Her+baby+boy

Photo by Margaret Debenport

Her baby boy

Mother shares story in hopes of saving others

February 11, 2020

Leonard Parks had big feet.

In fact, his mother claims that he went up one shoe size every year. When he was 9, he wore a size nine, at 10 he wore a size 10, and so on. At 17 years old, he wore size 16 and a half shoes, on his way to a size 17.

When his mother finally found a pair of Air Jordans big enough, she had to get them.

“[He asked how much they cost and he said] ‘No, that’s too much,’ and I said ‘Don’t worry about that,’ but he said no.”

Yolanda Parks sits at her dining table, a soft smile painted across her face as she recalls Leonard, or as she knows him, her ‘baby boy,’ refusing those Jordans. Just one example of the boy’s kindness and willingness to sacrifice for his family, even if he didn’t have to.

“So I told his brother to go take Leonard to get some shoes for school. He came back with Adidas in size 13 and I [wondered] how he was gonna get his big foot in a size 13,” Parks said. “When I came back home that Monday those shoes were in the middle of the floor. We laughed about that.”

That’s when Parks’ tone suddenly shifts; what was a nostalgic memory becomes tragic. Even if those shoes had fit, Leonard would have barely had a chance to wear them.

“School had started Aug. 22, and he died Sept. 2,” Parks said. “He didn’t even live but two weeks into the school year.”

Leonard died after a night on the football field. His dedication to the sport garnered him much success, including a commitment to play for Southern Methodist University’s football team.

“I didn’t even want him to play football,” Parks said. “But he wanted to play football, so I told him [I would be his] number one fan.”

Autopsy results showed that Leonard had an enlarged heart and concluded that he died from a genetic heart condition. However, Parks casts doubts on the findings.

“The autopsy lady said [he was a] 17 year old healthy boy, [they couldn’t] find [anything],” Parks said. “[They couldn’t] find [anything] but [they] came up with genetic heart disease, so it just didn’t make sense.”

Parks said heart disease does not run in their family.

“Of course, they wanted me to get tested, and I went and got tested,” Parks said. “But I already knew that wasn’t it. It seems to me that if it was his heart, that boy couldn’t do what he did.”

With Leonard’s death so sudden, his mother is caught in a torturous cycle of wondering if it could have been prevented.

“I just think, Lord, what could I have done to save Leonard?” Parks said. “I haven’t gotten the answer to that yet. I’m still waiting on that. I did want comfort, I did want peace, I did want understanding, you know?”

Unfortunately, the tragedy of losing a child is not an isolated event. Dee Lewis and Damian Coats, two other seniors, died within the past two years. Parks has reached out to their mothers, Carla Lewis and Shykovia Coats.

Some days I can talk myself to death about Leonard, other days if somebody would bring up his name I would cry a river. It won’t ever end because I won’t ever, ever forget him.”

— Yolonda Parks

“My heart just goes out to Carla and Damian’s mom, it goes just out to them,” Parks said. “When I think about Carla and Damian’s mom, I just think that we’re kind of strong in a sense. I have my days. It [gives me comfort] to talk with Carla [Lewis and other moms who have gone through this].”

Damian Coats had an enlarged heart and died on June 19, 2019. His mother urges students to be accountable for their health.

“I advise everybody to make sure they get their hearts checked,” Coats said. “Too many young men are dying from heart attacks. [Students should] get checked twice a year.”

These deaths come with painful abruptness, and many times without any warning at all.

“Damian never showed any signs, it was just sudden death,” Coats said. “If I could go back and notice the signs, I would have got him help.”

Parks’ grief, much like the other mothers, has led her to a cause: keeping the memory of her son alive.

“Some days I can talk myself to death about Leonard, other days if somebody would bring up his name I would cry a river,” Parks said. “It won’t ever end because I won’t ever, ever forget him.”

Parks is a strong advocate for taking care of athletes and their health, whether it be remembering them once they’re gone or doing everything possible to keep them here.

“They need [cardiac testing for athletes] very, very much. I think that would be so helpful, I think it could have saved Carla [Lewis’ son], I think it probably could have saved mine,” Parks said. “I don’t think physicals should be every two years. I think they should be annual.”

As far as the price tag, Parks believes no amount is too much to pay for the lives of students like her son.

“Wow, ‘costs too much.’ I don’t think they should be concerned about how much it costs,” Parks said. “They should be concerned about the athletes’ lives. I wouldn’t focus on how much it costs if you can save a life.”

Above all else, Parks wants athletes to be seen as people, not just players in a game or a means to a win.

“These athletes, they have families they go home to. This is a sad situation. I pray for every athlete, not even just for Texas High, even now I pray and I pray and I pray,” Parks said. “When I lost my son, I [prayed] Lord, please do not let another mother go through what I have gone through.”

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