Mission for father of late baseball-loving son: Stop bullying
Kirk Smalley is tired. You could see it on the Oklahoman's face as he stood before about 500 kids and adults at Yankee Stadium's Great Hall last Friday, his eyes heavy behind thin glasses, his handlebar mustache drooping around his mouth. Three years ago, Kirk's son Ty, a victim of relentless bullying, took his own life at the age of 11. Now, 1,166 days later, Kirk runs on the fuel from a Father's Day promise he made his son five weeks after he died: to do everything in his power to rid the world of bullying.
On this day, Kirk's lofty goal has led him to the Bronx for the final installment of the Yankees' fifth annual HOPE Week, which sheds light on five inspirational goodwill efforts each year. Kirk is representing the anti-bullying organization Stand for the Silent. He tells Ty's story to reporters and PR folks; to Yankees players Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain and Travis Hafner, general manager Brian Cashman and a host of other Yankees representatives onstage behind him; and to the hundreds of tri-state area kids seated in front of him.
Kirk has given his hour-long speech four or five times a day for three years, and according to the Stand for the Silent website he's delivered it to over 635,000 people, including Barack and Michelle Obama. But the power of his message, embodied by his organization's three-word motto, 'I am somebody,' cannot be captured in names or numbers. Kirk Smalley makes his mark on individuals.
Early on in his presentation, Kirk walked over to Pettitte, looked him in the eye and held up a photo of Ty inches from Pettitte's face. Later, the pitcher with Hall of Fame credentials cried as he spoke to reporters, reflecting on Kirk's words and thinking about his own four children.
"You see a man's pain....I got kids," Pettitte said, his voice trailing off. "It's just a hurt that won't quit hurtin', and you feel for him."
Talking about Ty is no easier for Kirk now than it was the first time, but he marches on because of the promise he made to his son -- and because he has proof that he's making progress.
There are the thousands of emails he's received, from bullies and the bullied alike, thanking him or confiding in him or telling him he's saved someone's life.
There was the high school quarterback in Missouri who stood up in the middle of Kirk's presentation, tears streaming down his face, and told a classmate he would never bully him again.
And on Friday, there was the young boy in the front row who, about halfway through Kirk's speech, buried his head in his hands. Kirk approached him, kneeled down and gave him a hug. "I believe in you," he said. "Now I need you to believe in you."
"That young man had something on his heart that had been bothering him," Kirk said later. "He came up to me afterwards -- he's gonna go back and spread our message at his school. He promised me he would."
Kirk urged the kids on Friday to stand up for their peers, telling them they could be the difference in someone else's life.
"It takes a lot of courage to be the one in your group of friends to say, 'That ain't right, that's not funny,'" he said. "I don't break promises to my kid. But I need your help. I need you to help me keep my promise."
In the years since their son's death, Kirk, 46, and his wife, Laura, who is a few years younger, say they have not taken the time to grieve. They have abandoned their jobs as a construction worker and a cafeteria worker, respectively, and Laura now works full time for Stand for the Silent, which was formed on Facebook in 2010 by 68 students from Oklahoma State University's Upward Bound program. Meanwhile, Kirk travels constantly, speaking for free (his travel expenses are usually covered by the school or group he speaks to) and never turning down a request.
"If we can change one life, save one kid or one family from going through what Laura and I go through, it's worth whatever you gotta do," he said.
Ty was small for his age, Kirk explained, and for that he was terrorized. For two years he was afraid to speak up, and when he finally retaliated against his bully on May 13, 2010, he was suspended from school for three days. At 2:38 p.m. that day, Kirk received a call from Laura: Ty was dead; he had shot himself in his room.
Ty was a kid with a golden smile who loved hunting and baseball. Last Wednesday, as Kirk, Laura and their 22-year-old daughter, Jerri Dawn, their only other child, stood near the Yankees dugout during batting practice, they thought about him.
"He would've been floored [by this]," Laura said, gazing out at the field.
The Smalleys are Cardinals fans because their hometown of Perkins, Okla., is closer to St. Louis than any other big league team, and Ty was the biggest fan of all. He wore his Cards jersey to school every day of the week, and in 2009 he had a chance to meet Cardinals' legend Lou Brock. As the story goes, Ty had just one question for the National League's all-time steals leader: "Could Yadi (St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina) have thrown you out?"
Brock cited his career steals total, 918, but Ty wasn't sold. "I dunno," he said.
The day before flying to New York, the Smalleys were at Busch Stadium singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame over the PA. Baseball has long been cherished in Kirk's family, and the seventh-inning anthem has been played at almost all of his relatives' funerals. It was played at Ty's.
With pictures of Ruth, Mantle and Maris looking down from the rafters on Friday, Kirk's message boomed throughout the Great Hall. "I am somebody!" he roared, and 500 high-pitched voices echoed him back.
At the conclusion of the presentation, the Yankees and Delta each offered Stand for the Silent a $10,000 check. Kirk was shocked. He put his arm around Laura, and then, beneath those tired eyes, he did something he hadn't done all day: smile.
To learn more about Kirk Smalley and the anti-bullying effort, visit www.standforthesilent.org.