Commentary

Crews' spirit inspires teammates

Originally Published: May 13, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Bill Edwards is not the kind of man you expect to show emotion easily.

Crews
Brian BallwegCourtney Crews has carried a heavy heart on the field since the death of her boyfriend in 2008.

A former hockey player who has taught and coached for more than 40 years, including stints as a high school football coach, men's hockey coach at Iona College and the past 21 seasons as Hofstra's softball coach, he is the sort of stereotypically stoic tough guy you imagine absorbing a line drive to the upper body while standing in the third-base coaching box and barely wincing, which is precisely what happened in the middle of a recent game. 

But when the subject turns to what struck him most about sophomore Courtney Crews as he came to know her during the recruiting process, there is no effort made to hide the imprint she leaves. 

"Her character, her personality, her soul, her heart, the way that she was so sensitive to everything around her in a way which made her mature beyond her years, to understand things kids her age couldn't understand," Edwards said, his voice catching before he paused for a moment. "I get emotional.

"She is one very special young lady who has brought so much to this team just in her spirit."

A spirit that even as it struggles with a life left emptier two years ago demonstrates how one person can learn to live. 

What surrounded Crews while she sorted through her future options and fielded offers from coaches like Edwards was a present in which boyfriend Justin Whitaker battled for his life against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

Crews and Whitaker first met playing baseball against, and ultimately with, each other in Virginia youth leagues. They lost touch for a time after that but reconnected as freshmen at a football game between their rival high schools. They came away a couple from that chance reunion. Truth be told, Crews, for whom it was a first real romance, had long wondered what might happen if the boy she liked all those years before entered her life again. It turned out she wasn't alone. 

"He told me he had felt the same way back when we were younger," Crews said.

[+] EnlargeCrews
Jim SheehanAs a platoon catcher for the Pride, Crews is most comfortable on the diamond.

A Washington Post piece by Matthew Stanmyre two years ago chronicled what followed between the two. Whitaker was diagnosed in the summer of 2006, almost two full years after he and Crews started dating. She stayed with him throughout the illness, figuratively and, as much as humanly possible, literally -- going to school, playing softball but always returning to his side. On March 29, 2008, he gave her a promise ring and asked her to marry him after college. But his condition worsened rapidly. Nine days later he was gone. 

The Post's story ends the day after Whitaker's death, a day that saw Crews go to school and play in a softball game -- cope as best she could by doing what she knew how to do and what she thought Justin would have wanted her to do. In a sense, it was also the last battle of the war they waged together against the cancer for almost two years. It was the last thing she could do after kissing him goodbye for the final time the day before and speaking at a candlelight vigil the night he passed away. It was the last thing she could do before confronting a world without him. 

The two of them didn't talk much while Whitaker was sick about what might happen. He wanted to understand everything that was going on, and she learned all she could about the disease, her previous exposure to cancer limited, as she put it, to the stories of a famous case like Lance Armstrong. But they didn't dwell on the odds against him or the reality of the potential outcome.

"We had talked about it a couple of times throughout the time frame it was going down," Crews said. "He was just kind of like, 'We don't have to be together; what if I don't make it?' And I was just like 'You're insane.' To me, I guess you could just say I was in denial because never did I think once that he wasn't going to pull through. 

"We talked about it a couple of times, but he was just like 'Move on, do your thing; don't sit back and be upset because I didn't make it.'"

Yet as painful and exhausting as watching the ups and downs were, experiencing hope first offered and then snatched away by setbacks, it was something to fight against, to stand by him through. Moving on meant figuring out how to live without the person she had lived for. Two years later, she is a successful softball player and a successful student, but doing her thing remains a work in progress. 

"Moving forward is the hardest thing about grief," said Val Crews, Courtney's mother. "I think more than anything is we've tried to let her know that it's OK to move forward. I think that's been the hardest part, that if she tries to take a step forward, she feels guilty a little bit. She feels like 'I shouldn't be doing this.' Whatever it is -- feeling good or being happy one day -- [she's thinking], 'Can I even do that? Is that ever right?' That is a very tough thing."

Ironically, given that one of the reasons she liked the school during the recruiting process was the relative ease with which she could get home, Hofstra proved an ideal retreat. At home, she was always Justin's girlfriend, especially to well-meaning strangers in a community touched by all the two of them went through. At Hofstra, her teammates and coaches knew her story and had supported her from afar, but to most on campus, she was just another freshman. 

[+] EnlargeCrews
Jeremy KniffinThe Superman tattoo on Crews' ankle is a permanent visible reminder of her boyfriend Justin.

Not that she can entirely treat herself as just another student to this day. She knows better; the small Superman tattoo on her ankle is just the most visible permanent reminder (Whitaker had adopted the Superman motif during his fight, in part a response to a doctor's assertion that his bones were like steel). She has not dated in the two years since Whitaker passed away, can't bring herself to open that door again, or perhaps, in her mind, close that door on the past. 

"I miss having that person there that you can call and talk to or come home to after a long practice and hang out," Crews said. "Something like that I miss. But at the same time, it's scary just because you don't know what that's going to be like, how that person's going to react to it. I feel like it could just be a really touchy situation. But, I mean, in the future, [I] definitely want to."

Crews did that quite often when she talked about herself, dropped the first-person singular pronoun as if unconsciously unfamiliar or uncomfortable with it. She did it repeatedly when she talked about the anger she felt when Whitaker was first diagnosed. Perhaps it was just a verbal tick, but striking a balance between keeping hold of her memories of the two of them together and moving on as her own person has been undeniably difficult. 

"I'm still working on it," Crews said. "It's still a tough thing for me to do. For a while I didn't wear his wristband, but now it's back on all the time. The promise ring that was in the article, it's with me but I never wear it. I try not to talk about him a lot. … It's a tough balance for me. I'm still working on it."

The softball field has always been a place of refuge. She kept playing through Whitaker's struggles (he insisted on it), through the summer after he passed away and into college. For all she's experienced, if she carries herself differently than her teammates, it's only in the sense that few seem quite so comfortable on a diamond. She platoons at catcher for the Pride but wears her shin guards at all times, even in games in which she's not playing, moves in them as effortlessly as a veteran skier gliding down steps in ski boots. But the field is also where memories can maintain their strongest hold, the product of still-glowing embers from the passion she and Whitaker shared for softball and baseball.

It's the place she's gone on her own more than once since she arrived at Hofstra and simply wept in an empty stadium. 

"Softball games, I always think of him," Crews said. "I always say a little something to him before we play just because I know that he's here somewhere doing something, or he's up doing whatever it is he does. … He's always in my head, but I think in a good way."

It's in that good way that she wants to stay involved in the fight against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She's active in events at Hofstra, which lost lacrosse player Nick Colleluori to cancer in 2006. And she'd like to develop a fundraising effort to upgrade leisure amenities for children in the pediatric oncology ward at Inova Fairfax Hospital, where she and Whitaker spent so much time. 

And it's in that good way that rather than retreat into herself, she lifts those around her. 

"For her to have been as strong as she was during that period of time transferred to the team," Edwards said. "[It] made the team aware of how special she was, helped the team mature, helped the team grow, helped with team chemistry. [She showed the team] that there is more to the game, there is more to life, than just playing softball. She brought the intangibles that sometimes coaches will talk about, but until someone experiences them firsthand and can relate [them] and then her teammates see the way she handles these things, it makes her very special."

She usually says much the same thing to Justin when she talks to him before each game. Look out for the team and help them, she'll ask. And one other thing that carries well beyond the diamond. 

Help all of them live it up while they have the chance. 

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.