March 6, 2018
By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com
The moment is silent and brief, yet long enough for reflection. At the culmination of his warmup routine in the Ole Miss bullpen and a handful of seconds before he opens the gate to take the field, Parker Caracci puts his head down for a moment and closes his eyes.
He says a short prayer and in that fleeting moment speaks to two lost friends and former teammates: Rivers McGraw and Walker Wilbanks.
As the gate opens he prepares to jog towards the mound with the number 65 on his back, a number so obscure in college baseball it almost looks heavy on his back. In a way it is. He’s carrying on the legacy of Wilbanks, Caracci’s high school football and baseball teammate at Jackson Prep. Wilbanks was a fierce defensive lineman who wore the same number Caracci does now.
“Walker would shove people out of the way and go get the football until someone blew a whistle,” Caracci recalled. “You don’t see that a ton with defensive linemen. A lot of the time they give up if the play is run away from them.”
Both entered the 2014 season with state championship aspirations. It was Caracci’s senior year and Wilbanks was a junior. He exited the team’s 2014 season opener against Oxford High School with severe cramping.
Caracci remembers getting food with friends after the game when his mother called to tell him Walker had been taken to the hospital.
“I thought he was just getting fluids because he was cramping really badly in the game,” Caracci recalled. "I didn’t know much about it because I didn’t see when exactly he left the game.”
His mom called again about an hour later with news that Walker began to vomit and was now in the intensive care unit. He had fallen into a coma. Caracci rushed to the hospital not quite yet knowing what he was walking into. He was greeted by a crowd of tearful friends and classmates. The prognosis wasn’t good as Wilbanks laid a few rooms away.
“There was nothing we could do besides sit there and pray and that is what we did,” Caracci said. "I didn’t want to see him like that. I didn’t want to be crying like that. I was trying to stay strong.”
He spent much of the next two days at the hospital holding out hope. Wilbanks died from a rare condition called Hyponatremia that stems from a shortage of sodium in the bloodstream that causes water levels to rise and cells to swell. Doctors called it a “fluke” and a “freak accident.”
“It doesn’t feel real,” Caracci said. “I was playing a football game with him an hour ago and then he is in ICU. It never felt real until it was over.”
Caracci and McGraw were among the seniors to help lift the team and community through grief. They carried on Walker’s memory with patches, sweatbands and a state title that November.
When it came time for Caracci to move on to Ole Miss, he approached Walker’s parents, David and Sheila, with a request to wear Walker’s football number throughout his college career.
“It caught us off guard for sure,” David Wilbanks said. “I’ve always told Parker that Walker dreamed of being a DH at Ole Miss. Since that never happened, this has been just as good. That number 65 is on the field out there. It’s just another way Walker’s memory is carried on.”
After the bullpen gates swing open, Caracci hits a jog, tucks his left arm into his side with his glove on it and exits the bullpen. Under the bill of his cap and in the palm of his glove are written initials “RM.” Inside his glove are the words “live big.”
McGraw and Caracci were best friends as long as he can remember, dating back to elementary sleepovers and all the way up to winning state championships on the football field together.
“They were the first two to run through the tunnel in every game,” Rivers’ mother Lauren said. “There was never one without the other, running through that smoke out onto that field.”
Both gifted athletes, things came more naturally to Caracci whereas McGraw had to work at it a little more.
"Rivers would get jealous of Parker because he was born with the height, the build and the ability. It all came natural,” Lauren recalled. “Rivers had to work for it.”
As Caracci began to excel on the baseball field, Rivers pushed him to have that same workmanlike mentality.
“Rivers once told Parker ‘You’re great now at Prep. When you’re in the SEC, it is going to be a different ballgame. Everyone is great there. You’re going to have to put the work in, work out and start eating right,’” Lauren recalled.
No one could push Caracci like Rivers could.
“Rivers was kind of protective over Parker in that sense,” Lauren said. “He didn’t want Parker ever being where he didn’t need to be to mess up his baseball career.”
Caracci remembers where he was on that November morning in the fall of 2016. Sitting in a classroom around 10:15 a.m., his phone began to buzz. It was Lauren, nothing out of the usual as he thought of her as a second mom. He let the call go. When two more calls came, he knew something was up. Caracci exited class and called her back, no answer. He called her work phone and didn’t get one either. A bit confused, he walked back inside to re-enter class when he got a text from her that read “please go find my son.”
Caracci left class once more, still a little confused and trying not to panic. He and Rivers lived a floor apart in the same apartment complex. He searched there first with no luck, and then two more places with the same result. On his way to a fourth destination, a friend called him with the news as an ambulance whizzed past him on the road, both unknowingly headed for the same place. Rivers had battled addiction at times in his life and took his own life at the age of 20.
Swallowed by the grief of losing a second friend in two years—this time his “biggest cheerleader” as Lauren put it—Caracci admittedly lost his way.
“It was dark, sad, gloomy,” Caracci recalled. “It’s anger. It took me a while to pick myself up.”
His grades began to slip as class became a burden to get to. He began to feel numb to a lot of things, including the joy baseball once gave him. His future in the game and at Ole Miss became cloudy. He redshirted a second time during his sophomore season.
“It was very frustrating,” Caracci said. “Doing everything in my power to do well and falling short. It is very frustrating.”
As Caracci’s feet cross the warning track dirt and into the outfield grass, his walkout song begins to echo over the speakers at Swayze Field. He trots out to a tune called “May We All” by the country music band Florida Georgia Line. Wilbanks, McGraw and Caracci all shared a love for country music. The band actually recently honored Wilbanks at a concert Sheila and David attended by playing Wilbanks’ favorite song “Dirt”. The band told Wilbanks’ story and sang it as David and Sheila stood in the crowd a few feet away.
“We were just crying our eyes out,” David recalled. “That night was the first time we listened to that song through. It was just one of those things we couldn’t do.”
“May We All” was played at Rivers’ funeral.
“May we all get to grow up in our red, white and blue little town Get a one star hand me down Ford to try to fix up,” the song begins.
McGraw grew up in the small town of Flora where he drove his Ford around town and into school in Jackson. It was the little reminders about Rivers’ passing that made it hard. Rivers and Caracci shared the love of the outdoors and there wasn’t a winter day when you wouldn’t find them hunting together. Going home for Christmas break a month later gave Caracci the harsh reminder they’d hit the woods for the last time. Activities as simple as watching a movie sometimes sprung tears.
"Yeah you learn to fly and if you can't then you just free-fall,” the song later continues.
Caracci could feel himself falling as his enthusiasm faded. But one thing he wasn’t short on were people to help him get back up. Lauren sat him down one day and had a message for him.
“I can still hear Rivers saying now ‘Parker has got it. I just know he does. He doesn’t even realize how good he is. He can do anything if he will put the work in. Mom, I am telling you he’s going to do it,’” Lauren recalled. “I told Parker he couldn’t give up on his dream. All Rivers wanted him to do was play ball.”
Walker and Rivers helped out too.
“They never gave up on anything they did,” Caracci said. “Walker could do something wrong on the football field a million times and would get back up and keep going after it each time. Rivers, I have never seen that kid give up on anything. If he wanted to do something he was going to get it done.”
Caracci came to the decision to keep pushing forward knowing there had to be better days ahead. He met with the coaching staff to figure out a plan for his grades. A grueling half-semester followed, but he pulled his grades up much like he’d pulled himself back up. He remained eligible.
“He knew what I was going through and knew it was hard,” Caracci said. “They helped me get my grades back up. If it were not for Coach Bianco and the staff I couldn’t have done it. They kept me on track and got me to where I needed to be.”
Next came baseball. After two years of not dressing out on the active roster, Caracci knew this was likely his last shot. He was shipped off to Baltimore to play summer league baseball for the Baltimore Redbirds in the Cal Ripken Summer League. It was there at Carlo Crispino Stadium at Calvert Hall High School where Caracci found himself on the mound again.
“This summer really helped me get my confidence back,” Caracci said. “I got a lot better and a lot stronger. I have a lot of confidence now.”
He won a league-leading seven games and struck out 48, boasted a 0.70 earned run average and compiled six saves. He was named the league’s most outstanding pitcher. More importantly, he began having fun again.
“At the end of the summer I looked back and was like ‘Dang, that was a lot of fun,'” Caracci said.
“May we all do a little bit better than the first time,” the song goes.
Caracci came back to Oxford and had the best fall season of his college career. It earned him full-fledged roster spot with the ability to dress out and travel on the road. Once lost and not sure what the future held, Caracci had found his way back on track.
“If I didn’t have baseball, things would be so different. I don’t know what I would be doing,” Caracci said. “It just feels worth it now.”
February 17, 2018, in Ole Miss’ second game of the season, Caracci got the call he’d so long been waiting for. The ninth inning was his, as was an 8-1 lead. He stepped out of the bullpen and onto the field, boasting that number 65. He ran with “RM” inked on the side of his glove and hat, and “live big” - Rivers’ personal motto for life - imprinted on his customized glove. The music blared over the loudspeaker. Lauren sat next to Parker’s mom in the stands.
“It gave me chills,” Lauren said. “I stood there and tears started rolling down my face. It epitomizes Rivers.”
The Wilbanks' weren’t in attendance, but were alerted he was in the game. David pulled the broadcast up on his phone to hear the announcers telling the story of his son and Parker’s number.
“That was awesome,” Wilbanks said. “That caught me out of nowhere. I had to go back and play it for Sheila. It’s been four years since Walker has been gone and his story is still being told.”
It wasn’t easy for Lauren to go back to the ballpark. She’d ridden to every game and sat with Parker’s mom, Cindy, for all of those years and feared the memories it would bring back. But every fall, Mike Bianco has his players send a letter to someone they are grateful for, someone who helped them get to where they are with a cover letter from Bianco explaining what it was. Lauren spotted it in a pile of letters she received but didn’t have the heart to open. For whatever reason, she tore the envelope open on that one.
“It’s an example of Coach Bianco building them into great people as well as great players,” Lauren said. “I really had a hard time getting up out of bed for a while. That letter got me up and out of bed. It made me want to keep going.”
“Not only was Rivers an inspiration to Parker, but Parker has been an inspiration to me. He’s made me want to go back to the field and watch again.”
The song played as he approached the mound. He pitched without a care in the world, hurling mid-90s fastballs and working both sides of the plate.
"After I talk to them, I go to the mound,” Caracci said. “What I do in the bullpen is nothing like what happens when I get out there and start pitching. It is like something clicks. Hitting spots, throwing good, sharp pitches. It’s weird. It feels different. It is hard to explain but it just all clicks.”
David can relate to what Caracci described.
“I think he sets himself free out there in that moment to just go out there and pitch,” David said. “He knows he’s got two angels looking down on him, and he just goes out there and does what he does. He isn’t worried about mechanics, the crowd. He’s just out there doing what he does, and well.”
“May we all do a little bit better than the first time,” the song goes as it winds down to completion “Learn a little something from the worst times. Get a little stronger from the hurt times.”
It’s a fitting message for what Caracci’s been through and where he wants to go. He’s since appeared two more times. He’s yet to yield a run on just two hits in 4.1 innings pitched, has been credited with a win and whiffed nine of the 14 hitters he has faced. He picked himself back up and learned from his past, which he says has been one of the more important learning experiences of his life.
"In a way, I am kind of glad I went through those struggles,” Caracci said. “I am better from it. It was all worth it and I can feel that now.”