• Photo by: Greg Finan, Jr.
  • Above: In tribute to their teammate Austin Ash, who passed away recently and was buried on his 24th birthday, members of the Heroes baseball team release balloons to recognize their fallen teammate’s life at a game at Parks & Rec on March 23.  Photo by:  Greg Finan, Jr.

Local ‘Hero’ honored on the diamond

“I wanted him to be able to play,” Burrell said. “So, I decided we would start a team where everyone could play.”

The life of Austin Ash was the focus of a heartfelt tribute and balloon release before the Heroes baseball game on Wednesday, March 23, at the Parks & Rec fields.

Ash, one of the special needs players who played on the Heroes team for one season, passed away and was buried on his 24th birthday. Ash’s passing marked the first time Heroes coach and organizer Susan Burrell had lost one of her players since she started the program six years ago.

“Austin had played on the team for one year,” said Burrell. “His mom told me it was the only thing he ever felt he was a part of. He loved being out here. He wasn’t the fastest, but he was determined to do everything he could on the field. He was so sweet and talkative.”

Burrell, who used to be the principal at Blackburn Elementary, started the all ages, all gender, special needs tee ball and baseball program six years ago when she met a special needs student who wanted to play tee ball.

“I wanted him to be able to play,” Burrell said. “So, I decided we would start a team where everyone could play.”

In the first year of the program, the Heroes team played just tee ball. However, since then and for the last five years, the Heroes team has also fielded a baseball team for those with special needs that want to participate in the joy of the game.

It was the love for the game that drove Ash to join the team.

Though he only played one season with the Heroes baseball team, Ash made a huge impact on the lives of those he played with and met.

It was that impact, on and off the field, that Burrell and the rest of the Heroes team recognized before their game.

With each member of the team huddled around the pitcher’s mound holding onto a balloon, Burrell recognized the impact Ash had on those who met him and about his love for baseball.

“We were blessed to have Austin play for us,” Burrell said. “The love he had for each team member will be remembered. He wasn’t here for our Opening Day this season, but I know he was there for Opening Day in Heaven.”

After Burrell spoke, the team joined together for a prayer and released their balloons in a salute to what Ash brought to the field, to his teammates and to those he encountered.

Donning the initials AA on the sleeves of their jerseys, the Heroes teams took to the diamond to celebrate Ash’s life through the one thing that the young man had loved most. The teams played a game of baseball.

The emotions on the field quickly turned to joy as the members of the Heroes teams stepped onto the field to take on the Parks & Rec 10U Lumpkin boys baseball team coached by John Jarrard.

“I always look forward to these Heroes games,” said Jarrard. “My boys love the game, but they love it more. Baseball doesn’t always have to be serious. It’s good all the way around.”

When the dust settled and the game was complete, the pure joy on each of the Heroes players’ faces captured the spirit of their fallen teammate’s life.

In the midst of the sadness for the loss of Ash, Burrell managed to celebrate him in the most appropriate way she could think of and bring joy to those who played with him on the field.

“Susan has done this for years,” said Lyndal Caldwell, one of the Parks & Rec groundskeepers. “She is so good with these kids, it’s unreal. She’s one fine lady. I can’t praise her too much.”

The Heroes baseball team consists of Nathan Gooby, Fiona McElliott, Zachary Byrd, Nate Payne, Alex Chambers, Garrett Hanks, Whitney Hyde, Venetta Bosanko, Chad Fields, Ronnie Adamson and Tony Echols. The Junior Heroes tee ball team consists of Aspen Quattlebaum, Raven Quattlebaum, Jason Sanders, Matthew Daniel, Delaney Rider, Brooks Bryant, Donnie Cordell, Jaclyn Ward, Lyndsi Jackson and Eli Browder.

“None of this is possible without the help of all my volunteers,” Burrell said. “And, the American Legion donates money to our team each year so we can do extra things for the kids. Without these people none of this would be possible.”

The Heroes teams will be recognized as the Team of the Night during the Gwinnett Braves’ game on Saturday, May 7.

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