All articles are written by YJDP Student Sports Writers and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
After nearly 14 years of practices, games, and tournaments, softball has become second nature for senior Apryl Nalls. She knows how to wait for her pitch, how to drive a double to left field, and how to stretch to make the out at first base. Despite her mastery of the game, Nalls’ senior season remains a learning experience- this will be her first season without her father cheering from the sideline. Allen Nalls passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 18, 2013.
“This season is going to be filled with so many new things, like not being able to look at my dad before I step into the batter’s box or after I make a great play. It’s going to be hard,” Nalls said. “At the end of every game, I can look up to the sky and know that it’s going to be okay because he got to watch my game from the best seat in the house.”
Nalls’ father, a high school baseball star, signed her up for t-ball at age four. He coached Nalls on recreational and travel teams until she was 13. Even as a spectator, he remained a driving force in her career.
“When I was going through a stressful game, he was my rock,” Nalls said. “He would build me up, whether he was saying to get my head out of my butt or telling me ‘you can do it.’ Sometimes him telling me to get it together helped the most. When he would piss me off, I did the best. I would be mad, but I wanted to do the best to please him.”
Nalls was informed of her father’s death when her grandmother met her in the guidance office.
“I started freaking out and crying,” Nalls said. “The first things I thought were, ‘He isn’t going to see me graduate or walk me down the aisle.’”
According to Nalls, the first few days were not the most difficult.
“[The first day] seemed to be the hardest at the moment,” Nalls said. “Then, we started having to do things he used to do without him, and that’s when it got hard.”
Despite the pain she was experiencing, Nalls wanted her life to remain as normal as possible in the following weeks.
“I wanted to stay in my routine,” Nalls said. “I went to the gym a lot. I tried to stay busy by going out, driving, coming to Warrenton, and just doing things. When I would sit at home, I would get antsy seeing his stuff everywhere.”
In attempts to maintain her normal schedule, Nalls only missed one day of school.
“I was really excited to be around my friends, because obviously my family was all going to be sad,” Nalls said. “Being around people who wanted to make me happy helped. [Senior] Josie [Adgate] got a really big card that everyone signed, which was really cool. I still have it. My Spanish teacher had our class make cards for me. My friends came over and visited me. It was really nice that when I went home, I still wasn’t alone.”
Nalls found music to be therapeutic, particularly “Why” by Rascal Flatts.
“The day that my dad passed away, I heard the song on Pandora,” Nalls said. “I was getting pissed because every song that came on was sappy. I ran out of skips, so I left it on and this song came on. It was perfect. It made me realize this is real, this is happening, but I need to keep moving forward and turn the struggles I’m having and turn them into positives.”
The song played at her father’s funeral, after Nalls read her eulogy.
“There’s parts of [the song] that say, ‘Why couldn’t I have said or did something to help change you,’” Nalls said. “ I don’t have the answer to that. No one does. I couldn’t have done anything. I did everything I could. What happened was meant to be for a reason. Maybe I don’t know that reason, but maybe one day, I will.”
Senior Josie Adgate, Nalls’ best friend, says Nalls has shown remarkable strength.
“She’s really learned how things change in the blink of an eye,” Adgate said. “When she spoke at the funeral, she was one of the strongest people there. She came out with confidence. She knew he was watching over her. There were even some funny parts in the speech which made the crowd giggle.”
Nalls’ father struggled with alcoholism throughout her life. He regularly went to counseling and to a rehabilitation center twice. His disease often created havoc and heartbreak at home, but taught Nalls valuable life lessons.
“At times, I would be really frustrated and tell my mom that she should leave,” Nalls said. “If we had left him, it would’ve made things a hundred times harder. It impacted me a lot. My mom would always say, ‘You don’t leave when things get bad, you keep pushing through.’ When I get married, I don’t want to be with someone who drinks a lot because I don’t want to be around that. I also learned that when something gets hard, you don’t leave. You can always work harder and get them the help that they need.”
Afterwatching her father’s relapses affect their family, Nalls decided she wanted to become a substance abuse counselor. Nalls will be majoring in social work at Christopher Newport University in the fall.
“The way he influenced me the most was through his alcoholism,” Nalls said. “I want to be able to make a difference in people’s lives to show them that there is hope. He never really made it through his, so I want to help people make it through theirs. With the job, it makes me think that when a patient comes in, I’ll be able to relate really well, because I’ve lived in that kind of home.”
Nalls wants to earn her master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and open her own private practice.
“I want to have a family-focused group, so I can talk to the abuser and the family of the abuser,” Nalls said. “When you’re in the home of an alcoholic, it’s not just the alcoholic that’s affected- it’s everyone that’s around them. Not just the family, but friends, too. I want to be able to talk to children and wives and husbands.”
Nalls and her mother, Karen, spent the weeks following Allen’s death seeking a way to remember him. One night, they found letters he wrote to the family while in rehab. Nalls and her mother used Allen’s handwriting from the letters to design matching tattoos.
“I got ‘it will be’ in my dad’s handwriting, and in my mom’s handwriting, it says ‘okay,’” Nalls said. “The dandelion next to ‘it will be okay’ symbolizes my wishes and dreams that I want to pursue. On my pinkie, I have the word ‘promise’ because when I would ask my dad for something, we would pinkie promise.”
The tattoo has helped Nalls remember her father.
“It’s a constant reminder of him when I look down and see it,” Nalls said. “His handwriting on my arm is something of his that I will always have for the rest of my life. It’s permanently there.”
While Nalls still feels her father’s absence, she is grateful for the memories she shared with her father.
“My parents had me at the age of 17,” Nalls said. “He may not get to see me graduate or get to walk me down the aisle, but at least I got to see him and my mom graduate. I also was lucky enough to get to see him marry my beautiful mom. I am so lucky to have gotten to be a part of those special moments in my dad’s life.”