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VOL. 43 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 31, 2019

Stallings’ value to UT felt beyond the diamond

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Garrett Stallings spotted the little boy in the orange Tennessee shirt as he was walking off the field.

The Vols had just outlasted Texas A&M in 14 innings at Blue Bell Park in College Station and were packing up to make the trip back to Knoxville.

Charlie Bowden, 6, and his little brother had stayed after the game to try and get autographs. Their eyes grew wide as Stallings approached, he signed Charlie’s glove and threw him a baseball with a power T on it.

“It was his first autograph. He was so excited,” said Charlie’s dad, Matt Bowden, recalling the moment in Texas two years ago. “He didn’t even want to use his glove after it was signed. The ball is still in our garage and the boys use it to play catch in the front yard.”

Stallings has emerged as the ace of Tennessee’s staff this season, and helped spark the rebuild that lifted the program back into the postseason.

The Vols (38-19) will be making their first NCAA appearance since 2005 when they take on Liberty (42-19) Friday night in the Chapel Hill regional. Host North Carolina (38-18) and UNC-Wilmington (32-29) meet in the other regional game.

Stallings has played a major role in UT’s ascension. The junior right-hander is 8-4 with a 3.24 ERA, 103 strikeouts and 16 walks. He’s thrown an NCAA-leading 10 shutouts, and was named the SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

But for all he’s accomplished on the field, Stallings takes more pride in the impact he’s made in the community.

From high-fiving children at games to volunteering at church events to dancing with underprivileged children in Ecuador, Stallings strives to make a difference beyond baseball.

“The maturity that he carries is beyond his years. He is a true gentleman and an extremely high-character guy,” says Dean Craig, the Greater Knoxville Director of Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “He just has a real desire to help other people and a desire to lead and be a positive example for other people.”

Raised in Chesapeake, Virginia, Stallings and older brother Curtis, who played volleyball at Long Beach State, were taught by their parents to let their actions speak louder than their words.

Stallings took the principle to heart, and his passion for altruism only amplified once he arrived at UT.

“Tennessee gives you such an amazing platform to be a role model and to be out there in the media to give you a chance for people to look up to you,” Stallings says. “That kind of elevated my vision of helping others and taking advantage of every opportunity Tennessee offers to try and give back.”

Stallings took part in the VOLeaders program as a sophomore and traveled to Ecuador last summer with other UT student-athletes.

Once group members arrived, they visited a school in an underserved area with a high-crime rate. More than 100 children lined the bleachers as Ashleigh Huffman prepared to make an introductory speech at the microphone.

The former assistant director of UT’s Center for Sport, Peace and Society looked into the audience and saw six children had already climbed into Stallings’ lap and were clinging to his shoulders.

“We hadn’t even been there two minutes, and these kids just gravitated to him,” recalls Huffman, who is now the Global Director of Gender Equality at Athletes for Hope in Washington D.C. “For guys, especially age 18-22, it is really hard to let down your guard and not be ‘cool’ all the time. For him, he is just the first to embrace it and do whatever feels comfortable.

“He is always quick to hold a hand or make someone feel valued and heard and validated.”

Huffman sensed Stallings’ virtuous nature when he walked into her class.

“There was just something different about him. He just has this twinkle and this smile that can change the world,” she adds. “I’ve taught for 13 years, and he is one of the best students I’ve ever had. He is incredibly intelligent, but so reserved with it that when he does speak you know he is going to drop some wisdom.”

Stallings considers VOLeaders a transformative period of his life.

“Being able to grow with those student-athletes, teachers and doctors in the program was such a humbling and growing experience,” Stallings says. “Being a student-athlete is not all easygoing. It’s very up and down, and being able to be vulnerable and ask others for help is hard. To go through that with them was really an incredible experience.”

Stallings, a supply chain management major, served an internship last fall at Pedal for Alzheimer’s, a nonprofit that raises funds, awareness and provides education toward the mission of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

The nonprofit didn’t always have success with athletes as interns due to their busy schedules. Stallings was different.

“He literally jumped in to do everything we needed and a lot of things we didn’t even think about,” notes Sara Mitchell, Pedal for Alzheimer’s communications manager. “He no doubt is a great athlete, but beyond that he really truly has a huge heart. Garrett just has such a giving spirit.”

Stallings’ breakout season for the Vols was foreshadowed by his strong performance last summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

Stallings stayed with a host family during his stint with the Harwich Mariners. Emmy Hamilton and her 11-year-old son, Charlie, welcomed Stallings into their home just three weeks after the death of Emmy’s husband and Charlie’s father.

Stallings didn’t know about the death until the day before he arrived.

“I was really glad it was me that got to go there. I became this kid’s kind of older brother and even kind of like a father figure,” Stallings explains. “I am not filling shoes, but I told him anything he ever needs or any questions he has, just come my way.

“I still talk to them every week, and they came to our game at Kentucky. It was a great thing and we will be friends for life.”

Making time to sign autographs or take photos with children is a priority for Stallings. He’ll go out of his way – even on days he’s pitching – to find them in the stands.

“The littlest things can make such a big impact,” Stallings continues. “I used to be a little kid going to baseball games. People really look up to us, and we have the ability to impact their lives and I think we should take advantage of it.”

Reaching the NCAA tournament this year is especially meaningful for Stallings after the program’s struggles during his first two seasons. He’s planning to leave school to begin his professional career once UT’s postseason run ends. The MLB Draft is June 3-5, and Stallings is projected to be a Day Two pick.

“It’s been incredible. One reason I came to Tennessee is I wanted to help get the program back on the map where they have been,” Stallings adds. “This is something we will remember forever. It’s the ultimate accomplishment.”

The legacy Stallings built at UT transcends statistics or awards. His impact as a UT representative stretches across the city, country and even the world.

His future aspirations aren’t centered on big-money contracts or fame. What inspires Stallings is something much more basic, yet profound.

“As cliché as it sounds, just being the best person that I can,” Stallings says. “I think it’s very important to wake up with a purpose and not just waste your time and go through the motions. I take pride in getting better every day and helping others get better as life goes on, too.”

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