Sometimes it's easy to question what purpose sports serve.
If in doubt, ask Evans senior pitcher David Steflik. He can tell you definitively - sports serve the heart.
In Steflik's case, a heavy heart - much heavier than any 18-year-old deserves.
Three weeks into baseball season, Steflik's father succumbed to brain cancer. David kept playing.
On Monday, Steflik's grandmother followed her son into afterlife. David keeps playing.
This afternoon, Steflik leads his fellow Knights into the Region 4-AAAAA playoffs. Through it all, this is where the eldest of five children needs to be.
"It helped me to be out here," said Steflik, who wrestled with how much time he needed to spend at home to help his mother. "I needed to be with the team. This is what I like to do, and there are 18 or 20 other people counting on me, too."
Steflik believes his personal tragedy has brought the Evans players closer. They rallied around him. He feels he owes them something in return. He hopes he can help deliver the school's sixth state championship. Then this group can join the names of every player on Evans' championship teams - 1988-90 and 1993-94 - who are listed on the walls behind the baseball diamond.
"They've helped me get through the toughest time in my life," he said. "I'm going to do my best to help them through this. We have our goals, and that's to get a ring and get our names on the wall."
Steflik has handled his sorrow so well, he's made it look easy. He's 8-1 in 10 starts, including eight complete games, with 59 strikeouts and a 1.64 ERA. His 64 innings pitched is the most of any area player this season. When the Knights (20-2) open the postseason this afternoon with two games against Henry County, the ball will be in Steflik's right hand for the opener.
It is his tonic.
"I'm not going to lie to you; it's been tough," he admits. "But the thing that's really helped me has been being able to come out here and practice and play with this team. Everybody always preaches that a team should be like a family, and that's pretty much what this team is. This has been my second family. To be with them and be able to get my mind off it to the point where we can have fun, like a family does."
DR. DAVID STEFLIK, a professor of orthopedics at the Medical College of Georgia, was diagnosed with brain cancer about a year ago. But it wasn't until a few weeks before he died that David and his siblings were fully aware of how grave their father's condition was.
"They didn't want to tell me," David said. "I knew that it was really serious, but I thought he still had five years or so left. It kind of came as a shock."
Two weeks before he died, Dr. Steflik assembled his children - David, Christy, 16, Timmy, 15, Allison, 13, and Michael, 3 - and talked to them.
"He said we needed to enjoy this time together," Steflik said. "He still wanted all of us to stay involved in sports and stay in school."
Before his condition deteriorated to the point he needed a ventilator to breathe, Dr. Steflik regularly attended his daughter's basketball games during the winter. Early in the baseball season, he watched David from the bleachers, where he was bundled in a blanket with his wife, Debra.
He couldn't make it to senior night, which was moved ahead in the schedule in hopes that Dr. Steflik could attend. David pitched and won. He presented the game ball to his father.
"That was the hardest for me," David said.
Three days later, Dr. Steflik died on Friday night before Evans' scheduled game against Newnan. Evans coach Chris Segraves canceled the game out of respect.
"It was everybody's wants and wishes that he would get to see David ... graduate," Segraves said, choking up before he could complete the sentence. "It couldn't happen."
When players arrived for a voluntary light practice that Saturday, Steflik joined his teammates. He was there again Sunday and Monday, the afternoon of his father's funeral Mass. That night, the entire Evans team showed up for the service.
"We talk about this as a family," Segraves said. "We all carried it around for a long time, and we shared that loss with him. When his daddy passed, it brought closure. It was like, `Hey, we knew this was going to happen, and now it's happened. Now we've got to do what Dr. Steflik would want us to do, and that's play the best baseball we can play.' "
Evans hasn't lost a game since, posting a perfect 15-0 region mark. Segraves believes something's at work, because this was a team with only two returning seniors from a year ago that didn't figure to be this dominant.
"I don't know what it is, but there's something special about these guys," he said. "If I knew, I'd bottle it and sell it to every school. I can't put a finger on it, but it's something in their eyes and the way they conduct themselves on the field and in the hallways."
ON THE MOUND, Steflik doesn't have the kind of juice in his arm that has college scouts calling. More than likely, he'll take his smart brand of play to Mercer College, where he can walk on to the team while addressing the pre-med curriculum he desires.
Steflik plans to follow in his father's career path, maybe not as a teacher but certainly as a doctor.
But he has some unfinished business at Evans, a pursuit he's prepared for since joining the varsity squad two years ago.
Segraves knew he had a grinder in Steflik when the sophomore got bumped up from batting practice duty to an emergency relief shift in a postseason game vs. Lowndes County.
"It was a do-or-die game for us, and he was baptized by fire," Segraves said. "He didn't shut 'em down, but he held his own. There was no panic in his face. I felt then that I had something special in this young guy."
Steflik established himself in the rotation as a junior, but his best stuff on the mound was reserved for this season. If only the off-field stuff had been as smooth.
On Monday, Steflik took the mound not knowing that his grandmother had died that morning.
"It was tough seeing him play, watching him smiling with his teammates, and knowing that in the next little bit another wave of stuff was coming his way," Segraves said.
Steflik pitched, and won. It's the same formula he hopes will carry Evans today and deep into the playoffs.
"He's doing what his daddy loved for him to do," Segraves said.
If you see Steflik looking at the sky or talking to himself in the dugout, know that he's not alone.
"Sometimes if I'm having a bad game or struggling on the mound, I'll say stuff to myself like, `What am I doing?"' he admits. "Then something clicks sometimes. I talk to him, but I don't expect to hear anything back."
Steflik proves that the message is coming through, loud and clear.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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