Soon after Vanderbilt baseball player Donny Everett drowned, two teammates who were with him drove through a steady rain to the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department.
Ryan Johnson and Chandler Day, still shocked by what they had witnessed, sat mostly silent in a gray F-150 Ford pickup, on their way to give statements to deputies about their 19-year-old friend’s final moments.
Everett's death had been an accident. The teammates had gone to nearby Normandy Lake that Thursday afternoon with two other friends to fish on the eve of Vanderbilt’s NCAA Tournament game. Everett tried to swim across the lake, but only made it halfway and eventually submerged. His body was found nearly two hours later.
During that seemingly endless drive, a mixture of grief and shock gripped Johnson and Day as they tried to piece together the preceding hours.
And then the rain stopped, and both young men fixated on the same scene.
“It was on the way to the police station, and that rainbow just came right out,” Johnson said. “Chandler and I looked at it and looked at each other. We had chills. We both said the same thing — ‘That’s Donny.’”
It was a brief moment of peace for the pair of Vanderbilt pitchers on June 2, 2016.
Everett’s death drew national headlines and pierced the heart of anyone associated with Vanderbilt baseball.
Day is still pitching for Vanderbilt, which returns to the NCAA Tournament Friday with a game against St. John’s in the Clemson Regional.
Johnson, however, left the team in October, admittedly grappling with “depression and anxiety” since that day at Normandy Lake. One year later, he sat in his parents’ home in Cedar Park, Texas, 850 miles from Vanderbilt, and tried his best to talk with a reporter.
“This is going to be hard for me to do,” said Johnson, choking on his words and then holding a long pause. “But I’ll get through this. I’ll just talk through it."
‘I was mad at God’
Johnson is a young man of deep faith.
Growing up just outside Austin, he idolized Texas Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy, a devout Christian, and borrowed McCoy's favorite Bible verse as his own.
Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.”
In the days and weeks after Everett’s death, Johnson didn’t have many kind words for his Lord. Anger had steadily displaced his grief.
“I’ve had my ups and downs just like any Christian trying to walk in faith. But at that time, I was mad at God,” Johnson said. “I’m not mad at him anymore, and I’m still working on it. But I still ask God, ‘Why Donny?’”
Everett, a former Clarksville High star, had been on campus for only a year. But his reputation arrived at Vanderbilt long before he did.
Everett was the hardest-throwing high school pitcher in the country, and he had turned down a $2.5 million signing bonus from a major league club to instead play for the Commodores. On a visit to campus alongside other recruits, Vanderbilt baseball players introduced him as “Donny Fastball.”
“He really got a kick out of that,” Johnson recalled. “Everyone knew about Donny.”
But Everett’s country charm and well-timed humor made him a favorite on the team. One of his routine pranks was popping out his retainer, including a pair of false teeth, to scare teammates.
On the day after Everett died, Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin recalled that same lighthearted spirit, referring to his freshman pitcher as “a fun-loving teddy bear.”
The juxtaposition of Everett and Johnson was an inside joke on Vanderbilt’s premier pitching staff. Everett was a flame-throwing right-hander whose fastball topped 100 mph. Johnson was a crafty left-hander whose fastest pitch was in the 80s.
“I threw slow. I know that,” said Johnson with a chuckle. “Donny didn’t make fun of me. But he’d throw a few jabs in good fun. It was really good.”
‘I had to seek help’
The traumatic loss of Everett was too much for Johnson to bear, even surrounded by loving coaches and teammates going through similar grief.
"Some days it feels like it’s been a long time ago," Johnson said. "But some days it feels like it was yesterday.”
On the day of Everett’s death, the horrific news had reached the Vanderbilt baseball team before Day and Johnson could. They showed up at Corbin’s house, crying and knocking on the door, but their coach was already on campus. When they arrived at the dorms, teammates embraced them.
“When we got to the parking lot, the whole team swarmed us and gave us hugs. They were there for us,” Johnson said. “… But nothing could describe how bad it got (over that summer).”
Two days after Everett’s death, Johnson put on a strong face during Vanderbilt’s NCAA Regional games. They all did.
But two quick losses eliminated the Commodores and started a summer of stagnant sadness.
Johnson was among eight players who served as pallbearers at Everett's funeral. He then spent two weeks at home in Texas before playing a forgettable season in summer league baseball in Strasburg, Va.
“I definitely struggled. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I had to seek help,” Johnson said. “As hard-headed as most of us are, it was hard to say that I actually needed help.”
Johnson sought guidance from the Vanderbilt Psychological & Counseling Center and baseball team chaplain Lance Brown. He dealt with grief, anger and even guilt.
“I think anyone would feel that. But what I learned was that it’s false guilt and that’s the devil trying to eat at me,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to let that happen. He has no room inside me.
“(Brown) put it the best way. God wants an authentic relationship with us. I was mad at God, but that was raw emotion. He wants us to be real.”
Johnson remained on the team until fall practice, but he said the emotional toll was weighing on him too heavily to continue.
“Whether he wanted to stay or leave, I was more concerned with his well-being and happiness,” Corbin said. “I certainly understand that there are a lot of hard days. But I think he’s in a good place now.”
Johnson has found strength in his weakness, healing a little each time he sheds tears over his friend. He likes to recall good times with Everett, who has popped up in Johnson’s dreams from time to time.
“And those (dreams featuring Everett) are always good ones,” he added.
Each time Johnson has dropped to his lowest point over the past year, a small moment has picked him up. After the funeral, Johnson had to drive that same F-150 truck from Nashville to Texas. Along the interstate, a familiar sight and a big billboard caught his eye.“That huge billboard had ‘Everett’ on it, like ‘Everett Motors’ or a dealership or something like that,” Johnson said. “I noticed ‘Everett’ instantly and then right above it was a rainbow.
“It was really cool. It was Donny again.”Johnson has been comforted by the countless tributes to Everett over the past year, beginning with the moment of silence recognized at every NCAA Tournament college baseball game across the country on the day after he died.
Since then, Everett’s No. 14 was retired by Clarksville High and his No. 41 was retired by Vanderbilt.
And last week, the SEC Tournament honored Everett with “101” printed on the bottom-right corner of the scoreboard at Hoover (Ala.) Metropolitan Stadium. It signified the 101 mph pitch tossed by Everett at the 2016 SEC Tournament in his final game.
But Johnson’s favorite tribute was a private one on Everett’s birthday, April 16, when he, Day and fellow Vanderbilt pitcher Collin Snider visited their friend’s grave site at Sango Cemetery in Clarksville.
“There were a bunch of emotions, but things are getting better,” Johnson said. “I always just live every day like it’s my last because that’s what Donny would want for us.”
Johnson graduated from Vanderbilt in May with a sociology degree. He works for his father, a general contractor in the Austin area, while looking for a long-term job. He leans heavily on the faith of his parents for strength.
Johnson still speaks to his former Vanderbilt teammates regularly. And he occasionally swaps text messages with Donny’s parents, Teddy and Susan Everett. But he has rarely thrown a baseball since leaving the team about seven months ago.
Johnson starts every day with a prayer and a few words for Everett.
“It’s almost like a normal conversation,” Johnson said. “Like, ‘Hey Donny, are you doing all right, man?’ And then I think about his infectious smile.
“Donny is with me every day.”
Reach Adam Sparks at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @AdamSparks.