Photo courtesy of Jennifer Smits

I like to believe that everyone on this earth grew up knowing an adult other than a family member whom they loved and admired — a friendly, hospitable neighbor whose congeniality rivals that of Ned Flanders, a close family friend that you always assumed was a relative until you mistakenly asked him why he was never at the family Christmas party; a caring teacher who always knew how to make you feel appreciated; or maybe a coach or instructor that went out of his or her way to provide for you.

Most people did have or can at least imagine the relationship that I am describing, and as for me, I admired one of my dad’s church league soft-ball teammates. His name is Don Stephens, and he had the heart of a lion.

My relationship with “Big Don” Stephens began with sporadic outings to my dad’s church league softball games. As a child, I played Little League baseball and adored the Atlanta Braves, and on any given night of the week, my dad would make me the happiest kid alive by taking me to his games where I got to sit in the dugout, run after foul balls and bring the bat back after base hits.

In reality, I was just a kid, like many others, whose father let him into the dugout during the games, but in my mind, I might as well have been playing alongside the Atlanta Braves. And, believe it or not, our church team always did very well. We never missed the playoffs, and we always had talented players.

My dad, of course, was my favorite. He was one of the best players as well as a team leader, but if we had a team captain, it was Don Stephens. He was our centerfielder, our strongest hitter, our biggest leader and my role model.

Though it has been nearly a decade since I was last in the dugout, I can still remember how much I laughed every time he tried to convince me that a noise he made with his mouth was really coming from a frog that he caught. I still remember how he would simply smile and shrug every time I asked him how he hit his home runs so far. I still remember how much he loved having me at games. I still remember walking into church every Sunday morning to see Big Don in his usual pew alongside his family, and I will never forget how brave he was throughout his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In the months following the diagnosis, family and friends rallied around Mr. Stephens. The nickname “Big Don,” which was originally indicative of his strength and physique on and off the field, adopted a different meaning. It became a reference to the size of his heart and the strength of his faith. While I thought he had set an example for me through his actions in softball, his character during his sickness gave me inspiration. It inspired my dad too because when Don Stephens passed away in the fall of 2012, my dad, with the help of other church members, brought softball back to Wynnton United Methodist Church for the first time in six years, and, this time, I was able to play.

However, our dream season was not exactly what we had hoped it would be. Many of our players had aged a little since their last outings, and I think we had five total wins on the season, if that. But my dad played every game like it was his last. At shortstop, my dad was where ground balls went to die, and at the plate, my dad knew that he needed to deliver a base hit nearly every at-bat, which he did.

It went without saying: my dad played that season in honor of Don Stephens. We all did. That’s what made it so special.

After having grown up in awe of how Big Don treated others with love and compassion while playing a sport that he loved, I was finally given the chance to try to do the same: the chance to emulate Big Don, and, most importantly, the chance to love others in the same way he did.

Sometime after the season had ended, I reflected back on my time spent with Big Don. I then realized that his success did not come from his skill or talent but rather the fact that to him, softball was more than a game.