David Adam

Watching Eagles succeed helps Clinging heal

Parents and friends take photos of the Liberty baseball team after it won the Class 1A Brown County Regional championship on Saturday afternoon in Mount Sterling. | H-W Photo/David Adam
By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 22, 2018 1:25 am Updated: May. 22, 2018 2:14 am

LIBERTY, Ill.

Before the Clinging family piled into the car to go to a game somewhere, they typically would do the same thing before they left the house.

"Chandler would call for a family hug," Chad Clinging said. "He was the smallest, and he was always in the middle, so he liked that."

Driving to the ballfield or practicing at their Fowler home seemingly was a part of every day for the Clingings. Chad played baseball at Culver-Stockton College, and he and his wife, Stephanie, spent several years coaching their children -- Cassie, Shelby and Chandler -- or hauling them to games of all types.

Following each of them as they entered high school was going to be part of the family's journey.

Life wasn't fair in that way.

On the morning of Aug. 3, 2012, 16-year-old Cassie was heading to Liberty High School to train for the upcoming cross country season, and she offered to take 12-year-old Chandler to his junior high school baseball practice.

"We tried to get Shelby out of bed to work out with her sister, but we decided to let her sleep in," Chad said.

Moments after an "I love you" and the family hug, Cassie and Chandler were killed in a single-vehicle car accident on the Paloma Blacktop near the Quincy Regional Airport. The car veered off the blacktop into the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, hitting several tombstones. The gas tank ruptured, and the vehicle burst into flames.

"When the corn is down," Chad said, "I can go out in the yard and still see where the accident happened."

Chandler would have celebrated his 18th birthday this Friday. Cassie would be 22. The first thing Chad does each morning and the last thing he does each night is look at their pictures in the living room.

"All of the opportunities and dreams are gone," Chad said. "It's hard to imagine. I'd just like to have a conversation with them."

Chad enjoyed watching Shelby play softball and volleyball at Liberty, and she recently completed her freshman year at C-SC.

Chad, now 52, thinks more about Chandler during this time of the year as he watches the Liberty baseball team advance through the postseason. The Eagles are 16-9 this spring, winners of their last seven games. They won the Class 1A Brown County Regional on Saturday by defeating Central 14-4, and they play Wednesday against Delavan in the sectional at Abingdon.

The seniors on the team were teammates and friends of Chandler's, and Chad coached each of them. That's why Chad has made it to every game this season, home and away.

There's no way he's missing Wednesday's game.

"I'm travelling with them just like I would have normally," he said. "I just don't want to be a distraction. I just want things to be positive for the boys."

Chandler's No. 1 jersey hangs in the Liberty dugout, just as it did when they were playing in junior high school.

Liberty coach Brigham John says having Chad at each game, with a reminder of Chandler in the dugout, has been a blessing.

"They believe (Chandler) is a part of this," John said after Saturday's game. "When you see the ball bounce our way like it has sometimes, you think, ‘Maybe he really is a part of this.' The guys believe he's their angel in the outfield."

"He's just always with us," senior Avery Spilker said. "He was a part of this team, and he still is."

Chad was all smiles after Saturday's victory, taking pictures and accepting hugs and congratulations from the Liberty fans.

"I just knew this would happen," Chad said of the regional title. "I was just riding on the mower at the house, and I got this feeling. I just knew. It brings a tear to my eye, but I just knew we were going to win it."

The players and parents wear rubber bracelets with the word "family" on them, and when the team breaks its huddle after a game, they chant the word "family." When the team posed for photos after the regional championship, senior Grady Kurfman held Chandler's jersey as he kneeled in the front row.

"It's kind of heart-warming, you know," Chad said. "It was kind of a worry for me. Are you going to remember somebody? I mean, how much do you remember when you were 12? This is something that helps keep him alive."

Chad does his part by having imaginary conversations with his son on the way home from games.

"I'll say, ‘Hey, buddy, you didn't get a hit but you hit the ball hard twice,' or maybe, ‘You made three good plays on defense out there,'" Chad said. "You kind of fabricate how he would have fit into the game. Then you realize he probably wouldn't be riding home with me. He'd be driving himself."

Chad still cries easily when talking about Cassie and Chandler. It's likely he always will.

"It hurts. I miss my children," he said. "It's not fun to tell this story, but it's getting easier."

He says watching the Eagles succeed has helped with his own healing.

Seeing Chad's resilience likely has helped the Eagles heal as well.

"Maybe 10 or 15 years from now, these guys will see their armbands on their dresser, and it will remind them of Chandler," Chad said. "Maybe they'll say to their kids, ‘Hey, get a family hug in here.'

"I may never know about it, but I bet you they will."