Clayton High baseball team copes with death of teammate

cbest@newsobserver.comMarch 26, 2013 

— When members of the Clayton High baseball team gathered Dec. 13 for an off-season workout, they knew the challenges they would face when their 2013 season began in late February.

Several returning players were injured and their status for the season was in doubt. Even coach Stacey Houser was nursing an elbow injury.

All those concerns vanished a few minutes into the workout when senior Hogan Teem collapsed within feet of his teammates. He died less than two hours later.

Teammates Hunter Poole and Corey Poole were within arm’s reach of Teem when he went down. Hunter had played with Teem since they were 4. Corey Poole went to First Baptist Church with Teem.

“He’d go 100 percent, even in gym class,” Corey said. “Whatever it was, he always went the hardest.”

Corey Poole knew it was bad from the moment Teem collapsed.

Poole went to a knee and prayed as Clayton coaches, who had been through CPR recertification just weeks before, went to work on Teem. Soon athletic trainer John Barnes and first responder Brian Roach were on the scene.

“I was just hoping it wouldn’t take him away,” Corey Poole said.

Teem left the school clinging to his life. He died at WakeMed in Raleigh.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 2,000 people under age 25 died last year from sudden cardiac arrest.

An autopsy released earlier this month by the state medical examiner showed Teem died of an irregular heartbeat coupled with a weakened heart muscle, conditions that don’t show up in the standard physical every athlete must pass in order to take part in scholastic sports. It would take an electrocardiogram or echocardiogram – tests that are not part of athletes’ standard physicals – to uncover heart problems.

Teammates become leaders

While the cause of Teem’s death would not come for three more months, his teammates dealt with things they’d never experienced before.

Hunter Poole had to deliver the news to teammates Kyle Solomon and Brett Bailey, who were competing in a swim meet that afternoon. The next morning at school, Teem’s teammates found themselves in a strange spotlight: Their classmates were looking to them for answers and for clues on how to act.

Senior pitcher Nathan Lee recalled: “The school looked to us to be strong. A mouse squeal would have echoed in the halls.”

“There’s always a reason in those other cases (of a teen death), like wrecks – a wet road, they drove too fast, looking at a cell phone,” Lee said. “There’s no answer for this. It’s hard to understand it; that’s the biggest thing.”

Houser saw students crying in the hallways. Among them was a transfer student who’d been at Clayton for less than two months. The student told Houser that Teem had gone out of his way to become a friend.

By the end of school that day, members of the baseball team had organized a community gathering in the Clayton High parking lot. More than 250 people attended, learning about the event through text messages, Twitter, Facebook and word of mouth.

“It just showed you how many people cared about Hogan,” Hunter Poole said. “Every single person in our school came together that day.”

The Pooles, Lee, Solomon and Brett Bailey led the event. They took turns standing in the bed of Lee’s truck talking about their friend and giving and receiving hugs.

They talked about how hard Teem had worked to be good at baseball, how he would do anything for a teammate or his team. “You’d see someone get down on himself, and Hogan would be right there,” Solomon said.

The players later realized what a trying experience they’d worked through together.

“You don’t expect to have to deal with any of your friends dying until you’re 60 or 70 years old,” Solomon said.

Houser said the team handled the tragedy amazingly well.

“It just goes to show you that you have to live the best day you can every day you have,” he added.

Returning to baseball

After Teem’s death, it took Corey Poole nearly a month before he had much interest in baseball. He thought about his own mortality, especially since he’d suffered a collapsed lung after taking a knee to the chest the previous season.

Winning baseball games mattered less and less.

“You want to win for your school, and at the same time, for me, winning’s not as important.” Lee said. “All that matters is that you give all you have on the field. That’s how you honor (Hogan) and our school. If you go out and play, you want to win ultimately, but what happened, it’s definitely on your mind.”

Houser, the man charged with leading the Comets, was dealing with different feelings.

Fellow Johnston County baseball coach Jamie Lee, a longtime friend of Houser’s and the head coach at Cleveland High, recalled a chance meeting in Clayton a couple of weeks after Teem’s death.

“We sat in a car in the parking lot at Food Lion,” Lee said. “Just talking about everything for about an hour. He was just pitiful.”

In Teem’s honor, Lee and the Cleveland High baseball team donated 10 percent of their season fundraising efforts to the Miracle League of Johnston County. Clayton did too, sending $1,040 to the organization that gives all kids the chance to play baseball regardless of their physical abilities.

Although never a fiery, rah-rah coach, Houser is more reserved than ever.

“As coaches, we’re still dealing with it,” Houser said. “It happened during our watch, so it is a different feeling every time you get out on the field. In 24 years of coaching, I’d never thought about the things I think about now. You don’t think about that being you in that position.”

Strength from the top

The strength of the team and the Clayton community have helped Houser and his fellow coaches. “The Clayton community, the school and the outpouring of support from other coaches across the state, they’ve all been awesome,” he said.

“We know there will be different times in the season when we get more emotional or feel Hogan more than we do at other times,” Houser said. “We have to let ourselves have those moments. That’s a part of the mourning process.”

The Comets got off to a tough start, losing five of their first six games, but they have started to come around in the past four games, starting with a 4-3 loss to Garner in eight innings on March 15 that was followed by three straight wins.

“We’ve gone through a lot of firsts: the first bus ride, first game,” Houser said. “There will be a lot of emotions for all of us. Something will happen on the field, and I’ll get emotional. … We also have to be smart enough to not turn it off but to deal with it.”

Teem’s jersey hangs in the dugout, and his girlfriend, Caroline Ashworth, has been a frequent presence in the dugout. Teem’s parents, David and Alysson Teem, are at games as well.

David Teem spoke to the baseball team about his son a couple of weeks ago, thanking them and the Clayton community for its support.

“I told them that nobody is expecting miracles like in the movies,” Teem said. “I just told them to go out there and play like they can.”

The coping continues

The team, which will play in the annual Johnston County Easter Invitational starting Saturday, is different, even though it still plays as hard as ever.

“We’re just very lethargic,” Houser said. “Which is odd because we’re starting to play pretty good baseball. The enthusiasm, we’ve lost it, and I don’t know if that starts at the top (with me) or if that’s just a part of their coping.”

Houser said enthusiasm is on the rise, and it should be after wins on three straight days boosted the Comets’ record to 4-5 entering this week’s games.

“A lot of the success of this season will just be in helping 16-18-year olds deal with tragedy,” Houser said. “Kids are a little tougher than we give them credit for...They do a good job of concentrating on what they have to do. … Baseball has never been as much about wins and losses as it has dealing with adversity.”

Best: 919-524-8895; @dclaybest

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