By Bobby Pepper/Lee County Neighbors
Even though Russell Verell’s mind and body may tell him he’s 48 years old, he plays sports with the heart and enthusiasm of a young boy.
Verell, a Tupelo resident, brings his passion for slow-pitch softball to the city’s diamonds. He’s played in league games and tournaments and has traveled to compete in state, regional and national events.
Verell still has the competitive fire, even if his skills have diminished somewhat.
“If I hit a triple in the past, I can only get a double now, but I’m panting,” the Chickasaw County native said.
Two weeks ago, Verell was the player/coach of a team that almost won a national championship at home. He and 12 other young- at-heart men teamed up to place second in an Amateur Softball Association tournament for players age 45 and older at the Veteran’s Park field complex.
Every time he took the field, Verell wore his inspiration on his uniform. On the front of his jersey was the image of a boy who appears to be about 8 years old. Wearing No. 10, the youngster sends a baseball into flight with a mighty swing of his bat.
The ball-playing image is one Verell cherishes of his own 8-year-old son who died 12 years ago.
The memory of Kenneth Todd (Kent) Verell inspired his father to sponsor softball teams under the name “Kent’s Players” in his honor, including the one that played for a national championship.
“We do this every year,” Verell said. “We’ll always have a Kent’s Players team.”
Kent Verell was a third-grade student at Rankin Elementary School when he died Jan. 30, 1998, of electrocution. He was an honor student and a Koalaty Kid, a recognition given to Rankin students who exhibit good citizenship and achievement in a particular area or subject.
When school was out for the summer, Verell said his son was ready for baseball.
“He was a good little ball player,” Verell said, recalling his son’s young life during a break in action Sept. 11 at the national tournament in Veteran’s Park. “He loved to play.”
To help with his grief, Verell sought a way to continue Kent’s legacy through sports. In 2000, the name “Kent’s Players” was attached to a softball team. It was the first year Verell gathered a team to play in a 35-and-older ASA tournament in Clearwater, Fla.
Kent’s Players teams have played in ASA tourneys from Florida to Iowa. When Verell suits up to play for his son’s namesake team, he wears No. 10 – his son’s number.
“Every time we’ve gone somewhere to play, we were Kent’s Players,” said Randy Bolen, who along with Jay Mann played with Verell on most those teams. “During the year around here we’ve played against each other. But when it comes to the nationals, we always play together.”
Verell, who owns his own construction company in Tupelo, said Kent’s name isn’t limited to national tourney teams. “We’ve also had weekend and league teams of Kent’s Players,” he said.
For a player to become a Kent’s Player, Verell said, it takes more than talent.
“If the guy, in my opinion, isn’t as good-natured like my son was, then he doesn’t play with us no matter how good he is,” Verell said.
The Verell-led Kent’s Players made annual appearances in the 35-and-Over bracket in tournaments until players became old enough to play on the 45-And-Over group. This year’s squad included players from north Mississippi and Tennessee and ranged in age from 45 to 56 years.
“We decided to get back together to play at home,” said Verell, who pitched for the team. “We’ve been off everywhere else, so it’s good to have a chance to play at home.”
Kent’s Players reached the tournament final through the loser’s bracket of double-elimination play. After Kent’s beat the Minnesota Merchants 25-15, setting up a second title game, the Minnesota squad erased a two-run deficit in the bottom of the seventh for a 21-20 win and the championship.
Even though Kent’s Players didn’t win the national title, Kent’s legacy continues for Verell and wife Tina. The Verells and their four sons in a blended family – Cody Verell, Lane Posey, Drew Bennett and Chris Bennett – have played on Kent’s Players teams.
On Father’s Day weekend, Verell wore a Kent’s Players jersey as he was joined by his sons and grandson Kadin Bennett for a few games. Verell said playing softball with his sons has been a joy.
“I told myself that I will keep on playing until my boys can step on the field with me,” he said. “Now, I’m still not ready to give it up. I feel better now than I have in a long time.”
And anytime Verell steps on the field for Kent’s Players in a local game or a national tournament, the young boy swinging the big bat and wearing No. 10 will be with him.
“It’s always in memory of Kent,” Verell said.
Contact Bobby Pepper at (662) 678-1592 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.