DECATUR — Stanley Rodgers grabbed a rope, lined up and pulled a tire with an inflatable tackling dummy on top of it.
With the sun beginning to beat down on a mid-morning practice in right field of St. Teresa's baseball diamond, Rodgers ran in his blue No. 22 practice jersey while his teammate bulldozed the dummy.
At first sight, it was business as usual for Rodgers, a senior running back and defensive back for the Bulldogs football team.
But football is merely part Rodgers' journey since his mother, Nancy Rodgers, died on March 21 at the age of 57.
Nancy died in her sleep from a pulmonary embolism after breaking her arm in three places. It led to a blood clot, which she was susceptible to, as she awaited surgery.
The ensuing days were hard. There were contingency plans in place. Nancy was never sure she would have children, and had Stanley later in her life. If anything happened, Stanley was to move in with his aunt Karen and her husband Jerry Davidson.
But no matter how much planning is in place, the death of a parent is a shock to the system.
“The first couple of days, you always question everything, like why?" Stanley said.
Nancy's funeral was difficult, but Nancy raised Stanley not to dwell on the past. There were even times Stanley had dreams of her standing over him and scolding him for crying over her.
“My mom always asked me, 'When people die, why do you cry?' And, 'When people are born, why do you smile?'" Stanley said. "When you’re born you come into this world with all of its ups and downs. When you die you’re free of pain."
Nancy's motto was: Never miss a beat. The best way for Stanley to honor his mom was to live by that motto. That meant not dwelling on her death.
“I could have been one of those kids who laid down and been defeated, but what would that have proved?" Stanley said. "Life has its ups and its downs. What can you do?"
Everyone handles grief differently. Stanley was sad, but he was also angry.
"For some people, crying is the way out. For some people it’s getting mad," Stanley said. "Hell, I was pissed for the first couple of days.
"In my opinion crying is like ... why am I sad? If I ever miss my mom I just look (at myself), like, I came from her."
No one who knows Stanley or knew Nancy expected Stanley to enter a full-fledged breakdown. After Nancy's death, people cautioned Stanley to not fall down the wrong path; as if it were ever an option for him, he said.
There were people who told him how he should feel, and the emotions he should show.
But Stanley didn't need to know how he should act. He knew how he felt and he knew how Nancy would have wanted him to act.
“There are people who said, ‘You should be this, or you should do that.’ With all due respect, it sucks, but that’s just not how I was raised," he said. "I wasn’t raised to lay down and take defeat.”
Stanley has always been close with his aunt, Karen Davidson. Nancy was a single mom and worked a lot. Stanley often stayed with the Davidsons — he's always had a room at their home and he's close with the Davidsons' now-adult daughter.
“I’ve always been impressed with my nephew, he’s a good kid," she said. "He didn’t use (Nancy's death) as an excuse to feel sorry for himself. He goes about life doing things. He doesn’t act like a victim."
Nancy was so passionate about watching Stanley play football that she lost jobs so she could see his Friday night games, Stanley said.
Nancy was a nurse, and Stanley remembers riding his bike and seeing his mother's car near the scene of an accident, assisting with the victims.
He'll never forget those moments.
When Stanley was growing up, Nancy welcomed in his friends as sons of her own.
Stanley's best friend, St. Teresa teammate Jacardia Wright, was so close with the family that he got a mention in Nancy's obituary as a special son.
Both Wright and Stanley smile while remembering Nancy's investment in Wright's football recruiting process, and how she wanted to go with Wright to Dallas for a Nike camp just before she died.
Nancy was the first person Wright has been close to who died. But he had to hold it together — he couldn't wither when his best friend needed him most.
“He was mostly strong because I was strong right there with him," Wright said. "I didn’t want to shrug my emotion off on him. I don’t know what he’s going through. I still have my mom. I wanted to be strong."
As they grieved, Wright saw everything that Nancy instilled in Stanley: His values and maturity shined through during a dark hour.
“She raised him to be the most outgoing person ever, just like she was," Wright said. "Nancy had a great effect on everybody that she came in contact with. She would be mad if we were sitting around crying everyday about it. Oh my god, she would be so mad."
Wright and Stanley don't talk about Nancy often, but she's always there. Stanley and Wright are attached at the hip — yin and yang, as Davidson calls them.
“We cope with it different ways, but we have those things when something will happen and we’ll just smile because we remember my mom," Stanley said.
There's no script to follow for losing a parent before high school graduation, and there is no sure-fire remedy to pick up the pieces of life.
Stanley's path has been to honor Nancy by living exactly how she raised him to live. The lessons she taught are showing through Stanley's actions.
“He thinks he honors his mom’s memory by being the person she always wanted him to be," Davidson said.
Stanley sees his ensuing behavior as a test and Nancy will let him know if he's passed or failed.
“My mom is gone, but she gave me an SAT," Stanley said. "In 70 years when we meet again, she’s going to grade that test. My goal is, ‘How can I do the best on that test?’"
Taking it to the field
St. Teresa coach Mark Ramsey has dealt with a player's parent dying before. He's seen different ways people have handled it.
Stanley found comfort in Ramsey's demeanor that is caring but, as Stanley put it, "he won't sugarcoat anything."
Ramsey watched Stanley lean towards his aunts and uncles, friends, the football team and the St. Teresa community.
They were all there because Stanley has a gravitas about him — an inviting personality and cheek-to-cheek smile.
“Ever since I got there and got to know him, he’s very, very personable," Ramsey said. "He’s one of those kids you gravitate towards. He’s an all-around good guy. He’s going to be a huge success because of the way he is."
Then there's the matter of football. Neither Stanley nor Wright know how they will honor Nancy.
Nancy defined hard work. When Stanley was younger she would bungee cord his walker in the hallways of her job, never finding an excuse to take a day off.
That's the best way he can play for the person he calls his No. 1 fan. He can play his hardest on the field in the same way Nancy gave her all into everything she did.
Maybe Stanley and Wright will write her name on their equipment, but, "We won't put any thought into that until it comes and she's just not there," Wright said.
When the season kicks off on Aug. 24 at home against Downs Tri-Valley, the dummies that Rodgers pulled across right field for his teammates to pummel will turn into Vikings, and Stanley will be the one lowering his shoulder.
More than five months of raw emotion will have an arena to be released.
“I’m definitely excited for that first snap against Tri-Valley," Stanley said. "There’s, not so much frustration, but just a lot to get out. I’m looking forward to that."