four rounds of Red Devil chemotherapy, and twelve treatments of Taxol and Carboplatin. One treatment a week for twelve weeks.

Someone at the concert asked when Merin, from Pell City, was having surgery. The surgery is this Dec. 12, a double mastectomy and reconstruction. She will have to spend four or five days in the hospital, and will also have four drains and expanders for a few months. 

“It was very important to me to be able to have a fun night out,” the woman told me. “I’ve only had a six-week gap in between my chemo treatments and surgery day.”

She told me that she was in Atlanta for the Luke Combs concert the previous night. She was having her own “last minute late nights” before life changes for a long while. 

“After surgery I really won’t be able to attend any more concerts for a while just because of risk of getting sick or bumped into,” she said. “I don’t know how after surgery I will be feeling. The doctors told me around a year or so. My next concert I’m going to shoot for is Florida Georgia Line, Luke Combs or Carrie Underwood.

“I have fought a long fight,” she said. “You always think, ‘Oh my, I feel bad for someone who has cancer.’ But until you live it you really have no idea how bad it is.”

It is tough financially and emotionally. The woman has a seven-year-old son she calls “wonderful,” and he needs his mother. He has had to help her more than any kid should have to. It’s not fair to him, she told me. 

“I will be glad when this is all over with so he can be a kid again, and I can take back my role as mom,” she told me. “I trust in the Lord to guide my family and I in the right direction. With Him, anything is possible.”

The concert was awesome, and I know this woman enjoyed it. I could see it on her face, hear it in her screams as Kane Brown performed “Last Minute Late Night” and “Learning” on stage. 

Kane Brown never saw her sign, as far as I know. The room was too dark at times, and too bright with purple lights at others. I wish he would have seen it, and gotten to meet this special woman.

I checked Kane Brown’s social media channels two days after the concert, just to see if he posted anything from his trip to the Magic City.

His two Tweets since the show: “My job’s to bring light into other people’s lives” and “You’re special.”

If he didn’t see that woman’s sign, you could have fooled me with those Tweets.