The Loss [Louisville Magazine]

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This article appears in the August 2011 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

 

She still can’t watch Forrest Gump because it reminds her of her son, how he used to imitate Forrest’s voice. A goofy grin would spread across his face and instead of “I love you, Jenny,” he’d use the word mommy. That always got her laughing. Hollister clothing stores give her trouble now too because they smell like the cologne Max bought there. She loved that cologne, kept the outfit he wore to school on the day of the tragedy — the yellow plaid shorts and Aeropostale T-shirt that Max said made him look cool — on his bed and smelled it until there was no scent left to smell. 

It is an early-summer Friday, and Michele Crockett is sharing these stories at a table in front of an Anchorage cafe, close to where she dropped off her 12-year-old daughter, Ana, at volleyball practice. The tattoo that’s visible on her sandaled left foot has three stars, one for each of her children — Ana, Zach, who is 10, and Max, whose star has a halo. She’s 49 years old, and shards of her short and stylish blond hair distract from a face that looks tired, sadness lurking even when she smiles. As she talks, the laughter she forces out is her attempt to suppress the tears, which doesn’t work as well as she’d probably like. To dab her eyes, she uses the napkin that has been collecting condensation from her plastic cup of iced tea, untouched for so long that the ice cubes have melted.

Crockett remembers a story from when Max was a boy, probably seven or eight years old, and he was at his cousin’s youth football game. Crockett told Max that he was built so strong, that he should consider putting on pads and a helmet himself. “He looked at me, and I’ll never forget these words — these words haunt me,” she says. “He said, ‘Momma, I’m not going out there and getting hurt.’ And then to think that’s what happened, that’s what ended his life.”

 

Crockett’s oldest son’s name was Max Gilpin. Three years ago this month, on Aug. 20, 2008, Max’s 15-year-old body, as a result of heatstroke, crumbled onto the field during a Pleasure Ridge Park High School football practice. Three days later, he died at Kosair Children’s Hospital. What happened next became national news, mainly because Max’s coach, Jason Stinson, was indicted and charged with reckless homicide (a wanton endangerment charge was later added), the first time a football coach faced a criminal trial in a player’s heat-related death in the United States. 

On the day Max ran until he would never run again, his father, Jeff Gilpin, who lived in Bullitt County at the time, drove his only child the 45 minutes it took to get to PRP. Gilpin and Crockett, who lives near the high school, divorced when Max was about four, but they always tried to maintain a pretty good relationship, for Max’s sake. That morning, Gilpin made the usual stop at a Hillview convenience store, where he bought his boy breakfast — a chocolate milk and a biscuit with egg, cheese and “probably seven or eight pieces of bacon.” Gilpin, a 48-year-old Ford mechanic in Louisville, had some work training in Cincinnati he had to get to the following day, so when he dropped Max off at school, he remembers saying, “I’ll see ya when I get back.” When he got off work early, though, he decided to drive his rented Crown Victoria to Max’s practice before leaving town. “I guess God brought me there,” he says.

The heat index hit 94 degrees that day. When some varsity players — Max was a 6-foot-2-inch, almost 220-pound sophomore who hoped to start for the junior varsity squad — didn’t follow Stinson’s orders at about 5:30 in the afternoon, the coach has said he was disappointed, though some witnesses later said the emotion would be better described as “angry.” “We’re gonna run till somebody quits” is what many remember him yelling. Stinson still insists he did not say this. Whatever he said, all of the boys, whether varsity or not, got on the line. They’d have to run the width of the field and back at their own pace, then do it again. That was one “gasser.” Stinson says they ran 12 gassers that day, mostly in their pads and helmets. One group would run and then rest while the second group took its turn. Some boys said teammates were vomiting. Max had been putting on muscle in the weight room — some of the last photos taken of the boy capture him flexing in a black tank top — and Crockett admits he wasn’t the fastest runner. “He’s a lineman — was a lineman,” she says, correcting herself. “He was always kind of a chunky kid — not fat, by no means. But his dad and I are both built thick, and that’s how he was.” 

As he chugged along, Max began to overheat. One player testified that he and a teammate had to hold Max up during a break. One boy named Antonio Calloway, who was also a track sprinter, pushed himself to the point that he was struggling to breathe. He’d eventually ride to the hospital in the same ambulance as Max and spend two nights there. Gilpin watched his son from beneath a shade tree that was between the football field and a soccer field where a girl’s match was under way. Gilpin says he saw Max cross the finish after the final gasser and go down onto his hands and knees. “I said to myself, ‘OK, come on and get up,’” Gilpin says. “He may have taken another step, I don’t know. Then he fell down again.” During the trial, one person testified that Max had “white stuff” around his mouth and a “pale blue face.” The water that doused Max and the ice were attempts to cool a body temperature that was reaching deadly levels.

Meanwhile, Crockett was at Greenwood Elementary next door, where she worked for more than 15 years, at that point as a counselor. The plan was to pick up Max from practice at about 6:15 p.m. and take him to get a haircut. After all, the new school year had started, and Max had been bugging his mom that he wanted a fresh look. Instead, the hairdresser, the same one Crockett used, ended up cutting Max’s hair for his own funeral.

Crockett was with Ana and Zach in Greenwood’s parking lot when her cell phone rang. On the other end was a mother she knew whose son’s youth league team was going to practice once PRP finished. “I answered and she said, ‘Mrs. Crockett, your son is down on the field, and I think you need to get over here,’” Crockett says. “I could just tell something wasn’t right. Her voice was shaking.” 

When Crockett arrived, Gilpin and a couple other men were with an unconscious Max in a John Deere utility cart called a Gator. His eyes had rolled back into his head, which somebody held to prevent it from slumping to the side. Crockett says some folks misinterpreted Max’s distressed breathing — the long and rhythmic ughs escaping from his mouth — as responsive mumbling. On the scene, she remembers saying, “Max, this is Mom,” over and over. When she thinks back on it now, she says she held it together until she turned around and saw her two other children. “Somebody please come get my kids and get them out of here!” she cried. Crockett rode in the ambulance’s front seat.

At the hospital, doctors recorded Max’s temperature at 107 degrees. “I can’t imagine what it was on the field,” Crockett says. 

 

It’s about a week after that first meeting in Anchorage, when Crockett expressed hesitance about letting a reporter into her South End home. “My house is a wreck,” she had said in front of the cafe. “For three years, I was so depressed. The clutter — I felt like a hoarder.” Now, inside the house, the level of messiness seems normal for any family, especially one with two young kids and a husband, Aaron Crockett, who works second shift. In the entryway, there’s a table that has become a shrine to Max. During a therapy session, Zach and Ana each colored a little doll with markers — one a PRP football player, the other for the University of Kentucky, a school Max loved. 

Crockett’s in the kitchen, digging through a plastic bin of Max’s stuff. There’s something she calls a “memory book,” from when he was in second or third grade. His favorite thing he had learned about was the “houmen boty.” “The what? Oh, the human body,” Crockett says with a laugh. “He was never great at spelling.” She pulls out his baby book. When Maxwell Dean Gilpin was born on July 19, 1993 — 21 inches long, weighing nine pounds, 10 ounces — she wrote that two of his most defining characteristics were his “cute little mouth” and his “long fingers.” As he grew up, she says, he was always shy, so much so that he hated trick-or-treating because it meant he’d have to knock on a stranger’s door. He still kissed her goodbye as a middle-schooler. Max’s football coaches told her that he wasn’t mean enough, which made Crockett happy, from a mother’s standpoint. Not that it surprised her or anything. After he died, she wrote a poem about Max titled Gentle Giant. Football, though, especially when his shirts started hugging his muscles a little bit more, had given him confidence. Still, she told him, “You’re not too big for your momma to take you out.”

During the interview, Crockett loses her train of thought a few times. “I don’t think people realize this, but I still have so many problems with concentration,” she says. “I’m not irrational. But it’s very hard for me to follow through with things. I’ve always had my little black book to write stuff down but now especially I have to use it.”

About a month after Max’s death, Crockett and Gilpin filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Stinson and five assistant coaches. This was after the Louisville Metro Police Department launched its investigation. By January, Stinson was indicted in the criminal case. The trial lasted 13 days and led a jury, in less than 90 minutes of deliberation, to determine that Stinson was not guilty. When the prosecution tried to prove the coach had withheld water that day, the defense had players testify they’d taken plenty of water breaks. The defense also had several medical experts testify that Max wasn’t even dehydrated that afternoon, that the creatine weight supplement he took and the Adderall pills he swallowed to help him focus in school could have contributed to the heatstroke. Max’s stepmother, Lois Gilpin, was also a key witness, saying Max had been sick that day, had felt warm when she kissed him. (She and Max’s father, it’s worth noting, had gone through a nasty separation; she also attended Stinson’s church.) 

Crockett says, “I don’t think any of us will know for sure exactly which one factor caused Max’s death. It was a combination of factors that put him in that situation.”

One mother from Texas had a son who had suffered heatstroke at football practice, and she emailed Crockett. The body temperature of that woman’s son had reached 107 degrees, too, but he survived with no major side effects. “I started questioning God a little bit,” Crockett says. “Why did he get to live and my son didn’t?”

 

Not long after Max died, Crockett started researching heatstroke and decided she wanted to start the Max Gilpin Beat the Heat Foundation. She eventually had burnt-orange T-shirts printed up because that seemed like a warm color and represented the Texas Longhorns, one of Max’s favorite college teams. “Anything that could possibly prevent this from happening needs to be looked at seriously,” Crockett says. She admits that the foundation isn’t very active right now, that the annual golf scramble raises a few thousand dollars before expenses, but hopes in the near future to keep heat awareness in the conversation like it was after Max’s death. 

Stinson has started doing some work regarding heatstroke, too, has talked with some of the same people who have been in touch with Crockett. Stinson says he’d welcome a partnership with her foundation. “It’s like, I know the right thing to do. I need to do it. But it’s going to be very hard emotionally for me,” Crockett says. “But I think enough time has passed that I can get past everything else. I think. Does that mean we have to have a complete partnership? To me, I don’t think we necessarily do. We just need to be on the same page.”

When asked if Stinson has ever apologized to her, she says, “He has offered his condolences. That’s different than saying, ‘Max was under my care, and I’m sorry this happened.’ Because of my faith I’ve forgiven him. I mean, I have to. I will. It’s only going to hurt me if I don’t. I truly believe that he just had a horrible lapse in judgment that day.”

This past September they settled the wrongful-death lawsuit — Max’s parents asked for more than $19 million and Jefferson County Public Schools insurers paid them $1.75 million, with the defendants admitting no wrongdoing. Crockett says the reality and severity of the situation came crashing down in October. After teaching in the JCPS system for 24 years, she took early disability retirement. “The only thing left to do was grieve for Max,” Crockett says. 

She still sees a therapist and a psychiatrist, though not as often as she did early on. Instead of every two weeks, now it’s more of an as-needed basis. During one counseling session, Crockett learned she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She read and re-read the literature her doctors provided. “It’s not like things get really hard and then level off. It’s cyclical,” she says. “Something can trigger me and I can be in bed for two or three days. If there’s no big reason to get out of bed, then why not just stay there?

“I can’t even tell you why, but there’s just these times I get these flashbacks of standing there in the hospital in the ICU. And it all just comes flooding back.”

 

So many folks wanted to see Max in the hospital that his closest family and friends had to use a code word to get in. Soon after arriving at the ER, Crockett thought she overheard somebody say, “We thought we lost him in the ambulance.” “At first, we’re asking questions like, ‘Can he play football again?’ The doctor’s, saying, ‘I wouldn’t advise it, if he makes it though,’” Crockett says. She went home once to shower. Max’s father did the same, though he vaguely recalls falling asleep for a nap because he remembers a phone call waking him up, news that Max had taken a turn for the worse. 

Tubes and wires flowed from his swelling body that was dying on the inside. When his dad thinks about the memory in the hospital, he says he experienced it as if he was watching from above. “Even though he wasn’t moving, I could tell he was fighting,” Gilpin says. “I never knew that kid was that strong.” Crockett remembers each tear that rolled down Max’s face, how his heart rate would quicken with each prayer. “They bent over backwards to try to save him,” she says. “Finally, I just had to tell him it was OK to let go. Somebody told me that the hearing is the last thing to go. So he heard me. Because it wasn’t within 30 seconds after I said that that he was gone.”

 

For this story, Stinson agreed to talk if his friend Rodney Daugherty, who has written a book titled Factors Unknown: The Tragedy That Put a Coach and Football on Trial, could be there too. Stinson is in an advisory roll at PRP, to help kids plan for college and their careers, but the 38-year-old does the interview in his old classroom, where he taught Web design and it still says “Stinson Room 324” on the back of the chairs. He points out the third table, where Max used to sit. “I remember the first day he came into the weight room,” Stinson says. “I had to teach the kid to squat with a broomstick because he couldn’t hold a 45-pound bar.”

Max died in August 2008 and Stinson was found not guilty in September 2009. Over that time, Stinson estimates he lost 50 or 60 pounds, though he has since put the weight back on to the point that he still resembles the University of Louisville offensive lineman he once was. “It took its physical toll,” he says. “But the Lord allowed me to sleep from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. peacefully each night.” 

He has received “thousands and thousands” of supportive letters from all over the country — “I don’t know if we’ve gotten anything from Montana,” he says — and only three negative notes, two of which came from the same guy. This past winter, he started as an assistant football coach with Iroquois High School. When he talks, at times it seems as if he’s still on trial. For instance, he mentions how some players said they ran 30 gassers the day Max died. “Mathematically implausible,” Stinson says. “If they ran 30 gassers in 30 minutes, then I should be training the Olympic team.”

Stinson coached the 2008 football season and saw Max’s father at several games, but the last time he talked to Crockett was the day of the funeral, when he told her that he wouldn’t be able to coach again without her blessing. Crockett says, “I told him that’s what Max would want, but in my head I’m thinking, ‘I just put my son in the ground and that is your question?’”

When asked if he still thinks about the day Max collapsed, Stinson says, “Not really. There are things that go on, certain things you may see or hear that make you flash back — maybe you see a kid that was there that day. The thing is, I really don’t live in the past.”

Does he feel any guilt from that day?

“A young man dies from a football practice? Sure, there’s some sadness there. But guilt is assuming that you did something wrong. I’m sad. I miss him and pray for his family every day that they can find peace. But to sit here and say I feel guilty? No, because it was a normal football practice.”

Will this change him as a coach?

“I’m always going to hold them to the highest level. Because if they don’t quite make it to that level, they still get pretty high. Am I a tough coach? Absolutely. How will I change? I’ll probably hug ’em a little bit more.”

Does he want to be head coach again?

“Absolutely. I was a head coach when I was indicted and removed. I believe I should be a head coach today.” 

At PRP?

“I would love to have that opportunity.”

When asked if he wants to apologize to Max’s parents because he was the man in charge that day, Stinson says, “Am I sorry her son died? Absolutely. From a father to a mother and a father to a father, I am deeply sorry their son passed away. But I’m not going to apologize for something that I’m not responsible for.”

 

Jeff Gilpin lives on the outskirts of Taylorsville now, off a two-lane road in the Kentucky countryside. He’s been here since late last year with his fiancée, Darla Hall. They’d known each other for 20 years, and Gilpin proposed to her as they were walking into a football game between UK and the University of Georgia. Not long after, they found out she has leukemia, so he spends a lot of his days driving her to doctor appointments. 

He has also put a lot of time into fixing up the ’93 Mustang that he once drove and planned to give to Max when he got his license. It’s almost the same color as the burnt-orange T-shirts. By October, he will have dumped some $50,000 into the ride and hopes to have it finished. It’s a form of therapy that will one day be a rolling monument to his son. It’s going to say “Live Life to the Max” on there somewhere, which is the foundation’s slogan. 

Gilpin likes living out here, enjoys the fact that you can’t hear anything but cows and bugs and frogs at night. “As far away as I could get from what happened,” he says. “I’d wake up and there was my son’s face on TV. Had to get used to that.” At one point, Crockett went on the Early Show, and the next day Stinson was on Good Morning America. “It took me a good couple of months to understand that he wasn’t coming back,” Gilpin says. “It’s beat me up pretty bad, man. 

“My bloodline has made it through the Civil War, World War I. My dad had three bronze stars in World War II. He drove a tank. The bloodline ends with me.”

Hall says the fuse to Gilpin’s temper burns a little quicker these days, and Gilpin admits he’s angrier now than when Max died because it has finally sunk in. 

“I wasn’t even upset at the coaches in the beginning,” he says. “The coach, he could have made the call to tell them to stop running.”

At work, he’s constantly double-checking himself because he works on fuel systems, brake systems, and can’t afford to make a mistake. Crockett always thought Max would make a good child psychologist — he loved watching Dr. Phil with her parents — but assumed he’d follow in his father’s footsteps, probably go to technical college after high school and open a body shop. Gilpin hoped his boy would choose something easier on the body, something with better retirement. Working on computers at an advanced level would have suited his son just fine, Gilpin says. 

When asked what he remembers most about his son, Gilpin mentions how Max was holding a plumb-bob by age 5. They’d go golfing, which is how they spent their last Father’s Day. “I had to buy him five sets of clubs because he kept on growing,” Gilpin says. He also tells a story about how Max went through a “pyromania” stage when he was 11 or 12. To cure him, Gilpin taught him how to use an acetylene torch. “Once you cut metal at 2,000 degrees,” he says, “paper don’t cut it anymore.”

Most of all, Gilpin says, he remembers Max’s laugh. When asked to describe it, this is what he says: “He had a deep voice. He’d still laugh like a kid, but he sounded like a man.”

 

Max would have finished PRP this past school year, which explains the popped graduation balloon at his grave. It’s a beautiful bronze-colored headstone, with pictures of Max at various ages etched into its surface. A classmate has placed a red-and-black PRP tassel around a flower vase’s base. On this July morning, Crockett is going to push a decorative stake that says “Love Grows Here” into the ground were she buried her boy. She’ll also put a wind chime in the nearby ornamental tree where a glass PRP ornament and a tiny helmeted football hang. 

She used to come here every day and started to feel guilty when the time between visits grew longer and longer. “I felt like I wasn’t a good mom,” she says. Therapy has helped reconcile those feelings. Besides, sometimes when she’s driving down Dixie Highway, she just gets the urge to drive into the cemetery to sit for a while, to talk to Max. Some of her favorite memories since Max died are at his gravesite. She’ll decorate the area for Christmas with candy canes, and on Christmas Eve morning, some of Max’s friends will meet her here. 

This past spring break, Crockett was in Orlando with her children, and her husband entered Max’s room and cleared out his things — the electric guitar and model cars and dartboard. They’d talked about it for a while but the finality of an empty room was difficult to see when she returned. Ana has since moved in, something she refused to do early on. “No, that’s Max’s room,” she’d say. The walls are still dark green and if Ana had her way, they’d be pink or striped like a zebra. Zach doesn’t have trouble walking down the hallway in front of Max’s old room anymore. And, yes, he can play football if he wants because Crockett’s not going to “keep him in a bubble.”

Max is still the one Crockett thinks about when she opens her eyes in the morning, but things are getting easier for her, too. No, she can’t sit through Forrest Gump. But she went into a Hollister store recently, mentally coached herself through it. “Anything that you can do to get a step closer to — I don’t know if it’s closure or processing it — but I think you should do it,” she says. That’s why she went to PRP’s 2011 graduation at Freedom Hall and to the parties that followed. Some of Max’s friends had his football number, 61, engraved on their senior rings and told Crockett that, when they turn 18, they’re going to get tattoos in honor of Max, something with angel wings. 

The last weekend Crockett spent with Max, she said he could go to the Kentucky State Fair with some of these same friends. She had always been overprotective, and it was only the second time he’d done something unsupervised. When Max called to have her pick him up, he was a half-hour early. 

“God, he was such a good kid,” Crockett says. “I’ve found out that it takes a long time to get through losing somebody that close.”

 

Photo courtesy of: John Nation

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