Thank you, Vern Stephens. Sincerely, Softball.
How will we be remembered? This question is asked by almost everyone at one time or another. For some the answer comes in the form of a career that spans decades and is riddled with accolades, awards and even acknowledgment. For most of us, it’s the impact that we have on the ones around us. The people who we come in contact with on a daily basis. A mentor, a boss, a friend or even a relative, these individuals groom and shape the person we are, and who we hope to become.
Those of you who have ever played a sport, or coached one, know some of those individuals who make a difference. Someone who each and every time you saw them greeted you with a smile, a handshake or even a wave. For the coaches and girls who play or played softball over the last 15 or so years in the Las Vegas valley, that person was Vern Stephens.
Earlier this week, Stephens lost his battle with pancreatic cancer and the sport in Las Vegas may never be the same.
To truly understand the impact Stephens made, I reached out to some former and current players that remember him fondly. The response was overwhelming. Players from across the country were willing to take their time to share an experience, a story and sometimes just one moment that made them remember Coach Vern. It’s a very daunting challenge to paint a picture using only words, especially of someone so colorful and full of life. My only regret is that I will not be able to use all of the wonderful stories that I have received. So, if you would like to see more of them just go to your Facebook or twitter and search the #VernStephens or #TheStruggleIsReal
Stephens had an incredible way of relating to young players. Most of the girls who would play for him, grew to love him as a coach, mentor and, more importantly, a friend.
“When I decided to hang up my cleats, he gave me a huge hug and reminded me of all the things I had accomplished in my career. He was 100 percent supportive in my decision and didn’t assume anything, just wished me the best," Haley Pedersen, a former Blast softball player, told me as she recounted some memories.
Haley wasn’t the only player that had meaningful encounters. Each story about coach Vern from those he coached is unique and different, but similar in their overall message of love and admiration.
Stephens spent time as an assistant coach for Arbor View and Coronado High schools here in Las Vegas and his players spoke fondly of him.
“He was one of the best coaches out there, everyone knew who he was, my sisters and I were lucky to have him at Arbor View," said Bryce Henricksen, a senior at Black Hills State.
His impact didn't end at the people he coached, either. It even extended to the kids on other teams as well. “He was the rival coach in high school and struck me out on three straight change ups, because he knew my swing,” recounted Shelby Carvalho, a Freshman Binghamton University. “We laughed about it after the game, and he gave me a big hug. He took time to know each and every kid.”
That in itself, is what made Stephens so special. He got to know each and every kid in the valley. And it wasn’t just softball skills he taught, but fundamental life lessons as well.
“I met coach Vern at the Silver State preps (HS all-star) games when I was a freshman,” Annie Finch recalls. “Coach Vern who I had never met, made sure the dugout was fully stocked with my favorite candy (gummy bears) and pizza. In the one inning I pitched I faced four batters in what should have been three up, three down. I dropped an easy pop up right to me. Nevertheless, no runs scored. Coach Vern met me with his goofy smile and a slice of pizza. Even though he was my coach for one night, he taught me that every person deserves kindness.”
Jessica Nimmo, a Carrol college student, recalls a similar lesson.
“Vern told me once, 'whatever position you are asked to play, you be the best damn player at that position they’ve ever seen.' My whole career I’ve moved around and played almost every position and his words play through my head over and over again," said Nimmo.
As I spoke to more and more girls who Stephens had an influence on, a trend started to pop up. It didnt's matter to Stephens if you were on his team or not, he just wanted to see everyone succeed.
“He truly wanted the best for every girl, no matter what team you were on,” Alyssa Sotello remembered.
And that sentiment was also echoed by UNLV third basemen, Lauren Barker.
“Vern always wanted us all to succeed, even if we didn’t play for him. He always checked up on me to tell me how proud he was of my accomplishments," she said.
Terren Vinson, a four-year starter for Texas Southern, spoke about the unique influence Stephens had on her softball career.
“Vern created such an impact in my life, from just believing in me as a player, not just the black girl, the slapper, but seeing me as a person. You can’t spell Vegas softball without VERN. V-for Vegas and you can’t play softball without something to ERN.”
Others recalled the small little things about him, and how he made every girl feel unique like Maddie Kallfez who Stephens nicknamed "chicken nugget" after a practice when she was just six years old.
“I was late to practice one day, and my mom got me chicken nuggets, I just put them in my sweatshirt because we had to run a lap when we got to practice. Later on, we were taking ground balls and I was at short and I would take a ball and step to the side and take a nugget out and start eating it. He stopped practice because he was laughing so hard walked over to me and asked if I was eating chicken nuggets. I nodded and he laughed and told me my new nickname was Chicken Nugget," she said. "From that day, to the last time I saw him, that’s what he called me every time he saw me. Chicken Nugget.”
Cash Rodriguez a Javelin thrower at Duke and former softball player remembers Stephens compassion more than anything else.
“His unconditional love for his daughters Kayla and Madi was something to admire, and yet, he still had room in his heart for every single one of his athletes," Cash said before describing how she felt when she heard the news of his diagnosis. “When I found out about his cancer, I was in complete shock. I felt like there was no way this could be true. Even so, Vern’s outlook never wavered. He assured me, as he did so many, that there was no cause for sadness and everything would be ok.”
Stephens meant so much to so many, to the point that it’s hard to convey. One of the most touching tributes to Stephens came from SUU outfielder, Josey White who had transferred in the summer from Minnesota and had been plagued with injuries so bad that she was ready to hang it up. Once the SUU opprotunity came along, and she decided to give it one last go since she would at least be closer to home, she started remembering how much she loved the game and all the lessons Stephens taught her over the years.
“The most important thing I learned from Coach Vern was to never settle. And when I played for him, I felt unstoppable,” said White.
With her regained love for the game, the same special feeling she had when she was young, White decided to honour her former coach on her new glove when the team switched to Easton brand equipment.
“We got to choose what we wanted to put on our gloves, and I was hesitant to write in my nickname Vern had given me because nobody else knew it, and I thought it seemed flashy. But, I typed it out and I felt great about it,” said White, who had no idea about Stephens condition but had the feeling it was important to honour him in some way. “Now every time I put my glove on this season, I’ll be able to read that nickname “The Outlaw” on the side of my glove and remember how important Coach Vern was in my life.”
As his former athletes started to find out about their former coach's health conditions, it just reinforced all the lessons and support Stephens has given them over the years.
Tatum Spangler Junior P/OF at Kentucky reflected.
“As soon as I found out about the diagnosis during the fall, I was talking to him and said I was praying for him so much. He told me right before our conversation, he became born again Christian and said he had a huge God moment. That brought tears to my eyes," says Tatum Spangler, a junior and outfielder at the University of Kentucky. “On February 7th, 2021, right before practice I wrote 'Never quit being you!!! One of the Raddest people I know' with his initials next to it under the bible verse I had sent him months earlier. I wanted to play with him in my heart as the season starts in the next couple days. That night, he passed, God has him.”
As things often do in sports when tragedy strikes, things seemed to work out in an unexpected but wonderful way. This Friday, when UNLV opens their 2021 season, they will be playing SUU. On the two teams combined, Stephens will have coached or impacted nine girls, six on SUU and 3 on UNLV.
In the midst of a pandemic, when there are no fans allowed to attend the games this weekend, one person will be looking down and watching every single one of them. Coach Vern’s players will begin games this weekend all over the country. From Furman to UNLV, his impact will be felt all over this country.
When the country gets back to normal, and the sounds of early morning tournaments and practices return. What feeling will it be that brings your mind racing back. Will it be the cool brisk morning air as the players get to the field and begin setting up? Maybe the dew as it rolls off the wet slippery Dream Seams as coaches everywhere get in a round of soft toss before the first game. Possibly the smell of the freshly cut grass as the players don their cleats and begin outfield drills? How about the feeling of an infielder taking that first ground ball on freshly prepped and chalked dirt? Or maybe, for the siblings that go to these games, it’s the smell of the first hot-dog hitting the grill, which signifies a day of snack bar food.
Whatever it is for you, the game itself owes a great deal of gratitude to people like Vern Stephens. Without them, this game wouldn’t be as popular as it has become. Without them, there would be no college for some of these young women. Without them the young women of this era, may not know what it’s like to have people believe in them so deeply, that it propels them in everything they do on and off the field.
Stephens' impact may never truly be known. He impacted so many people in so many different ways. He convinced many girls to not give up and he inspired others to push themselves to be the best they could be. He inspired others to not take life so seriously and he taught them to just have fun. If a fraction of these young ladies pass this love down to their daughters, sons or even kids they coach, his impact could be in the thousands.
We as a community will never fully know what he has meant to this sport. The next time you take the field, or watch a game take a moment and ponder the people who make this sport great, give thanks to those in your life that have driven you to be great or succeed in life. Tell them thank you. For the game and all of those involved in one way or another… Thank you, Vern Stephens. Sincerely, Softball.