Jason Heyward’s homecoming Tuesday at Henry County High School celebrated his predicted success as the major leagues’ next rookie sensation as brought to you by the Atlanta Braves.
He told the seniors to enjoy high school while it lasts. Then he hugged the British Literature teacher who taught him critical lessons about baseball and about life.
“Were you nervous?” Tammie Ruston asked him, even more petite next to the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Heyward.
He shook his head, no.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said.
Heyward knew her well before he took a seat in her class in the fall of 2006. Her only child, Andrew “Willie” Wilmot, played catcher on the Henry County team that, with Heyward as its star, had won the Class AAAA state championship a few months before.
“She was the team mom,” said Jason Shadden, then the assistant, now the head coach. "Anything we needed to bring to the field, she’d bring. She’d help in the concession stands. She’d take score. She was so encouraging to the boys.”
Her son, a year older than Heyward, moved to Tennessee to play baseball at Walter State Community College. That left Ruston, who is single, alone as she began teaching Heyward and her other classes.
The British Literature curriculum ends with Dante’s Inferno, but her own journey into hell began two months into the school year. In October she learned that her son, 18, had been killed in a car wreck.
“Andrew was one of those kids who you could see the flowers blooming in,” said Chuck Miller, the school’s athletics director for 27 years. “It was like she didn’t get to watch it grow. ... Other kids would come to school and they were happy and she would never see her son again. I don’t know if you ever completely adjust to that.”
Her passion for teaching became grief therapy, especially teaching her seniors.
“I always try to teach them to think for themselves, how to question and how to find out things for themselves,” she said. “That is more important than British Lit.”
Observing how she handled her loss, Heyward was learning, too.
From playing alongside her son, he had already grasped, “That no matter who we are, what path we are on, we all can learn from each other and that’s how we won the state championship.”
From going to the funeral in Tennessee, Heyward learned that, “There are people who will get together with you when it’s easy to walk the other way.” He knew which one he wanted to be.
In class, Ruston taught him about things in books, but mostly about things in life.
“[Things] you don’t feel like doing,” Heyward said. “I could see that coming for me in professional baseball. You have to do things even when you don’t want to do them.”
He took that knowledge to the minors. Last season, he hit .323 with 17 homers and 63 RBIs in 99 games. Those numbers made him baseball’s most touted prospect.
Ruston, 47, was too busy running the school’s summer writing tutoring program to see him play.
Heyward has dropped in to see her often, though. He remains someone who doesn’t walk the other way.
“Jason knows and is wise beyond his years, that tomorrow is not promised to us and we have to do what we can do and do our best on a daily basis,” Ruston said. “He is very thankful that he gets to do what he loves and gets paid for it.”
Over the past two years, fewer students remember her son. They don’t know the boy in the catcher’s gear in her desk photo. They don’t get the poem on her classroom wall about baseball in heaven.
“Jason’s pretty much kept his memory alive as far as the team is concerned,” Ruston said. His senior year, Heyward used a bat with her son’s nickname – Big Willie – on it.
“Baseball season now brings a special sort of loneliness for me, but I know that a piece of Andy lives on in each one of ‘my boys,’ ” Ruston said. “That brings me so more comfort than I can begin to express.”
Tuesday’s visit didn’t last long. Teacher and former student were on the clock.
Ruston headed back to third period just before the bell rang. She’s busy living out the motto on her school website: Carpe Diem, Latin for “seize the day.”
Heyward passed into a hallway, where a moment framed his future with the past, his success and what he's learned from her loss.
Outside the glass door was the charter bus that would take him to the next stop on the Braves’ 2010 preseason publicity caravan. In three weeks, he's due at spring training.
Just behind him in the hallway stood the school’s awards case. It prominently displays the state baseball trophy from 2005. On a dusty lower shelf, there’s a picture of Andrew Wilmot with the inscription, "1988-2006."