There are some people you just have to root for.
Katie Browne, a senior catcher at Zachary (La.), is one of those people.
Browne was honored last week with the Louisiana Young Heroes Award for the courage, fortitude and perseverance she's shown in navigating a childhood so tumultuous that it would rattle the nerves even of Hollywood's merchants of horror stories.
One year ago, April 22, Katie was waiting for her mother, Hope, to come home so they could go see Katie's older sister, Jessie, play in a softball game for Southeastern Louisiana University.
Hope never came home. Instead, a police officer came to the house to let Katie know that her mother had been killed in a car accident at the most dangerous intersection on Highway 1 in Addis, La.
"At that moment, this 18-year-old girl lost her sole support, her sounding wall, her cuddling partner -- her mother," said Leslie Efferson, the head softball coach at Zachary.
At that moment, Katie also lost a person that had fought with her through two decades of family drama and tragedy.
When Katie was 3, Hope removed herself and her two daughters from a troubled relationship with her then-husband in Virginia and moved the girls to Lodi, Ohio. Battling the challenges that come with being a single mother, Hope found refuge in the fact that Katie and Jessie both displayed a passion and gift for softball, a sport that Hope had wanted to play growing up, but there were only all-boys teams.
The next of life's roadblocks was encountered in January of 2008, when Hope took the kids down to New Orleans to see her brother, Les Miles, coach in college football's national championship game. Miles' LSU Tigers were pitted against a team from the Brownes’ home state: the Ohio State Buckeyes.
LSU beat Ohio State 38-24 in the title game, but the sweet taste of victory quickly turned sour when the Brownes arrived back to Ohio and found their house engulfed in flames. Police reports indicate arson and witnesses say there were intruders living in the house while the Brownes were away. The family suspects that the criminals were Ohio State fans that had learned of their ties to LSU, but no one has been charged in the case.
After Katie and her family lost their house and all their belongings, Hope decided to move the family out of Ohio. Her first concern, though, was that the family get to a location where Katie and Jessie could gain visibility for their softball prowess and potentially earn Division I scholarships.
When Hope found Zachary in Louisiana, she started to grill Efferson about the softball program.
"Hope and I talked on the phone for an hour, and she had such good questions," Efferson said. "You could tell how much she cared about her daughters. It was like an FBI interrogation."
Efferson passed the test, and soon Jessie (then a junior) and Katie (a freshman) would don a Zachary High uniform. Katie, a 6-footer even as a freshman, adjusted to the southern migration especially well.
"I've coached sports and strength and conditioning for a long time, and I've never coached a kid like Katie Browne," said Robert Yellott, an assistant coach for Zachary's softball team and also the school's strength coach. "She always wants to get better, and you so rarely see that in kids today."
Exactly as mom had planned it, Katie's stats in Louisiana and her notable performances on diamonds all over the southeast awoke the mightiest of college softball programs, including the University of Georgia and University of Alabama. In the fall of her junior year, she got offers from both schools on the same day. While on her visit at Georgia's campus in Athens, Patrick Murphy (Alabama's head coach) contacted Katie to offer her a full scholarship. Hours later, during Hope and Katie's drive back from the Georgia visit, Bulldogs head coach Lu Harris-Champer called Katie to also extend a full offer.
"My mom and I were on Cloud 9," said Katie. "We made a deal that we weren't going to talk about it for an hour; we were just going to be happy."
It was one of the last and one of the most priceless moments they ever enjoyed together. A mom who enjoyed softball but whose generation set limitations for women who wanted to play sports, and her daughter, who, thanks in part to Title IX and an evolving awareness of female athleticism, is living her mom's dream. That, to Hope, was surely more fulfilling than if she had gotten to play high-level softball herself.
Months later, Katie would get that horrifying knock on the door. When the police officer notified her that her mom had been killed in a car accident, the officer explained that her sister Jessie was already on the way home from Southeastern Louisiana and asked if they could contact anyone else to come stay with her. Katie replied, "My coaches, they're all I've got."
Efferson and Yellott were actually together on that fatal evening, driving all the way to Houston, Texas, to see a concert. As soon as they received the call, Yellott pulled a U-Turn and made the three-and-a-half-hour drive back from Houston in about two hours and fifteen minutes.
The Zachary softball team, which to most members was a second family, had now become Katie's primary family. The team's motto this year is "Check Your Baggage," a slogan born out of necessity after another teammate's father died a mere month after Hope's death. Coaches and teammates alike will tell you that nobody embodies the slogan better than Katie, who will be playing at Georgia next year. Softball serves as her release, as an asylum for the horrors in life that she's had to overcome. Even on the softball field, though, it's been challenging.
"Last summer we played one of my former club teams from Ohio, and I heard them talking about my mom's accident in the dugout," Katie said. "I had to call a timeout and go to the pitcher's mound to stop the game for a little bit. Then in between innings I went to the bathroom and pulled myself together."
It is moments like this that inspired Efferson to nominate Katie for the Louisiana Young Heroes Award, an award that Katie won just last week. With it, the State of Louisiana declared April 18 Katie Browne Day. Upon winning the award, Katie immediately called her big sister Jessie and said, "Hey, I just wanted to wish you a Happy Katie Browne Day."
To those that know her and are inspired by her, however, every day is Katie Browne Day.