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The Gentle Giant: Part 2 — Remembering Park Stevens

Special To The Packet

(Note: This is the second in a two-part series written about New Hope native Park Stevens, who passed away July 3, 2013. It was written by his friend Liza Miley, who taught Park in the New Hope Schools. Park, a football standout, would have played his first year at Ole Miss this fall. The first part of this story may be found here. ED.)

Courtesy Photo Jackson, stands as a proud Rebel with (L-R) Park's  former high school trainer and owner of One Body by AJ in Oxford - Anthony Terrill Johnson Aj, and Park's teammates from Ole Miss -Austin Douglas from Batesville, MS, Tyler Mt Joy from The Woodlands, TX, Ethan Hutson from Destrehan, LA, Evan Swindall from LaFayette, GA, Jared Neal Duke from Cleveland, TN, Robert Conyers from Miami, FL, Ben Still from  Memphis, TN and Pierce Burton from Sacramento, CA.

Courtesy Photo
Jackson, stands as a proud Rebel with (L-R) Park’s
former high school trainer and owner of One Body by AJ in Oxford – Anthony Terrill Johnson Aj, and Park’s teammates from Ole Miss -Austin Douglas from Batesville, MS, Tyler Mt Joy from The Woodlands, TX, Ethan Hutson from Destrehan, LA, Evan Swindall from LaFayette, GA, Jared Neal Duke from Cleveland, TN, Robert Conyers from Miami, FL, Ben Still from
Memphis, TN and Pierce Burton from Sacramento, CA.

I will never in my life forget the details of July 3, 2013.  Merri Frances got off work early to since Park was coming home earlier than expected.  She stopped by to see Laura and Park’s aunt, Katie Stevens, laying out at Park’s house.  They discussed plans for the July 4th weekend that of course involved whatever Park wanted to do.  Merri Frances came home to get ready because Park would be walking into our front door at 4:00 p.m.  As the time passed, we all wondered what was taking so long.  Around 5:30 Merri Frances came into my bedroom and said that Park had been in a wreck and that Mrs. Katie and Laura were coming to pick her up so they could go check on him. I told her to call me as soon as she found something out.  A few minutes later she came back into my bedroom and said that Mrs. Katie didn’t come pick her up because the wreck was in Okolona and they were just going to go and stay there for the weekend to visit with their family.  Ironically, Park’s accident occurred in Chickasaw County close to where his family was from and close to where he had lived when he had moved away from New Hope for a few years.  I was confused as to why Katie and Laura were going to stay there for the weekend since Park was coming home, because when Park came home both his family and friends made their plans to be with him.  A few minutes later around 6:00 p.m. Merri Frances flung my bedroom door open and threw herself on the ground and pounded her fists on the floor as she screamed and sobbed uncontrollably, “Mama, Park died.  He died!”  She just kept saying this over and over.  I ran across the room to try to comfort my baby girl who appeared to be dying of a broken heart herself, but I could offer her no comfort because of my own uncontrollable sobs.  I screamed for Carson to come help me with Merri Frances but she couldn’t hear me on the other side of the house.  As I threw her bedroom door open, there sat all five of the other kids looking up at me in shock because of my entrance into the room and my sobs like they’ve never heard before.  I screamed, “Carson, Park died!  Park died!”  All of the kids began crying, especially Carson and Hope.  I just assumed that Hope was crying because she too loved Park and considered him a big brother and giant playmate.  I truly thank God that Marc came home from work at that instant and scooped Hope up and into his arms to console her tears.  That poor little girl had misunderstood me and thought that I had said that Marc had died and was crying her little heart out over the fact that she thought that her daddy had just died.  As Marc tried to comfort Hope and help me get Carson and Merri Frances up off the floor and onto the couch, I knew our family would never be the same again.  Jackson ran outside into the yard where his football lay just waiting for Park Stevens to pick it up and toss it around with him and placed the autographed Ole Miss football on our mantle and said we would save it forever.  Sitting there in the living room overcome with sadness we were in disbelief that Park wasn’t walking through our front door and into our home where we were ready to receive one of his big bear hugs and welcome him with open arms.  Instead, Park had just been welcomed into the arms of Jesus.  It was by far the most tragic and horrific thing that we have ever faced as a family.
The tragedy that my family experienced in losing Park Stevens, is in no way remotely close to the tragedy that Park’s parents, sister, brother, and the rest of his family has had to endure.  Words can’t even begin to describe the heartbreaking news that they had to receive while out of town.  Dean and Gail Stevens had traveled with Park’s sister, Tina Beth Brown, and her family to Tennessee.  Planning to have fun at Dollywood and enjoy the sights around this area, they received a phone call that nobody on this earth ever wants to receive or is ever prepared for.  No matter how big Park’s body may have been, he was still a baby boy to Dean and Gail and a baby brother to Tina Beth and Terry Dale.  My mind and heart can’t fathom how difficult that drive home for them last Wednesday night must have been.  God can only receive the credit for giving Tina Beth the strength to drive alone with her little boy, while her husband, Justin, drove Dean and Gail home.  And poor Terry Dale and his family were having to arrange flights after just getting off a plane earlier that day on business.
The news of Park’s passing traveled quickly through our community and family, friends, fans, co-workers, and even complete strangers showed up over the next few days to clean, cook, provide food, or do anything that they could do to possibly help ease the grief that this family was experiencing.  I had been to their house the night before with other close family friends of Park’s to try to prepare for their arrival and went back to take them breakfast early that next morning while planning to stay for just a few minutes, but ended up staying until 10:30 p.m. that night.  And let me just say that in the midst of this tragedy I was blessed beyond measure by this family.  As I put away food that visitors brought by, cleaned, and did anything that needed to be done, I was absolutely amazed at the tight bond that this family shared.  Never in my life have I ever seen such a close-knit family.  And I’m not just talking about Park’s parents, brother, and sister.  I’m also talking about his grandparents, aunt’s, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews.  I knew that Park had a great family because I’d taught many of the younger ones.  I’ve known many of them  for years, but had never witnessed the extent of their tight bond and overflowing love for one another until I was able to experience them all coming together.  There is no doubt that Park was raised and taught how to love others because it had been taught and modeled to him.
While others were celebrating July 4 and preparing to shoot fireworks, the family of Park Stevens was having to plan and prepare for a funeral.  It hurts my heart to even think about some of the decisions that had to be made those next couple of days.  I knew that there would be several of Park’s out of town friends and teammates that wanted to come to town for the services, so I told Dean and Gail that Marc and I were more than willing to open our home to anyone that needed a place to stay.   I had been in contact with a few of Park’s teammates and friends that wanted to know about the arrangements for the funeral and I told each of them that they were more than welcome to stay in our home if they needed to.  I never in a million years would have believed that I’d be hosting Ole Miss football players in my home.
After we said our prayers that Fourth of July night, Hope asked me if we were still going to attend Park’s football games at Ole Miss I promised her that we would.  Then Jackson asked me a question that I wasn’t prepared for – he asked me if he could have an Ole Miss football Jersey with Park’s number on it.  I told him that I was sure that we could get one before the games this fall.  He asked, “Do you promise?” and I replied, “I promise.” I didn’t sleep any at that night because all I could think about was the promise that I had made to Jackson and that I had to follow through with it because I couldn’t let him down.  It hit me that I hadn’t lived up to the promise that I had made to Park when he was in the eighth grade.  I had stood in front of my classroom full of students and PROMISED him that if he was ever a college football player then I would come to his games and wear his team colors and cheer him on.  I had made that promise to so many of my students, not knowing at the time that I was lying to them because of my die hard love for MSU.  But I had kept my love limited to one team, one mascot, and one color.  I hadn’t been like Park Stevens that freely gave his love to everyone no matter what.
The next morning I called Sports Specialty and asked Leigh Lavender if she could possibly make a jersey for Jackson to wear to Park’s funeral.  Since Jackson couldn’t wear it to a game to cheer for Park, I wanted to make sure he could wear it to the celebration of Park’s life.  In less than an hour Leigh called me back to say that Jackson’s jersey was ready.  It was the last one in his size and that color in stock – and it looked perfect.  I didn’t want Dean and Gail to see the jersey for the first time at Park’s funeral, so took him by the house instead. When Jackson walked up to Dean he was scooped up and loved on and told how much Park loved him.  Then Park’s big tall daddy knelt down to get on eye level with Jackson and said he needed a favor.  With tears in his eyes Dean asked Jackson if he would wear the jersey to the funeral the next day.  Jackson replied, “That was my plan” and everyone standing around busted out laughing.  Then Dean told Jackson he needed another favor and asked Jackson if he would lead the team of Ole Miss Rebels into the sanctuary at the funeral the next day and sit with the team too.   Jackson promised Dean that he would do that.  Then Dean turned to me and asked me did I realize that Park was getting the last laugh on me!  We laughed about the fact that I was going to be hosting Ole Miss players in my home and that I had my little boy dressed in an Ole Miss football jersey.  Dean was right – I know without a doubt that Park Stevens was smiling and laughing in Heaven.

 Courtesy Photo Former teammates of Park's from Ole Miss, East Central, and New Hope are led into the service by Jackson.

Courtesy Photo
Former teammates of Park’s from Ole Miss, East Central, and New Hope are led into the service by Jackson.

When Ben Still and his girlfriend, Realityy Williams, pulled into my driveway that night after driving for over eight hours, I felt like their own mother and was relieved that my kids had arrived home safely.  I met them for the first time and gave them hugs praying that somehow I could ease their hurt from losing their teammate and friend.  Unexpectedly, Ben handed me his cell phone and told me to talk to Coach Barney.  I have to tell you, I had the most pleasant conversation with this Ole Miss football coach and realized that my love for the Rebels had truly begun.  The next day as more of Park’s teammates began to arrive, I was overjoyed at the support that was being shown from Park’s Ole Miss family.  As each person arrived, Jackson had to show them his Bulldog shrine that we called his bedroom.  Each of these Ole Miss players truly got a kick out of it and laughed as I apologized for all of the maroon.  Surprisingly, it didn’t offend a single one of them but I think instead it showed them our love for Park because we were willing to open up our home to allow them to come in and love, laugh, and grieve together in privacy over the loss of their teammate and friend.  Everyone couldn’t help but laugh as Jackson came down the hall ringing his cowbell while wearing his Ole Miss jersey.  As I apologized and took the cowbell from Jackson I could tell that it didn’t offend these college kids.  They were all about the love of the game and the love of each other and their fans and at this time their love for Park Stevens.
Before the funeral I asked Ben if he would take on the assignment of taking care of Jackson during the service.  Without blinking he promised me that he would and kept up with my little football player even before the service began.  At the church he fed Jackson “bulldog meat” in what Jackson thought was pigs in a blanket and laughed with Jackson and Park’s other teammates at the pictures on the slideshow of Park covering up the bulldog on Jackson’s bed.  Park had planted the seed of love for the Rebels into Jackson’s heart, but Ben and Park’s other teammates were making it begin to grow.  They played with him and loved on him and turned him into a little Rebel.  Park’s roommate and close friend, Ole Miss football player Robert Conyers, helped Jackson to receive his first SEC football injury as Jackson tried to break through the bullring  several teammates made around him.  Robert stepped out of the way and Jackson fell flat on his face.  Thank goodness he didn’t whine too much in front of those football players and coaches and was eventually proud of his cut and bruise.
Since I had given Ben the responsibility of keeping up with Jackson, he gave me the responsibility of fetching the coaches as they arrived to Mt. Vernon Baptist Church for the services.  I can say that it was an honor to direct them to Park’s family so they could pay their respects.  Each one of them was gracious and as friendly as can be – even when I told them our history with the Bulldogs.  I was blown away that even after knowing about my love for the Dawgs, Coach Freeze  asked me to help him with the presentation of Park’s jersey for his family during the service.  How in the world did I ever have such a dislike for Ole Miss?  They weren’t just a team with coaches, but they were a family.  And their family was turning mine into a family into Rebels.
Jackson had told so many people that Mr. Dean had asked him to run out with the team at the funeral.  I’m not sure what Jackson had expected, but there has never been a moment in my life that I’ve been any prouder than to see him lead into the sanctuary Park’s former teammates from New Hope, East Central, and Ole Miss.  It has always been my dream to see Jackson run out onto the field in Starkville, MS as a football player for MSU, but on this day I was overwhelmed with gratitude over the honor that my little boy had been given in walking out the Ole Miss Rebels to celebrate his hero, Park Stevens.
Our family is now a house divided, but not because of a disagreement about which team to support.  We are a house that is divided  because we are a family with enough love to give to two teams in the SEC – both Ole Miss and Mississippi State.  Although we may attend these games the most, we will gladly share our love with any other team.  It’s an example of the kind of love that Park showed to everyone.  He didn’t limit it to one thing or one type of person.  He gave it freely to everyone.  One of the Stevens’ close family friends, Caryn Bivens,  said that Coach Freeze gave Park an opportunity to do what Park loved the most, not to play for the Bulldogs like several of Park’s family members did and had dreamed of him doing,  but to just play college football.  I have learned a lot from Park and his teammates these past few days.  My love and support needs to go to the love of the game and especially go to the love of the players that are doing what they love so dearly.  Many of them played together in high school and while they may compete on the field, they continue to love one another and encourage one another off the field.  It is our job to do the same for them no matter what colors they wear or what team they play for.  These are college kids playing their hearts out and it is up to us to give our love to all of them on the field instead of so often giving out hatred towards them just for being on the opposing team.   I can’t wait to attend a game at Ole Miss to cheer for a group of boys that have loved my son and taught our family about what we are really supposed to be cheering for.  And we will be cheering for Park Stevens and thanking God for the difference that he made in so many lives while here on this earth and even now that he has left us.
It hurts my heart to picture Gail in my mind trying to be strong and smile through the tears over the loss of her baby boy and I pray that God will comfort her and Dean like none of us can.  Dean has been the comforter to others instead of allowing his own self to be comforted by them.  It has given him comfort by telling the stories of Park and his life and making people cry their eyes out one minute and laugh until their sides hurt the next.  The day after Park left this earth, Dean spoke to a group of family members and close friends as we waited around the TV for the evening news.  He gave us a peace in reminding us that Park was okay and that Park lived a great life and had reached so many of his goals that he wanted to achieve.  He said that it had always been Park’s dream to play for an NFL team and to see his name scroll across the bottom of the screen on ESPN showing the draft number that he’d received.  Dean assured us that Park had reached his dream but not in a way that you or I or even Park had imagined.  On Wednesday, July 3, 2013 Park left this earth but he achieved his dream when that very night his name scrolled across the bottom of the screen on ESPN.  The name of Park Stevens scrolled across the bottom of the screen because he had been drafted by the #1 coach into the #1 team.  Park was now with Jesus and playing on His team in Heaven after playing in this game of life and spreading God’s love to everyone that ever met Park Stevens on this earth.  We won’t be able to see him with his halo of blond hair on the field in Oxford this fall, but I know he will be there in our hearts as he looks down on all of us with a real halo of his own.   Fly high my dear friend until we see you again!  Hotty Toddy #75!!!



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