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LOCKWOOD FOLLY — Four months after his death, his legacy lives on.
Tony Caison, a former Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office detective, died in late January following a long bout with pancreatic cancer.
Tony’s wife, Shannon, said it’s been a big adjustment without her husband of more than 12 years, but the Dixie Youth baseball league in Lockwood Folly has helped her through the most difficult four months of her life.
In March, before a capacity crowd at Lockwood Folly Park, league director William “Little Man” Powell unveiled a sign on the press box at Field 2: Tony Caison Field, accompanied by the Superman logo that became synonymous with his fight against the cancer that eventually took his life.
To make the night more special, Tony’s son Anthony threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
“I knew (opening ceremonies) would be difficult,” Shannon said. “The whole family was here, Little Man got choked up talking about Tony, and our pastor (Anthony Clemmons of Mount Olive Baptist) was here. The night was really special.”
As for the first pitch, Anthony said he missed the a first-pitch strike “by about an inch.”
His dad would’ve been proud either way.
When Anthony was old enough to participate in organized sports, Tony got into coaching.
He was a natural. Having played on the West Brunswick High School football team that advanced to the 1991 state championship game and starring on the baseball diamond for the Trojans, Tony knew the game well. But it was his ability to motivate children that made him one of the best.
“About three or four years ago, we started coaching football together,” said Jimmy St. George, who teamed with Tony to coach the Lockwood Folly Chiefs in youth football. “We started building a relationship. It was great coaching with him. It was like being around your brother. He knew a lot about football and he was an inspiration to all the kids out there. Everybody looked up to him.”
St. George said after Tony was diagnosed with cancer, he sometimes didn’t have the strength to stand up while he was on the field.
“That never stopped him from being out there,” St. George said.
Powell, who coached with and against Tony in baseball, said he saw Tony coaching baseball with his chemotherapy pump on.
“I’d tell him, ‘Tony, you got to get some rest.’ He’d say, ‘I need to be out here for the kids. These kids need me. I have to be part of their lives,’ Powell said.
His dedication was unparalleled, St. George said.
“All the kids looked up to him, from 6-year-olds to 13-year-olds,” he said. “There wasn’t a single person out there who didn’t have respect for him or look up to him. If I had a problem or the other coaches had problems, he was always there to help out in any way he could.”
Shannon said it was her husband’s love for his son and sports that led him to the ball field.
“We have five TVs in our house, and every one of them was always on ESPN,” she recalled. “He and Anthony would sit there and watch a full game when Anthony was 2 years old. Anthony has loved it ever since. Since he was 2, there was no stopping him from being on the ball field.
“If ESPN hadn’t reported on the presidential election, I still wouldn’t know who the president is. If it had a ball in it, Tony loved it.”
Anthony misses his dad “all the time,” especially late-night junk food sessions.
“I miss laying down with him,” he said. “I miss watching games with him on the TV, and I really miss him making these huge bowls of ice cream for me and telling me to finish them before Mom got home.”
Anthony plays for the Mudcats in baseball and Chiefs in football.
Anthony’s Mudcats won the regular season championship. He hopes the Chiefs can do the same in the fall.
“My dad liked football more, you could tell,” Anthony said. “I liked playing for him but you could tell when he got mad. You could tell when he’s serious because he’d turned his hat around backward. In football they used to call him Big T. Now they call me Little T.”
A fiery competitor, Tony knew how to motivate his players.
She knows her husband wasn’t perfect, but Shannon says she couldn’t imagine a better leader for kids than Tony.
“Tony was not a saint — nobody is — but there isn’t a better role model for those kids than him,” she said.
Tony’s desire to coach kept him at Lockwood Folly, Powell said.
“It’s what kept him going, he knew deep in his heart he was going to win that battle,” he said. “He was out there every day, one of the last ones to leave every day. Even if his team didn’t have a game, he’d be out there. There’s a hole in the Lockwood family because Tony is gone. There won’t be another Tony Caison.”
Tony’s faith is what helped him persevere for several years throughout his bout with cancer.
He and his family were active in Brunswick County’s American Cancer Society Relay for Life. He also did speaking engagements about what kept him fighting. He called it Tony’s Fab Four: “The four F’s. First you have faith, then family, friends and fight. If you’re not right with your faith, you might as well hang it up.”
Shannon said one of her fondest memories of Tony was remembering the message he left for the young people he coached.
“He told them, ‘When you’re on my field, we’re going to pray.’ He always told me, ‘Shannon, this might be the only time these boys get to hear about Jesus.’ That’s how much he cared about his faith, and theirs,” she said.
Tony continued to coach because he didn’t know how many more times he’d get to do it, Shannon said. Even still, Tony didn’t think he would lose his battle with cancer.
“He absolutely refused to believe that,” Shannon said. “He didn’t even realize he was dying until 14 hours before he died.”
Of the many things Shannon misses about her husband, it’s his companionship she misses most.
“We were compatible. We were always planning our next vacation. The house is so quiet now,” she said, then paused. “I miss the companionship. I miss the life we built together. Our future, our hopes and our dreams — we built that together. I miss him.”
Shannon is one of many members of the Lockwood Folly community who have struggled with Tony’s death.
“It’s been tough before because I don’t have that person I could pick up the phone and talk to. He’d make me feel better,” Powell said. “At the ballpark, there were times Tony could take care of problems and I wouldn’t have to worry about it. It’s a lot of little things. It’s been a problem for everybody missing Tony. He’d take care of the raffles, make sure the umpires were there. He took his truck last year and would go to Sam’s and get the stuff for the concession stands. This is all while he’s sick.”
St. George said of Tony, “It’s really hard. It’s like I lost a brother. I’ve always looked up to him, he was like a big brother to me. It’s still hard from this day forward. It’s going to be hard this fall when me and the other coaches step on the football field without him, He’ll be there with us from above, but it won’t be the same because we always hung out, our families hung out, we’d sit at his kitchen counter and draw up plays, go over plays — what football coaches do, you know what I mean?”
St. George remembers going to Wing and Fish Company after Lockwood Folly Chiefs’ football games and “having a good ol’ time” with Tony and his family.
“I remember those times well,” he said. “I don’t know what to do without him. I’ve even thought about not coaching because he won’t be there with me, but I can’t leave those kids. Tony wouldn’t want me to leave the kids.
“Tony will always be missed, but never forgotten. That’s for sure.”
When the Lockwood Folly Dixie Youth All-Stars lace it up for the first time this summer, you can find Anthony playing first base, but there will be a coach missing, a coach nobody will ever be able to replace.
“I miss him being out there to coach me,” Anthony said. “All-Stars will be different without him.”
Tony’s lasting message was to never quit.
“It was hard to see him out there coaching when he was sick, but he never quit; he never gave up,” St. George said. “He didn’t want the kids to see him quit. He always preached to them to keep fighting and never quit. It was hard on a lot of us. There were times he had to sit in his truck and watch us practice.”
Tony would be proud of what’s going on at Lockwood Folly. On the back of the all-star jerseys, above the number, a slogan will read, “Fight Like a Hero.”
Perhaps Lockwood Folly can capture the championship on Tony Caison Field.
“The Lockwood Folly group has been there for us through it all,” Shannon said. “We would’ve made it these last few months without them. Jimmy St. George, Little Man, everyone else who’s helped us through this, those are some of the best friends you could ever ask for.”
Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.