Cheering the underdogs of Carroll Academy

 Cheering the underdogs of Carroll Academy

(The following is an article from TSSAA written by John Brice)

The youngest kids do not know.

They see a team and its players, clad in green-and-white uniforms, but no fans.

They do not see that the players for whom they so fervently cheer on come from broken homes and attend Carroll Academy, a school 40 miles from Jackson in tiny town of Huntingdon.

Rosters comprised of court orders. Too often, the players are kids from no-parent homes. Dad not in the picture. Mom in jail. Vice versa.

None of that far-too-real drama registers on the faces of the children at Trinity Christian Academy.

The kids in the stands, they’re wearing green. They’re cheering for Carroll Academy. This day, the games are played in front of the entire TCA student body. They’re part of tradition, some 15 years’ history between the two schools in a series more familial than rivalry.

For one afternoon, some of the biggest underdogs anywhere — on the court, in society — are celebrated.

Some kids cheer again after doing so last year. Some kids will cheer next year. Some players may still be at the state-funded, court-appointed facility for at-risk youths that services youth in grades six through 12.

Green shirts. Posters. Basketball. Life.

“Every year, we try to add to it a little bit,” said 14th-year TCA girls’ coach Matt Coble. “It’s kind of one of those things, when we bring the elementary kids, they have so much energy and are loud and cheering, I think that’s what makes it most special for Carroll Academy, and getting to have devotion with them afterwards.

“It’s funny. Every year, somebody catches hold of the story that hasn’t necessarily heard it. If people only knew the impact … I heard one of their girls this year say, ‘Oh, you’re going to love what comes next!’ So that’s what we do. We eat pizza, share devotion. We make them personalized goodie bags.”

For one afternoon, some of the biggest underdogs anywhere — on the court, in society — are celebrated.

TCA and Carroll Academy Fellowship

“You play the game of life and many of them are learning,” said Randy Hatch, executive director at Carroll Academy since its inception in 1994 and its Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Assocation membership five years later. “It filters into the community, but for our girls, they’ve largely never had anybody to care or pay them any attention. They see people do care and spend time with them. It’s something they learn and something they will give back, because the message of what sports can do, and basketball, it’s how you use basketball in a way to teach sportsmanship or a sense of caring.

“I think our girls have learned from that, learned a lot through the years. It’s not just about the scoreboard; the scoreboard is the last thing oftentimes that our girls ever look at.”

BASKETBALL AT CARROLL ACADEMY

For many of Carroll Academy’s players, life doesn’t allow the luxury of scoreboard-watching. Daily survival is demanding enough of them.

They ride vans, not school buses, to and from the six communities — Carroll, Benton, Weakley, Henry and Henderson counties plus Milan Special School District — to Carroll Academy, enrollment typically hovering around 60.

After a game, a van might drop off one player into the waiting arms of a parent or guardian at Exit 60 along I-40 and it might not drop off the last player until Exit 108.

“Every single day is completely different from the next,” said Hayley Ezell, the Lady Jags’ head coach, a counselor at the school and Hatch’s daughter. “You never know what is going to happen. We serve six counties, and all 19 staff members drive van routes. All drive at least one way, some drive both ways.

“It’s a normal school day with four blocks but we are allowed to give random drug screens, as most kids are court-ordered to be here, at any point in time.”

LEADERSHIP IN PERIL

A few years ago, Hatch began feeling ill and medical tests weren’t showing what was wrong. Not only the school’s administrator but also its dual head coach of the boys’ and girls’ basketball programs for several years, Hatch was active; on the go. He cared for the kids as though they were his own, be it at school, in gyms or, yes, in the courts.

Wherever he was needed.

Until Hatch began to slow. Swelled. Skin became tinged with a yellowish hue.

Eventually, he received a startling diagnosis: liver failure. Hatch was placed on a transplant list in January 2019.

Randy Hatch (courtesy The Jackson Sun)

“The girls on the team, riding in that van, they could see during that time that something was wrong with me,” Hatch said. “I began to carry a backpack with adult diapers, wipes, rubber gloves and a 30-gallon trash bag. The kids saw me at my worst.

“I’ll never forget one night, we left from Clarksville and it was beginning to snow, and I was worried about us getting home without roads getting too bad and that night I got so sick, and Patrick Steele (Carroll’s director of security and assistant coach) pulled over the van. I was nauseated, and the girls were screaming because they thought I was dying. Last year, they saw me really struggle and begin to be jaundiced and they knew something bad was wrong. It was hard for them to see and deal with it because of the uncertainty.”

It was hard for everyone associated with Carroll Academy, past, present and future. The school had lost significant funding in budget cuts a decade ago, when more than $400,000 was sliced from the school’s already spartan operations.

Forget basketball: people feared Hatch would die and with him, Carroll Academy might also be shuddered.

“‘What will happen to Carroll Academy without him?’,” Ezell said of her and others’ thoughts when Hatch’s outlook was most dire. “Because our state funding comes into question every few years. We go by a contract, and we don’t ever really know. Dad wasn’t worried about himself; he said look at all the blessings God has given me. But he always worries what will happen to the kids, what will happen to staff.

“All that came to reality last year when he got airlifted to Vanderbilt.”

Hatch knew what no one wanted to verbalize when the helicopter lifted off the pad in Huntingdon.

“Last March my wife (Vicky) found me in the floor of our house, and they airlifted me to Vanderbilt with my lungs filling up with fluid, the very last stage of liver disease before you die,” Hatch said. “My office is right beside the hospital in Huntingdon, and I’ll never forget it, after they had loaded me up in the helicopter, and took off, I could look down and see Carroll Academy, and I said to myself, ‘I’ll never be back.’

“The sixth day after we got up there, they found a liver.”

It was a moment as odds-defying as when the Lady Jaguars’ basketball team, featured seven years ago on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, had ended their nation’s-worst 312-game losing streak December 1, 2017.

Hatch’s blood type had been determined to be AB-negative, found in just one out of every 167 people and the rarest blood type on earth, per the Red Cross.

“If he didn’t get a liver, he was never going to get to come home,” Ezell said. “And when he found out he was going to get a liver, he said, ‘I’m 60 years old. If there’s somebody out there who needs a liver more than me, I hope that person gets it.’

Since 1999-2000, Carroll Academy has been an TSSAA A.F. Bridges Award nominee for model sportsmanship an astounding 18 times.

“And we just said, ‘God has a plan, and if that liver is meant for you, it’s meant for you.’”

Basketball, again, brought the world closer to Hatch. As he struggled with the disease and his condition deteriorated prior to the transplant, Hatch found an unexpected ally who had just triumphed through the same liver-transplant procedure: University of Tennessee Associate Athletics Director for Communications, Tom Satkowiak.

“Tom had one in October (2018), prior to mine, and we began to communicate,” Hatch said. “He and his wife (Brooke), they helped us find our apartment by Vanderbilt where we were going to stay after the surgery; they were so helpful. One night, the University of Tennessee, where they had those ‘Donate For Life’ shirts that they wore, we wore them all season this year. We were all just raising awareness.”

More people learned of Hatch’s journey. That included Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Only Lee had learned of Carroll Academy and its remarkable basketball story long before Hatch endured liver failure.

ENCOURAGEMENT FROM GOV. LEE

“My sporting goods guy, Robert Butler, told me about this gentleman, Bill Lee, who was going to run for governor,” Hatch said. “He said, ‘I think this guy might like to come visit your school.’ So him and his wife (Maria) came and toured Carroll Academy without any fanfare. He immediately saw the impact but the one that captured him was the ESPN thing, we had painted it onto the wall.

“He was familiar and he had seen it, and he came back in October. I had just gotten out of the hospital again (from back surgery), and he was coming and wanted to see us. He’s the only sitting governor to ever come visit us.”

Governor Bill Lee

An emotional Lee, working also to help restore the school’s funding, addressed students October 29, 2019, seated in a hallway at Carroll Academy.

“You’re in a very unique spot, you’re very fortunate to be in the spot you are to be in this school,” said Lee in video from his visit. “Now, some of you might be thinking, ‘I’ve had some really tough things in my life, too.’ And some of you have had some terrible situations in your life. Some of it your own doing. Some of it happened to you.

“It’s kind of like getting an incurable liver disease or my wife was killed in an accident when I was 40 and I had four little kids. People have things happen to them in their life that is tragic and difficult and heart-breaking and a lot of you have already experience some of that.

“But here is what is so cool about what I see right here, you’ve got people who realize through all of that, He gives us great favor. You’re in this school and it’s a very unique place and you’re surrounded by a ton of people who love you a lot and care about you. … I hope you walk away from your experience here and you go, ‘He did this for me, and I’m going to do something with my life in a positive way to make sure I’m serving other people.’ The greatest happiness of your whole life, and you may or may not think you have a happy life right now, but your greatest happiness of your life is going to come if you serve other people. I’m very proud of you. I look into the faces of some of you and know that you’re going to be successful at what you do and know that you’re going to be overcomers of the circumstances you’ve been through.”

Those kids whom Lee addressed and whom Ezell, Hatch and Carroll Academy have helped mold have become part of an unparalleled tradition of sportsmanship at the school. Since 1999-2000, Carroll Academy has been an TSSAA A.F. Bridges Award nominee for model sportsmanship an astounding 18 times.

This after some other states across the country had expressed doubts about the TSSAA’s and then-executive director Ronnie Carter’s decision to grant Carroll Academy membership privileges.

“The first thing was, I’d done the homework and I knew we were dealing with a good person in Randy,” said Carter, who visited Hatch last spring in the hospital at Vanderbilt after the transplant. “Dealing with judges and courts of law in West Tennessee trying to figure out a solution for these kids. On paper, there were a lot of pluses. It was a risk but it was also, if they mess up and do bad or get in a fight, we have no authority to discipline them if they aren’t members.

“By sitting down and going through it all, it was a situation where you had to make the right decision. From that point on, it’s just Randy Hatch. Randy is the key to the whole thing. Not only does he take the role of coach, but he knows he’s going to use athletics as a very positive element in their lives.”

Upwards of 95% of the more than 4,000 kids to come through Carroll Academy since its opening in the mid-90s have graduated or earned their graduate equivalency diploma; 47 former Lady Jags’ players have earned college degrees. Several more have served in the military.

While he recovered from his liver transplant, Hatch heard from a former player who had served in the military.

“She said, ‘Mr. Randy, do you know what I’m doing now?,’” Hatch said. “She said, ‘I’m a high school biology teacher and volleyball coach.’”

Even if they’re too young to know it, those kids who pack the gym at Trinity Christian Academy for the school’s annual battle with Carroll Academy are cheering for these stories.

“What they’ve done is so much greater than basketball and what people see,” said Hatch, who has estimated Carroll Academy saves the state of Tennessee approximately $5 million annually because the cost of educating kids has shown to be dramatically lesser than the $60-80,000 cost of placing a child in state custody. “I started this basketball team in ’98, I went to Walmart, and I bought a dozen basketballs, rubber basketballs, for $3.77 and I had the light company come and set a pole, and I put a backboard up.

“And that’s how the Lady Jaguars and Jaguars got started. Who would have ever guessed from that that there’s been front-page articles in the New York Times, the ESPN story, and so much more impact. That simple thing, putting up a basketball goal at Carroll Academy, what it’s grown to be.”

It’s worth another round of applause.