TEXARKANA – Yulonda Hampton-Parks knows it might get better.

But not right now. Not anytime in the near future. Her son is gone.

She sits at her kitchen table in Texarkana, wearing an oversized gray Nike T-shirt. His T-shirt. She also dons an orange wristband with his number, 6, on it. Another T-shirt hangs from a door frame. On it is a picture of Leonard Parks with the words, “Gone Too Soon.”

Well-wishers have come in like a flood. Although they mean well, they don’t always say the right thing. People say they couldn’t imagine. She doesn’t want them to. People say something good will come from this. She wants to know what it is. People say he is in a better place, that he wouldn’t want her to cry.

All she can think is, “How do you know?”

She has spent only one night in her house since his passing. Even that was only bearable because a family member stayed with her. When she can sleep, she does so at her mother’s house.

She waits for answers from an autopsy that seems like it will never come. Meanwhile, people speculate. She was waiting in line at the grocery store not long ago when she overheard two people talking about her son.

“I wonder what happened to him,” one said.

“It was heart issues,” the other replied.

She was angry. How could these people claim to know the answer when his mother still wondered? She was the one who found him. She went to dark places.

“After this, I ain’t gonna lie to you, I didn’t wanna live anymore,” she said. “I’m like, ‘For what? What am I living for? My everything is gone.’”

She knows it might not always be like this. The autopsy results, she thinks, could put her at peace. The good days could become more frequent. Time could heal her sadness.

But the truth is, she can’t be certain.

“I don’t know if I’m gonna ever be OK,” she said.

Leonard Parks' work ethic was second to none according to his coaches. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

***

Leonard Parks was the first person people noticed when walking into a room.

After spending an extended length of time in that room, though, it was easy to forget he was there.

He was demure. He rarely spoke at all, and even less so about himself. He didn’t carry the ego that many star high school football players do. A defensive end for Texas High, he continued to work hard even as the offers poured in.

Texas High coach Gerry Stanford was trying to establish a culture in his first season at the helm, and Parks seemed to be the poster boy for that. Many times he would arrive at practice or a workout before the coaches. Even in the summer, when workouts were optional.

“He was one of those kids that was just easy to gravitate to simply because of his character,” defensive line coach James Hawkins said.

He brought that same attitude home. Parks didn’t ask his mom for much. When she was having trouble finding shoes to fit his size 16 feet and finally found Jordans that would fit, he told her they were too much. Instead, he opted for shoes three sizes too small.

A ride to the gym, protein and bananas for his shakes were seemingly all he needed to be happy. Hampton-Parks pulls out her phone, which is filled with text messages from her son asking for a ride to the gym.

He tried to return the favor by helping around the house. It was a huge help to his mother who worked three jobs at one point.

Any time something was broken, Parks would try to fix it. His mother laughs as she points out his latest project. He patched up holes below the sink to keep out mice. When Hampton-Parks was sick, he surprised her with dinner: chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.

“I bit into the chicken and blood was coming out,” Hampton-Parks said. “I didn’t say a word. He tried. He kept coming in and checking on me. Making sure I was OK.”

His love for his mother was evident to everyone close to him. Parks being the youngest of her children, it was just the two of them. He slept in the same bed with her until he was 13, at which point she decided he was too old – and too big – to continue to do so. After the first night sleeping separately, Hampton-Parks awoke to find her son sleeping on the floor outside her room.

“Like a puppy,” she said.

She is constantly referring to him as “Perch.” It’s a family nickname he got when he was only a baby. Although quiet when he got older, Parks cried incessantly as an infant. His aunt likened him to the freshwater fish.

“Imma call you Perch because all you do is cry and your mouth be just like one of them Perches,” she said.

It stuck with him ever since.

When Parks was 10, his mom took him to the doctor for a check up. He was about 5 feet at the time, but the doctor told her that her son would grow to be about 6-4, 230 pounds and play football.

He was one inch off. At 17, the age Parks died, he stood 6-5 and 230 pounds.

He was committed to play at SMU in fall 2018. In July, he attended a camp at SMU with Hawkins. They received a call from SMU assistant coach Jeff Traylor on the drive back. Traylor offered Parks a scholarship.

Unable to contain the look of excitement on his face, Parks was speechless. It was his first offer. When he finally regained composure, what he said shocked everyone.

“Coach, I wanna commit,” he said.

Hawkins nudged him. Traylor laughed.

“We’ll let you get back with coach Stanford and get back with you later on and see,” he said. “Your attitude is there and you’re willing to come to us, but we wanna do it right.”

Parks had so much promise. Although memories of him allow family and friends to cope, they also serve as a harsh reminder of just how much he had left in store.

They make what happened Sept. 2 that much more unbelievable.

Leonard Parks' mother found him on the floor of his bedroom with his eyes closed on Sept. 2. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

***

Hampton-Parks is accustomed to death.

She works as a hospice nurse. With every one of her patients, the day is inevitable. She has grown used to closing their eyes, cleaning them up and alerting the police.

One patient named Mr. Foster would only eat and take his medication when Hampton-Parks was there. Despite her insisting to the family she could come every day, she was only scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Meaning Mr. Foster didn’t eat or take his medicine four days out of the week.

She arrived one Monday and knocked on his door like she always did.

“Mr. Foster?” she asked.

Typically he would call back, “Come on in, Yulonda,” but there was no answer that day.

She knew.

She went out and alerted his daughter-in-law, who started crying. Hampton-Parks comforted her, called the police and did what she normally did in these situations. Sure, it was sad, but it was part of the job.

It was different with her son.

Hampton-Parks got a call from her sister that Saturday asking her to visit in Magnolia. She didn’t particularly want to, but she also didn’t want to hear about it if she didn’t. So she went.

Parks was suffering from cramps after his game the day before, but this wasn’t out of the ordinary. He got cramps after all of his games. He went to take a nap and wait it out until they subsided.

Hampton-Parks returned home and first checked the fridge. It was full. Odd, considering Parks cleaned it out consistently.

She went to his bedroom and knocked on his door and called out, “Leonard!” No response. Dread filled her.

“No, Lord, no,” she said. “You didn’t take him.”

She knew.

Teammates, friends, coaches and family members will never forget Leonard Parks. (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

***

Hawkins was at home watching a movie when he noticed a missed call from Hampton-Parks.

As he was about to call back, a voicemail popped up. He opened it to hear her screaming.

“My son is gone! My son is gone,” she wailed.

Hawkins didn’t think death at first. He thought Parks had gotten into trouble of some sort. He called back and Hampton-Park’s sister answered.

“Hey, is this coach Hawkins?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“Can you please hurry up and get over here? Leonard is dead.”

His heart dropped. He threw on a pair of shoes in such a hurry he forgot the socks. He called Stanford, who said he would be on his way over as well.

He raced down the interstate with his hazard lights on. He prayed it wasn’t true. But when he turned the corner and saw the flashing lights of the first responders, he knew it was.

“That kid to me, I don’t have kids of my own, but the kids that I coach all of them are like kids of mine,” Hawkins said. “Just to see a kid at the highlight of his life, being so young. To lose any kid is heartbreaking.”

It is still hard on the team. Parks’ locker remains untouched, and the Tigers intend to leave it that way all season.

“There’s a lot of bottled up memories in there,” Stanford said. “We don’t ever wanna forget who Leonard was or what Leonard did. He had an impact on a whole team and a whole community. I think that impact is still there in a positive way. It’s good to grieve. Leonard instinctively and incredible over time impact the lives of others.”

The players have been there just as much for the coaches. The Monday after, Hawkins and the players had their weekly meeting. He looked over to the empty chair where Parks normally sat and couldn’t help it. He started crying.

“Those guys said, ‘Coach, we gotta go. We need you,’” Hawkins said. “I knew then that it was something bigger than me. They felt the same hurt I felt. It’s not easy. That kid will never be replaced. If we had an image, it’s him. It would be Leonard Parks.”

***

Teammates from Texas High carry the casket of Leonard Parks during his funeral. (From @Rated_TiiG13/Twitter)

Hampton-Parks attended her last Texas High football game Sept. 8.

She attended that one only because her son was to be honored before and during the game. The game was a rivalry between the Tigers and Arkansas High, the school across the state line in Texarkana.

Both schools wore the same decals on their helmets, an orange “LP” with his number, 6, sandwiched in between. They brought his jersey out on to the field before the game. The marching band formed his name. The Arkansas High cheerleaders brought Hampton-Parks flowers. SMU coach Chad Morris even showed up to offer his condolences.

“It was just amazing to me,” Hampton-Parks said. “It was bittersweet. I was happy in one way and I was sad in another. I can’t explain it. I was more happy than I was sad that day.”

Carrissa Clack, the mother of Texas High quarterback Coltin Clack, started a GoFundMe with the goal of $3,500. To this date, $9,300 has been raised. GoFundMe took out a portion of the money, but Hampton-Parks was still left with a little more than $8,000, the exact amount her son’s funeral came out to.

The support doesn’t stop there. Several of Parks’ classmates wrote letters to Hampton-Parks, each beginning with “Dear Leonard’s mom,” of course. Her favorite is from two kids who describe how they would always tell Parks they wanted to be big and tall like him. Ever meek, he would only smile back.

At the funeral, people continued to show how much of an impact Parks had on the community.

“You don’t realize the magnitude of someone, especially at that age, until something like that happens,” Hawkins said. “That just speaks volumes to what people thought about that kid. It’s not too many times where you’re gonna have a grown man stand up and say, ‘That kid impacted me probably more than I impacted him,’ and I can say that. How that kid has molded me and bettered me as a coach, there’s things I look at now, I didn’t realize I could get through had this not happened.”

As nice as the support is, Hampton-Parks knows it won’t last forever. People will move on. The calls, meals, letters will all cease. But her son’s memory won’t fade.

Not to her. Not to Hawkins. Not to the teammates, coaches and friends from Texas High who really knew him.

Amidst all the uncertainty she is facing, Hampton-Parks knows one thing.

“I’m gonna always think about him,” she said.