Landon Powell to join USC Athletic Hall of Fame following personal challenges
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Landon Powell still remembers his frustration.
With the South Carolina baseball team leading East Carolina in the ninth inning of the 2004 NCAA Super Regionals, the senior catcher lifted a popup in foul territory to the first baseman, capping a forgettable 0-for-5 day.
"I'm so mad I got out. I go back to the dugout and everybody in the stadium keeps standing up and cheering. It really doesn't make sense," Powell said. "There's nobody on base. I was dumbfounded at the moment."
As the cheers continued to rise from the stands, his teammates turned to him to say, "They're calling you out. Curtain call, curtain call."
"I said, 'For what? I just popped out to first base.' "
Then it struck him. That was it. He had just taken his final at-bat at Sarge Frye Field in front of the home fans.
"I stepped out of the dugout and tipped my hat," he said. "When I went back in, even the coaches were cheering. That was a cool moment. Just thinking about it now makes me tear up a little bit."
Powell recounted the story last week from his office as the new baseball coach at North Greenville. The 2004 season, his final as a Gamecock, ended in the College World Series, where Powell was named to the all-tournament team for the third consecutive season.
He was selected in the first round of the MLB draft by the Oakland A's that summer, which began a 10-year professional career that included three seasons spent in the big leagues.
As the best catcher in USC history, Powell played in 250 games and had 265 hits, 44 home runs, 61 doubles, and 193 RBI, which place him in the school's top five on those all-time lists.
So it shouldn't have come as a surprise to him to receive a call earlier this summer from Tommy Moody, who serves as the chairman of the USC Athletic Hall of Fame. Moody delivered the good news that Powell was one of seven inductees into the 2014 class. They will be honored at a Thursday reception and during halftime of the East Carolina football game on Saturday.
"I immediately got goose bumps. To be put in the Hall of Fame of my alma mater was overwhelming," he said. "I actually started tearing up in the car reminiscing about all the moments that happened at the school and how much I love South Carolina. Of all the moments in my career, it's one of the most special."
'GRATEFUL FOR IZZY'
That Powell's storybook career has culminated with the highest athletic honor USC can bestow really doesn't define him a person. He has discovered during the course of the past five years that every story doesn't end happily.
He adapted to the grind of playing catcher day-in and day-out at the professional level, even though it meant he had to endure a pair of knee surgeries before reaching the major leagues.
Then, in early 2009, he was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, a liver disease with no known cure. It can be controlled with medication, but Powell likely will need a liver transplant at some point. Both the disease and the medication caused problems with his ability to work out at the same level he was accustomed, and it made a long major league career difficult.
He used his competitive fire to take on his condition. "What do you want me to do, just lie in bed and die? You've got to figure out a way to make it better," he said.
He persevered to have a solid 2009 season with the A's as a backup catcher, hitting seven homers with 30 RBI. And he caught a perfect game thrown by Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden in 2010, one of only 23 in MLB history.
Powell was released by Oakland before the start of the 2012 season, when he signed with the Houston Astros' Triple-A team in Oklahoma City. A good season there gave him hope that he would return to the big leagues again.
But the end of that season changed his life in a way that he never could have imagined. Powell and his wife, Allyson, had twin girls named Ellie and Izzy born in September, joining their older brother, Holden, who was 3 at the time.
But their joy turned to despair within a few weeks when Izzy was diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), a rare and life-threatening disease that usually occurs among infants and young children in which the body's immune system does not work properly.
The shock of the news soon gave way to a hard reality. One of the parents would have to go with Izzy to the country's best HLH center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital while the other would have to stay in Greenville, South Carolina -- Allyson's hometown and their offseason home -- to take care of Holden and Ellie.
"It was tearing our hearts apart, but he stood up and led our family," Allyson said. "He said, 'I'm going to go, and I'll take care of this. When I tell you that you need to come, I'll pave the way.' He just took that burden. That was a heavy day."
Powell made the arrangements that allowed them to stay in Cincinnati as much as possible. Izzy's condition gave way to a routine of transfusions, surgeries, chemotherapy, spinal taps and biopsies. Her parents gave her the best medicine that they could -- love -- as they rocked her and gently held her in their arms day after day.
As Izzy's struggle to survive continued and her breathing eventually became more labored, Allyson stayed in the room for seven consecutive days. When she finally left to take a break, her husband had to call her back. Izzy had stopped breathing.
"I ran back up there, put my hand on her head, whispered in her ear, held her hand, and she started breathing right back up. It was almost like God gave me that gift," Allyson said.
Doctors' hopes that she would be strong enough to receive a bone marrow transplant were never realized. Four-month-old Isabel Faye Powell passed away in January 2013.
The Powells have relied on their unwavering Christian faith to help them through the ordeal of losing a child. They view her short life as a blessing and her fighting spirit as an example for their own lives.
"She taught us not to sweat the small stuff. Life is really precious and really short. We don't know how long God has plans for us on this Earth so we enjoy today," Allyson said. "I'm so much more grateful for the little things, and I'm so grateful for Izzy. She really helped me live life so much more and be a better parent and better person. She gave so much to us."
Powell, who was wearing an Izzy T-shirt on the day of the interview, spoke quietly while recounting the strength of his daughter. A small tear stayed fixed in the corner of his eye.
"It's all about faith. This is the journey God put me on," he said. "You have highs and you have lows. With Izzy, it was a very, very low point in life. There's not much else to say about it, but we just kept our faith in God and kept moving forward."
He called her a gift that makes him cherish every minute with Allyson, Holden and Ellie. And he looks forward to the day he is reunited with Izzy.
"We knew that Izzy was in a better place after she passed," Powell said. "Obviously, it was a terrible thing and I wouldn't want to relive those days, but the fact is I know she's in heaven, and I know that I'm going to see her one day. That gives me peace."
The family settled in Greenville after Powell's playing days ended in the spring of 2013, when a stint with the New York Mets' Triple-A affiliate didn't work out.
"When I retired last year from the Mets, hung up my cleats for the last time, and decided to come home, I had zero regrets," he said.
He had opportunities to go into private business, but he decided to remain in baseball. After serving as an assistant coach at Furman this past season, he accepted the North Greenville job in May. It's a good fit for him. NGU has a mission of Christian education and its NCAA Division II baseball team needs rejuvenating after an eight-win season.
Allyson, who attended Greenville's Eastside High School and majored in broadcast journalism at USC, joined WYFF-TV as a traffic reporter. Holden, who's now 5 years old, and Ellie, who turns 2 next month, are healthy and happy.
"A lot of people could look at our lives now and say, 'How blessed are they? Their life is so well put together.' You have to put it in perspective," Powell said. "Yes, we had a really tough time, and there were a lot of hard things we had to go through, but look where we are now. God has rewarded us for keeping faith in him."
Powell, 32, continues his work with the organization he founded, Donors on the Diamond, which raises awareness for organ and tissue donation in partnership with the non-profit Donate Life South Carolina. He takes his liver medication every day and feels fine, although he understands that a day may come when he will need a liver donated to him.
"Health-wise, I'm doing fine other than getting older," he said with a smile.Powell loves living in Greenville, where former teammates such as David Marchbanks and Drew Meyer also reside. He opened the Landon Powell Hit House, a baseball teaching and workout facility, in Mauldin, South Carolina, this past spring. He considers the area his home now, even though he grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the place where he first made a connection that would lead him to USC.
Ray Tanner, the Gamecocks' former baseball coach and current athletics director, began his coaching career at NC State after his playing days ended there. As a young child, Powell served as a bat boy for the Wolfpack because he was around the ballpark because his father, Ron, was an umpire.
A bond was quickly established between Tanner and his young charge in the dugout.
"He was so much fun to be around. He was a little guy with so much passion and enthusiasm. He was well-mannered," Tanner said. "Much of the game of baseball is the camaraderie between the coaches and the teammates. Landon was so much a part of that fabric."
As it turned out, the little guy could play, too. Once he reached his early teens, he was good enough to catch Wolfpack pitchers in the bullpen. Powell became a standout in high school, and when it came time to pick a school, he followed his friendship to Tanner's new school, South Carolina, instead of staying home.
The decision worked out well. Powell became a franchise player for the program his final three seasons. Tanner remembers a player who refused to take a day off and lobbied the coach to change his mind when Powell's name wasn't on the lineup card.
"The biggest thing about him is who he was every day. He was the same guy," Tanner said. "He worked hard. He had a smile on his face. He was a good teammate. He was so special to me, and because of our background, he was a little bit of a favorite, but I tried hard not to show it. He never once took advantage of our prior relationship."
Tanner calls the best part of being a coach is watching his former players mature and develop into accomplished adults and good parents. He admires the incredible strength shown by Powell and Allyson. Now he sees a man who's ready to be a great baseball coach.
"He's a natural. He's a communicator. He's a great teacher. He understands. He's so in touch with young people today," Tanner said. "He's got a great message, and he has walked the walk. He's well-prepared to be extremely successful as a coach."
Powell said he is ready thanks to the experiences he gained playing under Tanner. He expects to take the best of all his former mentors and develop his own leadership style.
"Coach Tanner used the word 'adversity' all the time. We'd talk about that through the course of the season when we'd go through a losing streak," Powell said. "What are you doing to do? Are you going to roll over and quit or are you going to play and get better? In my personal life and career, those are things that stuck with me. Champions are guys who get up and keep moving forward, and that's who I wanted to be."
HEADED TO THE HALL
When Powell returns to Columbia, South Carolina, for Hall of Fame induction, he'll feel right at home.
He met Allyson here during their college days, and they married in 2005, the year she graduated.
He stays in contact with many of his former teammates, and he has ties with the current USC coaching staff. He was an NC State bat boy when curent South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook was playing for rival North Carolina. He played for pitching coach Jerry Meyers. He played in the same Little League in Raleigh as assistant coach Sammy Esposito. And he was teammates with assistant coach Brian Buscher in 2002-03, when the pair led the Gamecocks to the College World Series.
Powell and Buscher have remained close. They were in each other's weddings. They talk almost every day on the phone. Buscher went to North Greenville this past week to help rebuild the pitching mound.
"It's special for me to call myself a friend of his," Buscher said.
Allyson knows how special it is for her husband to have earned a place in the Hall of Fame. As a lifelong fan of the school -- her father, Bo Davies, set a USC football record with 14 interceptions from 1969-71 -- she sees this honor as something they can always share.
"This would rank right up there with any of his honors. Our time at USC and what that school means to us still has a very special place in our hearts," she said. "It gave us our foundation and gave us our beginning. It really has meant a lot to us. Those were some of the favorite years of our lives."