Time and baseball help USF coach overcome loss of wife
As the ice-cold Gatorade bath rained down over his head, engulfing him in sheer joy while masking his overwhelming tears, he thought of her.
At that moment, Billy Mohl, an assistant coach for the Illinois State baseball team at the time, who took over the game following then-head coach Mark Kingston’s ejection, watched his team celebrate a series sweep of Southern Illinois. The Redbirds had just clinched the program’s first-ever Missouri Valley Conference title.
But the image ingrained in the forefront of his mind while the circus swirled around him was her.
Sarah, his beloved wife.
Just two months prior to that gratifying moment, Sarah took her last breath. After a seven-month long fight, she succumbed to a rare form of cervical cancer at the age of 28, with her husband and family planted firmly at her side.
“I was in tears by the end of it,” Mohl recalled. “I just knew she was looking down on us.”
The two met at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA — Mohl was a sophomore, Sarah a freshman.
Mohl was riding a baseball scholarship through school as a pitcher — becoming a living legend in the process. He set multiple records with the Green Wave and became only the second pitcher in school history to go undefeated (9-0) during his senior year.
But it wasn’t baseball that pulled the two together. Believe it or not, it was social media.
“I had her in a class and she was gone to Connecticut for the summer,” Mohl said. “I sent her a message on Facebook, back when Instant Messenger and all that stuff was around.
“We spent hours talking and then I flew up there. We had never talked face to face, but I flew up there to see her and that’s all she wrote.”
The two were inseparable from then on. She was all he needed in life — well, outside of baseball that is.
“In terms of energy level, she was off the charts,” Mohl said. “She was the most fun-loving person you’ll ever be around. I don’t think she had any enemies. She got along with everybody, it didn’t matter who you were.”
The two graduated together, given that Mohl was on the “five-year plan,” and within two years, they were married at Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans.
“My Best Friend” by Tim McGraw blared through the speakers.
“She was such a special person to me,” Mohl said. “We never fought. She was perfect.”
Soon came Hunter, their only son, born December 20, 2010.
Everything was complete.
“It was the American dream. I mean, it was perfect,” Mohl said, smiling as he looked from the dugout he was sitting in out at the field. “(Hunter) was her prized possession. He was young enough that he didn’t really understand what was going on. But he was her everything.”
Their lives revolved around baseball. Mohl was the coach, the apple of Sarah’s eye. Sarah would usually sit up in the stands with Hunter on her lap, watching her husband coach.
“Sarah was a great wife, she was a great mom,” said USF assistant coach Mike Current, who was part of the Redbirds’ staff in 2012. “She was always around the park and all the players knew her.”
Hunter, now 5 years old, continues his dad’s passion, playing for the North Tampa Rays.
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In August of 2012, Sarah began having health issues and pains. Mohl decided to drive her to the doctor’s office to get a biopsy done. The results that followed were far worse than Mohl expected.
“She went to work that morning and I was home — I hadn’t gone to work yet,” Mohl recalled. “I got a phone call from Dr. Santiago. He said he needed to speak with Sarah. I said, ‘This is her husband, tell me what’s going on.’”
Minutes later, Mohl received a call from Sarah who told him that the doctors believed she had cancer.
Standing alone in his living room, his heart dropped and his mind began reeling.
Worried and utterly upset, Mohl instantly called his mom and said possibly the toughest words he’d ever spoke to that point.
“I told her, ‘I don’t want to be a single dad.’”
Sarah came straight home from work, gathered a few things, and the family drove nearly six and a half hours to Columbus, Ohio for Sarah to begin treatment.
“If they go in there and it’s just in the one spot, than there’s a good chance of survival,” Mohl was told by doctors.
The biggest worry was that the cancer had begun to spread to the liver, which, from what Mohl was told, was the “worst case scenario.”
After surgery, doctors were able to cut out most of the cancerous cells, leaving the liver unscathed.
Mohl thought, “OK, that’s a huge success.”
The future was looking bright, or at least as bright as it could be given the circumstances. Sarah received chemotherapy once every six weeks.
All they could do was hope.
Not once did Sarah’s spirits falter. Through the grueling months that she endured, she emitted nothing but positive vibes and love to the family and friends surrounding her.
“Never once did she complain, never once did she ask, ‘Why do I have to die?’ It was always, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, we’re going to get through this.’ Never once did she want you to feel sorry for her,” Mohl said.
But it didn’t take long for that blissful hope to plummet back into disheartening worry, just before the New Year.
“The cancer had exploded,” Mohl said. “It was everywhere.”
The cancer wasn’t responding to the treatments. The next step was to transfer her to a different cancer center in Washington D.C. — over 750 miles away from Mohl, who stayed home with then 2-year-old Hunter.
“It was hard for me,” Mohl said. “My communication with her was through the phone only. It was really hard.”
Baseball season was soon back in full swing, which presented Mohl with yet another major time commitment.
He was already taking care of Hunter in Sarah’s absence, with his mother moving in from Texas to help out. But he couldn’t stay away from the game.
“I think he would probably tell you that it was the biggest thing for him,” Current said. “I think any time you’re going through something like that, just having something to go to get your mind off of it, something else to think about, is an important thing. Baseball was that for him.”
But four weeks into the season, with the team gearing up for a mid-March matchup with No. 28 Miami, it all changed.
While sitting at a barbecue joint with the team hours before first pitch, Mohl got a phone call from Sarah.
“She basically told me she had two weeks left to live,” Mohl said.
Mohl immediately got on a flight to Columbus where Sarah was now staying, leaving his team and the sport to be by her side.
“Family is always first,” said Kingston, who now coaches at USF. “When he was dealing with what he was dealing with and he needed to be away from our team, that wasn’t even a question.
“We supported him 100 percent. Family is always first, baseball is after that.”
With Mohl listening to the game on the flight, the Redbirds beat Miami 17-6, dedicating the game to Sarah and her fight.
“I couldn’t even tell you how long I was in Columbus, it felt like forever,” Mohl said.
Sarah was moved to hospice care where she would spend her final days. Mohl refused to leave her side as nurses scurried in and out every two hours checking vital signs. But Mohl wished they could just be alone. They had accepted it, as hard and unbearable as it was to think about, he knew time was minimal.
In Sarah’s final weeks, prior to her time in hospice, the Mohl family took advantage of every second. Sarah was able to see her son Hunter baptized in the comfort of her own home, laying in her own bed.
“That was the last thing she remembered,” Mohl said.
At hospice, he slept in a hospital chair every night for a week straight. As time passed, Sarah became less and less like the vibrant woman he fell in love with years before.
“The last probably four or five days she wasn’t even there,” Mohl said. “And they don’t leave you alone, she just wanted to be left alone. She knew she was done and she just wanted to be left alone.”
On March 25, 2013 around 1 p.m, Sarah took her final breath.
But her spirit lives on.
“My mom went out and got birthday cards for my son — all the way from 1-18,” Mohl said. “(Sarah) signed them all for him, so every year, he has a birthday card from his mom.”
When it came time for Sarah’s funeral, there wasn’t anything that was going to stop Kingston and the entire Redbird team from being there.
“That was very important for us,” Kingston said. “We ended up playing a double header on Saturday so we could drive from Wichita (Kansas) on Sunday back to Illinois, which was about 12 hours. We could then get up early Monday morning to drive to Ohio to join Billy and his family.”
Days after, Mohl returned to coaching. Once he returned, a team that had lost five of its last seven games went on one of the greatest runs in program history.
Illinois State won 24 of its final 28 games with Mohl back in the dugout.
But being back in the ballpark couldn’t heal his pain or make what happened over those seven months disappear. It couldn’t bring Sarah back.
All it could do was help him cope and put a support group around him that could lift him up and help overcome his tragedy. The tears have all but dried up and the wealth of memories he has of Sarah have begun to reemerge.
Recently remarried, Mohl doesn’t look back thinking about the seven-month battle. Instead, he looks at what her battle taught him and the new perspective she instilled.
“There have been two things in my life: my family and baseball,” Mohl said. “When (Sarah) left, I didn’t have a full house, but when I go to the park, I have 35 kids that keep me going.
“What she went through and how she handled it all makes any bad day I have seem like nothing.”