As Kentucky's Kyle Cody prepares for the MLB draft, memories of his late brother drive him toward success
LEXINGTON, Ky.— Bright blue skies hang over Cliff Hagan Stadium in early March as Kentucky pitcher Kyle Cody is doing all he can to get someone out. Struggles are rare for the 6' 7", 245-pound flamethrower from rural Wisconsin whose fastball—clocked as high as 98 miles per hour—has gotten his name called twice in the Major League Baseball draft with a third coming likely on Thursday.
His parents, Gene and Jackie, are sitting 11 rows from the field in the middle of the grandstand. They've been in attendance for every home start their son has made in his career, so this type of performance has them concerned.
By the time Kentucky coach Gary Henderson walks to the mound to get the ball from Kyle in the third inning of a non conference game against Buffalo, he's allowed eight runs on seven hits and walked three batters in just two innings of work.
Kyle watched from the dugout as Kentucky rallied to win in extra innings. After the game, Gene and Jackie begin talking to Kyle about his start. Kyle is quiet, which leaves his parents always hoping to get more out of him when he talks about his baseball career and life.
"Come over tomorrow and we'll talk," Kyle tells them.
The next day, Kyle instructs his parents to sit back and relax.
"We're so blessed," he said. "Look where we are today. Life is fine."
It's the type of perspective that is unheard of for a 21-year-old pitcher who is among college baseball's top hurlers. After all the Codys have been through, every day he takes the mound and each moment they get together as a family is special.
In the early morning of Sept. 25,1997, Jackie Cody answered the phone in her Chippewa Falls, Wis., home and a stranger delivered the news that changed everything.
"I just want to inform you that your boys have been in a car accident."
Just an hour earlier, 3-year-old Kyle and 4-year-old Tyler had given her goodbye kisses in the kitchen. She still remembers the image of Tyler circling back around for a second smooch before heading to the babysitter's Chevrolet pickup truck.
Photo courtesy of The Cody Family
The plan for the boys that day was to eat breakfast at a local restaurant and then go for a joy ride. The boys were just 21 months apart in age. Tyler was a farm boy with a knack for working who would sit on Gene's lap while the two would spend hours on the family's green John Deere lawnmower cutting the grass. The man who lived next door to the Codys also knew he had a helping hand with raking the leaves whenever Tyler was around. Kyle, on the other hand, spent most of his free time with a ball in his hand.
The driving began after breakfast. Tyler and Kyle were buckled in and facing each other in the back of the truck.
The boys were traveling on Highway 124, a stretch of road that had long been considered dangerous in that part of Wisconsin, when a dump truck pulled off of the highway and onto a side street where the pickup truck was. The driver of the dump truck failed to yield and collided with the drivers side of the pickup truck, causing it to lose control and flip over a curb.
The voice on the phone offered few details, so Jackie, an eternal optimist, convinced herself everything would be OK as she prepared to leave for St. Joseph's Hospital.
"Little did I know," she says now.
As Jackie made her way to the hospital, she arrived to a horrifying scene. The first thing she saw was Kyle, with the middle of his shirt completely covered in blood, screaming as medical workers tried to secure him on a stretcher. She later learned that most of the blood was Tyler's, the result of a serious head injury. He'd come to rest on top of Kyle, whose only injury was receiving six stitches on his right cheek.
Tyler was taken from St. Joseph's Hospital by helicopter to a trauma center in the nearby town of Eau Claire, but Jackie was able to see him before he left St. Joseph's. Tyler's head was bandaged and two adhesives were beside his left eye.
"He looked just like he was in a coma," she said. "I just thought he was unconscious and was going to wake up later and be fine."
Gene, who was working 50 miles east at the time, wasn't as optimistic. He took a quick glance at the accident scene as he drove by and didn't think anyone could've survived.
"I couldn't even tell it was a vehicle," Gene said.
All of the anxiety that had accompanied him for the past 45 minutes began to pour out when he pulled into the Sacred Heart Hospital parking lot. He started to walk into hospital but couldn't bring himself to push open the doors. The fear of losing both of his boys nearly crippled Gene, so the chaplain of the hospital came out to put him in a wheelchair and push him the rest of the way.
Once inside, Gene was able to see Tyler before surgery. The doctor performing the surgery went into the waiting room and told them that Tyler's brain was swollen and bleeding excessively.
The Codys held onto hope that Tyler would pull through, but around 2:30 p.m., Tyler died in the same hospital that Kyle was born in three years before.
With the shock of losing their child starting to settle over them, Gene and Jackie decided that because of Tyler's giving nature, he would have wanted his organs donated so someone else could benefit from them.
The Codys donated Tyler's liver, kidneys, corneas, heart valves and skin tissue.
"There was some comfort in that," Jackie said. "If he could help someone else, it helped us in our grieving process."
Watching Kyle grow would help them heal, too.
Photo courtesy of Michael Reaves
Kyle grew up to become a high school sports legend of sorts in Northwest Wisconsin. A six-inch growth spurt during the summer between his freshman and sophomore year put his height at 6' 7", which helped him become a starter in football, basketball and baseball. He was the quarterback in a pass-happy offense and once accounted for seven touchdowns in a game. He later led McDonell Central on a deep state tournament run in basketball, where he faced future Wisconsin Badgers star and Houston Rockets forward Sam Dekker in the state semifinals. Kyle tried to match him—"It's pretty cool to say I blocked a guy who is in the NBA now"—but his team lost in a heartbreaker. Still, for the Cody's, there was magic in the air that night.
"He was making shots everywhere," Gene said. "I was feeling Tyler."
Kyle loved whichever sport was in season, but he knew baseball was his best chance to play at the collegiate level. His stature and his overpowering fastball caught the eye of former Kentucky assistant Brad Bohannon during a summer league game at Purdue University just before Kyle's senior year.
"He just stood out like a sore thumb because of how big he was and how easy of an arm he had," Bohannon said. "I had decided I wanted him by just watching him play catch in the outfield before I even saw him get on the mound."
At that point Kyle was mostly being recruited by Big Ten schools, such as Ohio State and Minnesota. The idea of playing in the SEC—a premiere conference in college baseball—was enticing, but admittedly intimidating. Bohannon knew Kyle liked Kentucky but it was hard for him to gauge his complete interest because of how quiet Kyle was.
"I would call Kyle and we would have four minute conversations and I would do all the talking for three minutes and 50 seconds," Bohannon said. "He was just very quiet. Even when I went up to his house and did a home visit it was tough to get a lot out of him."
The Cody family flew to Kentucky for an official visit during Kyle's senior year. Kyle enjoyed the campus but he still was hesitant to commit. Bohannon and Jackie decided it would be a good idea for Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson to visit Chippewa Falls.
"Kyle came in and he said 'Mom, (Henderson) told me over and over that I was good enough to pitch in the SEC," Jackie said.
After the unusual visit from Henderson, Cody knew he wanted to play at Kentucky.
Photo courtesy of Michael Reaves
Gene Cody hopped out of his 2011 Winnebago RV and began his routine inspection in a Cracker Barrel parking lot in Shelbyville, Ky. On this day, he and Jackie headed to Bloomington, Ind., for Kentucky's midweek game against Indiana.
The RV is significant for the Cody's because it represents all of the places Kyle's collegiate career has taken them. Gene owned two different dairy equipment businesses in Wisconsin while Kyle was growing up, but he wasn't going to miss Kyle's collegiate career. Just two weeks before Kentucky's first game in 2013, Gene sold both of his businesses and set off for Kentucky. He and Jackie rented a house in Lexington during Kyle's freshman season and watched as he blossomed into one of the top freshmen in the conference.
After going 4–0 at Kentucky as a sophomore, Kyle was invited to the prestigious Cape Cod summer league. The Codys decided to purchase an RV to travel to all of his games.
They bought the RV in 2014 while in Wisconsin and have since driven it about 22,000 miles. They've traveled as far north as Boston and as far south as Baton Rouge, La. to watch Kyle pitch.
"(The RV) is perfect for us," Gene said. "It's the only way to travel if you have a boy playing ball."
Few others have attended more Kentucky baseball games than Gene and Jackie the past four years. They've been to 222 of Kentucky's 228 games during that time.
Still, ask any of the Codys now, and they'll tell you how surprised they are to be back in Lexington for Kyle's senior season. Baseball America ranked Kyle as the 19th best draft prospect and preseason third-team All-America going into his junior season.
But 2015 proved to be a challenging year for Kyle. He went 1–4 with a 6.75 ERA in conference play, and for a stretch, was taken out of his Sunday slot in the rotation. He eventually worked his way back into the weekend rotation and finished with three strong starts and a 4–4 record on the season, but first round draft status seemed unlikely. Despite his struggles, the Minnesota Twins selected Kyle in the second round with the 73rd pick. When Kyle heard his name called on national television he believed his college career was over.
"I didn't think there was anyway I'd be back in Kentucky," Kyle said.
The McDonell Central alumni association even threw a party for him back in Wisconsin when it looked like he was going to sign. Kids from the area came to see Kyle and get his autograph.
But the Twins and the Codys were unable to ever reach an agreement and Kyle surprised everyone on July 17 when he announced he'd return for his senior season. That looks like a smart move now. He finished the season 6–2 with a 3.35 ERA this season and is rated the 65th-best prospect in next month's MLB draft by Baseball America.
"One of the things I learned was I can't do anything about (draft stock) unless I just go on the mound and compete," Kyle said. "The only way I can move up the draft boards is by going out there and doing well. It's not by watching where my name is on the computer."
On the left part of Kyle's chest is a tattoo dedicated to his older brother. It reads "Even though you're up there, I'll do it through you down here." He came up with the motto during his sophomore year at Kentucky and went to a Lexington tattoo shop to have it permanently inked onto his skin. The tattoo, along with the initials "T.C." written under his Kentucky baseball hat, is a way for Kyle to remember his brother when he's on the mound.
Photo courtesy of Michael Reaves
Just 24 hours before the interview, Kyle gutted his way through 5.2 innings against seventh-ranked South Carolina. The Gamecocks put runners on base each inning against Kyle, but he somehow managed to work out of danger nearly every time. He allowed just one earned run in the game and the Wildcats eventually won on a walk-off home run in extra innings.
As he has so many times over the last 18 years, Kyle felt Tyler's presence helping him that day.
"Sometimes," he said, "you think, 'Can you really do that all yourself or is there someone up there looking out for you?'
Derek Terry is a senior at the University of Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter.