Mike Payne was my high school baseball coach. I wasn’t a good player, but I never missed practice and I did whatever coach asked. He gave me the coach’s award at the end of my senior year. I still have the trophy.
In August of 2001, he was wheeled into a hospital to try to fight something he wouldn’t beat.
He’d been working in the back yard of his Williston, Florida, home when a mosquito bit him.
In just a little more than a year after that bite his obituary published in the Gainesville Sun.
He’d contracted Eastern Equine Encephalitis and left behind a wife and four children. He was only 40 years old. He and a nine-year-old boy were the only two people in Florida to die of the disease that year. There were three other cases in the entire state.
Almost exactly 20 years later in early August of 2021 I was rolled into the emergency room at Delta Health Systems – The Medical Center with a splitting headache and no idea what was going on in my brain.
There were blood tests and a spinal tap.
One of the doctors said meningitis. Another said encephalitis.
When I heard encephalitis, I got scared, and I mean the life and death kind of scared.
I don’t remember much of the next week. In fact, the week before and after are a bit of a smudge as well.
But I do remember thinking about coach Payne.
He wasn’t a teacher at my high school, so he wasn’t technically the head coach of our baseball team, but he was one of the best we were ever going to get. The high school would later go on to win a state title with Jim Smith as head coach.
He ran a local gas station and was a good mechanic. He’d played for the Atlanta Braves for three games back in the 1980s after he’d suffered an arm injury. His performance showed and he was let go soon thereafter.
I remember the last picture I saw of him was when a teammate of mine, Esix Snead, signed a minor league baseball contract. Coach was already in a wheelchair. He didn’t make it much longer.
I don’t remember what he sounded like or any of the tactical advice he gave on bunting, but I will never forget the lie Coach Payne told the entire gathered spring sports banquet my senior year of 1993.
During the banquet coach would call each player to the front, tell his position and announce his batting average.
I knew my batting average was terrible. It probably hovered near the Mendoza line or below, but coach Payne told all those people I batted .313 on the season.
There’s no way in Hell that happened.
But, for just a split second, I had a .313 batting average on what was a decently good high school baseball team. I got my letter jacket, I got a trophy and I smiled.
I hadn’t thought of coach Payne much in the last 20 years, but the eerie coincidence and timing of his illness and mine is inescapable. I even remember asking the doctors to check for the virus in my blood work.
While Payne died after a year of living in a wheelchair and an inability to speak, I walked out of the hospital under my own power with an indeterminant diagnosis. I took another week until I could think clearly enough to finish sentences, but I was on the mend.
I had markers for West Nile virus and symptoms for other encephalopathy and meningitis, but an exact cause of my malady is still yet to be determined. Thank God it doesn’t appear to have been exactly what coach caught.
I had care that I am sure has advanced in 20 years since he fell ill and am also thankful to, as one young resident said, “know every doctor in this hospital.” A sure benefit of living in a small town.
Another benefit of living in a small town is the pile of food brought to the house while my wife did what she could to care for me. For that I can only continually say thanks.
In a much smaller town, the baseball field where coach ended his career is named for him and the local booster club fundraiser is still the Christmas Tree sale he started years ago.
Coach didn’t get to live a full life and see his children grow up, but he sure meant something to a lot of people.
And while I’m sure it was the only lie he ever told, I’ll take that .313 batting average with me for the rest of my life and be proud it came from coach Payne.
Jon Alverson is proud to be the publisher and editor of the Delta Democrat-Times. Write to him at email@example.com or call him at 662-335-1155.