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Cody Stephens remembered a decade after his short life came to an end

“We had them all together and all three of our children were graduating. Clay, my oldest son was graduating from U of H and Katie our daughter was graduating from Texas A&M.” Their youngest son, Cody, was graduating from Crosby High School and had earned a scholarship to play football at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, TX in the fall of 2012.

Little did the family know that their celebration would turn to tragedy and a decade later, they would find themselves leading the state and the country with new legislation that would help save the lives of athletes because of Cody. It was a “Go Big or Go Home” mantra for the family—a phrase Cody used when describing his goals of continuing football after high school.

The parents had organized a street party with more than 300 family and friends. It was a joyous occasion and an opportunity for many of Cody’s friends to say goodbye since he was headed north to play for the Tarleton Texans.

Early Sunday morning, Cody helped his dad clean up the yard and load the folding chairs into the back of the truck to return to the Baptist church they attended before services began.

Cody didn’t stay but left there with friends and went to Bass Pro Shop.

“I think he went with some of his friends. He had some gift cards burning a hole in his pocket and he was ready to spend,” his dad said.

Later that afternoon, Cody drove down the road from their house to a little six-year-old friend’s home where he kept his pig. He was celebrating his birthday and he went to wish him well. A gentle giant, all the children loved Cody and were captivated by his size.

“About four o’clock, he walked by me and into my room and told me he was tired, and he was going to take a nap,” Scott said, his dad never thinking anything was wrong. He sat in the recliner on his dad’s side of the bed and started reading graduation cards and fell asleep.

His dad tried to rouse him a little later to help him return a piece of equipment to a storage building, but “he gave me that kind of look like I’m in a deep sleep with a mumble teenagers give,” he said. His dad left him alone and went on to return the equipment. His wife Melody had left the house to check on her mother who was ill at the time.

Around 8 p.m., Scott went into his bedroom and saw Cody still sleeping. He was going to wake him but decided to let him sleep. Tired himself, his dad laid down in the bed, just feet from Cody.

Scott woke up around 10:30 p.m. and tried to wake Cody. He was cold. It was too late. Cody had slipped into heaven and was gone. Despite attempts to revive him, they were in vain. A call to 9-1-1 was made but all they would do was pronounce him at the scene.

Scott was an emotional wreck, in anguish, screaming and pounding the walls. Cody’s brother Clay called his mom.

“I couldn’t understand him at first and he kept saying, ‘Cody’s gone! Cody’s gone!’”

She arrived at the home moments later before the ambulance arrived to the hysterical scene and heart-broken family.

The ambulance came, the police came and escorted the family outside. For what seemed like an eternity, detectives went through every room, closet, bathroom, in the house looking for anything that might help them in their investigation. The family didn’t understand it was standard operating procedure to search for any clues. But with nothing evident on Cody that showed any kind of foul play, the detectives had questions that needed answers.

“We didn’t have anything illegal or illicit. Of course, we did have medicines like most people do, but we sure felt like we were being violated when we were kicked out of our own house,” Scott said.

The shocking news of a life inexplicably lost so young swept through the community like a wildfire.

“We were notified late Sunday night,” said Dr. Marley Morris, principal of Crosby High School at the time. “We were ready the next morning with a crisis counseling team.”

Stephens, who had been in the North Shore Rotary Club as a member and club president, said life was a blur for him and his family the following days as they prepared to lay their son to rest. No answers from an early autopsy. He was simply gone.

At the visitation, 1,200 people filed through. The following day, more than 1,200 attended the funeral and a remote satellite link was set up in the gym next door for overflow mourners.

Many remember how sad it was to see buses in a funeral procession. Everyone they passed in the cortege as it wound its way through Crosby, Barrett, and Highlands to Sterling White cemetery knew a child had died.

That night following the funeral, the family drove to College Station and spent the night in a cabin. The next day, they would fight back the tears and watch Katie, Cody’s sister, graduate with honors. They were all tired mentally and physically but wouldn’t miss the auspicious occasion.

For weeks, there were tough days ahead for the Stephens family.

“We stumbled around for a long time trying to figure out what in the world happened. We got the toxicology report back quick, and it said his blood was clean. Nothing in his system,” he said hoping for answers.

Through a lot of sleepless nights and questions rambling through his head, Scott found himself in front of the computer screen surfing the internet trying to find out what would kill an otherwise healthy 18-year-old.

“I stumbled across a website called Parent Heart Watch and found myself reading about sudden cardiac arrest and enlarged hearts with athletes and concluded that was what the cause was, or even a brain aneurysm,” he said.

For eight agonizing months, the family waited for the autopsy. When it came, it was shocking.

“It took a team to decide but they concluded it was idiopathic left ventricle hypertrophy. The layman’s way of saying that the left side of his heart was enlarged but we don’t know why,” Stephens said.

A disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, commonly known as HCM, appeared to be the reason.

“That’s one of the things I’ve learned about this is that when people say an enlarged heart, I always thought of a larger heart. The heart itself really isn’t larger. What happens is the wall of the heart gets thicker and weighs more. There’s less room in that little bubble area that shoots blood through,” he explained.

At one point, it was thought that he had exercise-induced asthma. He received an inhaler, but rarely used it, Stephens said.

“Asthma is a lung function. That may have been a sign we missed,” Melody said.

As their investigation increased, and their suspicions focused on HCM, doctors told them the rest of the family needs to be checked because a lot of times it turns out to be hereditary or in familial genes.

All four of the family members were checked and, thankfully, cleared. But that was only the beginning.

Editor’s Note: In the second article of this series, the Stephens take their grief and solutions to Austin to the University Interscholastic League and ultimately the state legislature.

Cody Stephens remembered a decade after his short life came to an end
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