Special To The Packet
BY LIZA MILEY
It took the death of Park Stevens to make me realize that I’d been lying to him since I was his English teacher in the eighth grade. My students were always promised that if they ever became a college football player then I would be there at their games cheering for them and wearing their school’s colors no matter which team they played for. I’ve had several former students go on to play football at the community college level and have even had a couple play for college teams and semi-pro teams. But I NEVER attended a single game of theirs because they weren’t playing on MY team – the only team that mattered to me.
My grandfather, William Merrill Carter, played football for Mississippi State in the 1920’s. I graduated from MSU and my oldest daughter, Merri Frances (named after her Daddy Merrill) plans to attend MSU in August. Our family is passionate about MSU football. We have been die- hard fans that sported the MSU tags on our vehicles, filled our closets with maroon clothing, and even have a MSU Christmas tree. My youngest son, Jackson, has been raised believing that he will play football at MSU when he grows up and attends college there. We go to almost all of the home football games and revolve our lives around their schedules in the fall. I’m ashamed to say that even though I’d never use the words hate, I’ve taught my children to hate any team that played against our Dawgs. We’ve hated their players, coaches, colors, mascots, and anything else that had to do with an opposing team. I didn’t teach them to hate the other teams through my words, but through my actions. I’m one of the least prejudiced people in the world that you’ll ever meet. I’ve taught my children to love everyone no matter what color their skin is or where they come from, no matter how much money they have or what religion they practice. I’ve always preached to them about loving everyone, but I failed miserably in teaching them to love like Park Stevens loved.
Park Stevens attended the New Hope Schools during almost all of his childhood years. He was one of those icons on campus because of his personality, love, smile, and ,yes, his size. One of my dear friends and coworkers, Lisa Rooker, recalls a story about Park during his first year at NHMS when he was in the sixth grade. Mrs. Rooker returned to school after being out one day and was shocked at a note left for her by the substitute teacher that said that Park had jumped out of the window during class. When Mrs. Rooker asked Park about the incident he replied with a grin on his face and in the most polite tone, “I dropped my pencil out the window and had to get it.” Now can you picture that big ol’ boy jumping out of an old timey window that you push out to open? Of course there’s the teacher that remembers Park setting the clock up in the classroom so they could pack up early since “the bell was about to ring”. Knowing what a germ freak I was, I still laugh about Park taking the multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in my classroom and hiding them in my desk drawer. But Park wasn’t a trouble maker or class clown trying to get attention. He was just Park – like nobody else I’ve ever met! You couldn’t get on to him because he was always so happy and polite and smiling. He loved everyone and everyone loved him in return.
After Park’s 8th grade year at NHMS, Park and his family moved to Okolona, MS where he attended school through the 11th grade. His parents were from Chickasaw county where Okolona was located and initially thought they would be moving back “home”. Although Park continued to excel as an athlete and a student, it never felt like home to him. Park’s parents made the decision to move back to New Hope so that Park could attend New Hope and play football there his senior year. Even though Park’s parents had been raised in the Okolona area, Dean says that he and Gail didn’t realize until they moved back that New Hope was also their home, and not just Park’s.
After graduating from high school Park played football at East Central Community College before walking on at The University of Mississippi this past spring. Our small community was overjoyed at the news, but nobody was more proud than his parents. They really hadn’t considered Ole Miss as one of his future options to play college ball, but being the parents they were jumped in full force and began supporting their son’s decision to play ball there. Park worked hard to be a part of the Rebel team and was immediately accepted because of his work ethic, talent, personality, and love for everyone. Everyone on campus knew who he was. The first time you saw him he stood out. At 6’6” and weighing in at 351 pounds, you couldn’t miss him. He had decided to let his blond hair grow out and told his dad that in case he wasn’t recognized on the field for his talent, then he was going to make sure that he was recognized for his hair. And recognized he was everywhere he went on campus – not only for his size and appearance, but also for his laugh and love. Realityy Williams, a sophmore at Ole Miss from Ringgold, GA and dear friend of Park’s, recalls the first time she saw Park on campus. She says she had never seen someone so big and even called her mom on the phone to tell her about this blond headed giant that she had just encountered. Shortly after their meeting she began dating one of Park’s teammates, Ole Miss center Ben Still from Memphis, and the three of them became fast friends doing everything together.
When Park came home on the weekends and during time off from school this past spring, he hung out at our house several times. Because of our large game room upstairs, it became the hangout spot for Park, Merri Frances (my oldest daughter), Laura (Park’s cousin and my daughter’s best friend), Warnat, Preston, JoJo, Darius, and a few others at times. Each time Park was in town I knew that before the night was over their close-knit group of friends would eventually show up to hang out.
Park was able to come back home to his small community of New Hope in Columbus, MS for almost the entire month of May before returning to Ole Miss for class and football for the summer. His family was able to go on vacation together for Mother’s Day to Gulf Shores, AL and made some of the best memories ever on this trip. Park and his cousin, Laura Stevens, bonded even more on this trip. Park had become more than just her cousin, but was also her best friend and big brother. He was extremely protective of Laura but this gentle giant was also her rock, encourager, supporter, and advice giver. Without a doubt God arranged for Laura and Park to become closer than ever during his last months on this earth. Laura, Park, Merri Frances, and the rest of their gang still hung out at my house almost nightly during his break from school. They also spent tons of time with Park’s family at his house. They ate delicious food that you knew Dean and Gail would have an abundance of, swam in their pool, ate some more, and made life long memories that will never be forgotten. I knew not to try to make any plans with my Merri Frances during Park’s break home from school. Her last day of class as a senior at New Hope had been May 3rd, so Park and their group of friends were inseparable during his break. Their group of friends revolved around Park and what he was doing. For the first time ever my daughter, Carson, began hanging out with her older sister because Park continuously invited Carson to swim and hang out with them. I would remind Park and Merri Frances over and over that they were a few years older than Carson but Park would just smile and turn on the charm and say, “But Liza, she’s going to be with me.” Because of my trust, respect, and love for Park I knew that she would be in good hands with Park and his family while hanging out and swimming in their pool – and of course eating and then eating some more. Faith, Carson, and Merri Frances have some of the best memories from spending time at Park’s house with his family.
One afternoon while Park was sitting at my kitchen table holding Jackson, Park asked me about that promise I had made to him years ago when he was in the eighth grade. I told him that of course we would be there when MY team had away games and that I’d cheer for him, but not the Rebels. My little boy, Jackson, was really excited about Park playing football. Park always threw the football around with Jackson, and had even promised him an Ole Miss autographed football and to be able to walk on the field at Ole Miss after one of the games. I had even talked to Park’s mom, Gail, about the games she invited our family to tailgate with them in the Grove. Our family was excited to be cheering for Park since had reached his dream of becoming an SEC football player. Of course there was still that small detail of him playing for “the school up north” that we had often joked about. Park went with Jackson back to his bedroom to get a football and Park walked in pretending to go blind. Jackson’s bedroom is a Dawg Pound to say the least. With a maroon loft bed and Bully painted on the side, these things are just the tip of the iceberg at everything bulldog in Jackson’s bedroom. Park covered up the Bulldog on Jackson’s bed and said it needed to be replaced with a Rebel. He told Jackson that there was too much maroon in his room and that he needed some red and blue. I laughed and told Park that since I wanted him to be my son-in-law one day that I guessed I might have to add some red and blue eventually. With a smile on his face Park put his hand on Marc’s shoulder and made us all burst into laughter when he said to me, “Liza, I keep telling Merri Frances that I’m not going to be your son-in-law, but her step-dad. I’m just waiting for Marc to kill over so that can happen.” Marc laughed and as we stood there as a family in that maroon bedroom, our love for Park grew even more as we realized that eventually there would have to be a little red and blue in our home.
Those three weeks that Park spent in back in Oxford were the longest three weeks in the life of my oldest daughter. We counted down the days as a family until we knew Park would return to New Hope for a visit. Park would text, tweet, snapchat, and call Merri Frances and even Carson on a daily basis. When we were out of town for my brother’s wedding I was awakened by the telephone ringing in the middle of the night two nights in a row. It was Park just wanting to check on Merri Frances and talk to her. I normally would have been upset if anyone else had done this, but Park was just one of those people that couldn’t make you upset no matter what he did.
June 14 has always been a day of celebration for my family because it’s Carson’s birthday. This past June 14, our family was celebrating even more because Park was coming home from Ole Miss for the weekend! Merri Frances had told us that he should be walking through the front door around 4:00 p.m. A few minutes before Park was due to arrive at the house Jackson came running into the living room dressed in his MSU football jersey and Hope came running behind in her MSU cheerleader uniform. I actually pleaded with them to go put something red and blue on to show Park but before we could finish our conversation Park threw our front door open and tossed a football to Jackson. As Jackson stood there in amazement because Park had brought him an Ole Miss football, my eyes brimmed with tears over the fact that this precious college kid had kept his promise to my young son. Merri Frances and Carson ran squealing into the living room as Park swung them around one at a time and handed out those one of a kind bear hugs. Merri Frances, Carson, and Sarah Caldwell were ready to head out with Park but first Park autographed the football and made time to play in the yard with Jackson and Hope and throw the football around. As they backed down the driveway and we headed inside the house, Park began honking his horn and hollering goodbye to the kids. Something made me turn around and snap a picture of Jackson waving goodbye to Park. It was silly at the time, but I know why God made me do it now. After going out to eat with Park’s parents, the girls came back to the house with Park, Darius, and Preston. They guys played both football and baseball in the yard with Hope and Jackson before coming into the kitchen to nibble on chocolate covered strawberries and pretzels that I was making for my daughter, Faith. Once I shooed them out of the kitchen and upstairs, they began their nightly ritual of playing the Wii and hanging out. Needing to deliver the food to Victory Christian Academy for Faith’s cheer lock-in, I hurried up the stairs to get Jackson, Hope, and Ella to ride with me so that they wouldn’t be in the way Merri Frances and her friends upstairs. Jackson and Ella didn’t want to go with me and it was Park that insisted that I leave them there and that he would watch them. I thanked him and was gone out the door in a flash. I never saw Park Stevens again.
To Be Continued in Next Week’s Packet
Ole Miss Football Player Killed In Traffic Accident
BY THE PACKET
Funeral services were held Saturday, July 6, for Park Stevens, 20, of Columbus, at Mt. Vernon Church.
Stevens died July 3 when his truck collided with an 18-wheeler on Highway 45 A in the Chickasaw community of Egypt, which is near the Monroe County border.
Stevens was a 2010 graduate of New Hope High School, where he was a leader on the football team.
Stevens spent his sophomore and junior seasons at Oak Hill Academy and started at defensive tackle.
Stevens transferred to Ole Miss in January and joined the football team for 2013 spring drills. He arrived in Oxford after two seasons at East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss., where he redshirted in 2011 and started at right guard in 2012.
His Ole Miss teammates served as his pallbearers.0