by Jim Boyle
As news of the deaths of Nolan and Josephine Shields and their mother Stephanie made its way through Zimmerman like wildfire, it hit the home of Travis Johnson particularly hard.
He was Nolan’s baseball coach last summer. Johnson said he remembers Nolan as “a ball of fire” on the baseball diamond.
“I’ll never forget his red hair, big ears, and the fact that he was always smiling and always having fun,” Johnson said. “He loved the game of baseball. I always looked forward to seeing him each week.”
Johnson and his wife found themselves scratching their head, wondering what to say their son, Caden, who played on the same team and went to the same school as Nolan and would no doubt be hearing about it upon his return to Zimmerman Elementary from spring break.
“What do you say to a kindergartener?” Johnson said. “You know he don’t quite understand. You don’t want to say too much, but at the same time, you’re waiting to see how he’s handling it.”
The Johnsons stayed closer to Caden’s side that first night after he learned Nolan would no longer be at his school.
Counselors were at Zimmerman Elementary School the next day and will be there as long as needed to help students process their grief and feelings about this tragedy, Superintendent Mark Bezek said.
There were a couple rooms set aside for children and parents to share their concerns and address fears.
The next night at home, families wrestled with the news of how the children died.
“You don’t get it,” Johnson said. “I still don’t understand.”
The little league coach said, to cope, he focuses on his happy memories of watching Nolan play baseball.
“I’ll never forget, he never wanted to throw the ball,” Johnson said. “We would be yelling for him to throw the ball, but he would always chase down the runner. He hustled everywhere he went.”
Johnson also said that Nolan’s father, Mark Shields, was always to first to help out, too. He said it was obvious that Nolan was athletic and his father worked with him.
“You could see that he had a special father-son relationship with him,” Johnson said.
Mark Shields coached his son’s team the year before.
“Our Zimmerman baseball community is absolutely devastated by this tragedy,” said Jay Yonak, the director of Zimmerman’s majors and minors youth baseball program. “Our prayers go out to the family.”
Johnson echoes Yonak’s sentiment.
“I just try to picture him playing baseball,” Johnson said. “I pray that he’s sitting in Jesus’ lap, or maybe’s he’s throwing him a baseball.”