MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — After having Tuesday off, Baylor's softball team joins the Spring Fling action today in the Division II bracket.
The Lady Red Raiders are 32-6, haven't lost in more than a month and are the favorites as they open again St. Benedict. But regardless of whether they retain their state title for a third straight season, one thing is for sure: Coach Kelli Howard Smith's parents will be here, sitting somewhere near the team's dugout.
Don and Diane Howard have been fixtures at Baylor softball games since Kelli was making backhanded plays at shortstop in the early 1990s. Don's 1984 Ford Van has more than 150,000 miles on the odometer, and since his job at DuPont was less than two miles from home, most of that mileage came from traveling to watch Kelli play or coach.
Don is known as Baylor's "batman" because of the miniature wooden bats he carves out of three-inch pieces of cedar. He has given thousands of the little bats away at youth-league fields and Baylor games, to girls who played well, and Lady Red Raiders often keep them in their travel bags or in their cars as keepsakes.
But the last few years it's become more and more difficult for Don not only to whittle but even to complete everyday tasks such as buttoning his shirt, brushing his teeth or enjoying watching Kelli coach or his grandson Luke play youth ball. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease during Kelli's freshman season at Georgia Tech in 1995, and while medication helped slow his tremors for a while, it has reached the point pf needing a new alternative.
When the state tournament is over, Don and his family will travel to Vanderbilt University Hospital to begin the process of deep brain stimulation, which is a four-week process to implant something akin to a pacemaker in his shoulder with wires that will connect to his brain, sending signals to help control his central nervous system.
"It's a new procedure and we've been told it has between an 80-85-percent success rate," Kelli said. "It will give him a better quality of life, so we're really hopeful about this. Since he was diagnosed, it's been a constant changing of medications, trying to stay ahead of it.
"We really noticed a change last summer, and nothing was working to help like before. The oral medication just wasn't working, so his doctor suggested he be tested to see if he was a good candidate for the DBS. It's been about an eight-month process of undergoing tests, and now we're ready to go through with it."
Beginning next week, surgeons will implant four screws into Don's head to attach the small halo. The next two visits will be to connect the wiring and the last procedure will be to insert the transmitter that will fire the stimulation commands to his brain.
Despite such a long road ahead, Don said he's more concerned this week with watching Kelli and the Lady Raiders go for another championship. Kelli won two titles as a player at Baylor and has coached the team to five, but each season Don hopes to watch his daughter add yet another.
"I'm real proud of her. She's become such a good coach," he said. "She's always been a good communicator, and that's a lot of coaching. Used to, even when she was a player, you would see her talking to an old fellow one minute and holding a baby in diapers the next. She just knows how to communicate, and we like getting to watch her do something she's loved all her life.
"I've been to every championship she's been a part of except one when my son was getting married. We'll be there and then we'll get ready for this procedure. I know a guy who had it done and you wouldn't know he even had Parkinson's. So hopefully it will help me get back my balance so I can enjoy walking again and maybe even be able to make a lot more of those little bats the players like getting."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...