It’s not only a time for giving and receiving gifts, or being around those you care about, but also a season for taking stock.
When Risha and Rob Teal are asked if they would consider this a good year, they freeze. Their eyes narrow a bit and slowly drift toward the ceiling.
They’re thinking about it.
And in that, there’s the answer. How could a year that included the death of their oldest son, 7-year-old Bayler, be anything other than horrible? How could it be anything other than the worst year of their lives?
There was pain. There is pain. But there are so many other emotions — incredibly good ones, among them — swirling inside the Teals this Christmas.
Rob and Risha lost their son, but they learned that Bayler’s life will forever be connected to the University of South Carolina’s baseball team, which won the national championship in his memory.
“It’s great that people will remember what an awesome kid he was,” Rob said this week. “We always knew how great he was. Other people know that now too.”
Bayler would have been 8 years old. The family held a 5K run-walk in
their hometown of Bishopville on his birthday, Christmas Eve.
The family has additional events planned for 2011 to help raise money for Bayler’s Prayers, the fund the Teals set up through Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital to help kids fighting pediatric cancer.
“I admire them so much, for how they’ve handled everything and what they’re doing to help others,” said USC assistant baseball coach Chad Holbrook, the man who connected with the Teals in 2008 because of his own son’s fight with leukemia.
Holbrook’s son, Reece, is doing well, but Holbrook is still a man haunted by the monster that is cancer.
So he only imagines the pain of actually losing a child.
Bayler’s 21-month fight with cancer ended June 24, in the midst of the Gamecocks’ run in Omaha.
In fact, the night Bayler died was the most dramatic of USC’s seven games in the College World Series.
South Carolina, trailing by a run in the bottom of the 12th inning, was down to its final out — its last strike — when it rallied to defeat Oklahoma and continue playing in the tournament.
The Gamecocks, who had known Bayler since 2008, already had dedicated their play in the College World Series to him. After learning that he had died, they wanted to honor him more.
The next night, with the initials “BT” on his cap, reliever Michael Roth pitched a complete-game three-hitter to defeat Clemson.
“I saw that and thought, ‘Really? There’s no way,’?” Risha said, referring to Roth’s hat.
South Carolina beat the Tigers again the next night to get into the national championship series against UCLA.
The Teals held Bayler’s funeral that Sunday, and felt compelled to get to Omaha to see the team that was being pushed along by Bayler’s inspiration.
They arrived in time to see the Gamecocks win the first game, and they helped hoist the national championship trophy the next night. South Carolina had won its first major national title in school history.
“We were relaxed because Bayler put the game we were playing, the situation we were in, in perspective,” Holbrook said. “UCLA didn’t have Bayler Teal in their corner. They were nervous. They were uptight. Clemson didn’t have that. Our kids had a perspective on life, through Bayler.”
The Gamecocks returned home as conquering heroes. The Teals returned home as grieving parents who had been lifted by the Gamecocks.
There have been other blessings too.
Rob Teal had stopped working to be with Bayler. As soon as he got home from Omaha, he received an offer for a sales job that was being created for him. A company had seen him on TV.
The community — and the rest of the state — covered the Teals in love.
Difficult moments have come, sure, but, again and again, the family has seen the good that can come from tragedy.
Rob said the immediate family, including 5-year-old Bridges, has learned to lean on one another more. And they all are depending on their faith.
“If I believed I’d never see Bayler again, I wouldn’t be able to sit here and talk about him,” Rob said. “If I didn’t know where he was, knowing he’s in a better place, I wouldn’t be able to talk about him. But I have zero doubt.”
Also big football fans, the Teals thoroughly enjoyed South Carolina’s reaching the SEC title game for the first time this season.
Rob jokes that he loves running into Clemson fans these days, just so he can rub in USC’s consecutive victories in the series.
“If I see a Clemson sticker on a car,” he said, “I make sure to park as close to it as I can. If I can park between two, I’m even happier.”
The morning after the Gamecocks’ stunning victory over then-No. 1 Alabama, Risha ran into the bedroom and jumped on the bed.
“Guess what,” she said.
Excited, Rob answered, “The Gamecocks are on ESPN?”
No, even better. Risha told him she was pregnant. She’s about 15 weeks along. The couple is hoping for a girl.
“It’s helped,” Rob said, referring to what would have been a difficult holiday season. “But it’s bittersweet. Bayler loved kids so much. You start to get really happy about it, and you stop and think that he would have been happier than anybody.”
Bitter and sweet. That was 2010 for the Teals. But they’re choosing to focus on the sweet.
Holbrook and the Teals are pointing toward a busy calendar in 2011. They are teaming up, more and more, to support Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, the state’s only free-standing children’s hospital. Bayler was treated in the hospital’s pediatric oncology clinic.
After years of running a successful golf tournament in North Carolina, in Reece’s honor, the Holbrooks are bringing it to Columbia. They are planning an event-filled weekend in the fall, including a major concert and a banquet that features high-profile college coaches as speakers.
“We want to have a fundraiser event for the ages,” Holbrook said, getting increasingly passionate as he spoke. “Of all the things to be underfunded, and (the children’s hospital) is, that shouldn’t be one.”
His life might have ended, but Bayler’s legacy is alive and well.