Scholarship focuses on baseball-loving son's life, not death

For fans and ballplayers, February is the most anxious month.

Spring training is as close as apple pie under glass. You can almost smell it, very nearly taste it. For the baseball lover, February is all about anticipation.

Pitchers and catchers will report in a few days. The foul lines are practically chalked, and soon enough the infield grass will be manicured.

Although I never met him, I know Chris Cassell loved this time of year. All ballplayers do. He was a ballplayer from a family that reveres the game.

“Chris lived and breathed it,” his father, Mike Cassell, says, pausing over an uneaten lunch at the Four Kegs.

Mike was a high school pitching standout who played some college ball. But Chris had the fire, and that’s not just a proud father reminiscing.

From earliest childhood, Chris played ball every day for hours on end. He wore out his old man’s arm in batting practice. He found his life’s passion between the foul lines.

“We introduced it to him, but he is the one who wanted it to happen,” Mike says. “I always liked baseball. This kid loved it.”

Chris excelled on the field and in the classroom at Palo Verde High, Feather River College in California and Mesa State College in Colorado. In 2009, he helped lead Mesa State to the Division II College World Series and graduated with a business degree.

By then the seizures had begun.

They seemed to come from nowhere and didn’t happen often, but they left Chris with memory lapses and murderous headaches. Doctors diagnosed him with epilepsy and prescribed medication.

After his college playing days ended, he transferred his competitive fire into daily workouts in the gym and a plan to study sports medicine. He was prescribed more medicine to help control his seizures, which were unpredictable but appeared to be triggered when he failed to get enough sleep.

On July 9, 2011, Chris Cassell died suddenly after suffering an epileptic seizure. An autopsy attributed the cause of death to Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy, or SUDEP.

He was 25.

Until that moment, his devoted parents never had heard of SUDEP. Their son’s physicians never mentioned it. As they researched SUDEP, they discovered few medical articles on epilepsy made much mention of the rare cause of death.

As they reeled from their son’s death and worked through their grief, Mike and Janell Cassell decided to learn more about SUDEP. These difficult days they channel their heartache into raising public awareness of its existence.

“Nobody ever told us about SUDEP,” Cassell says, his eyes wet with emotion. “We had two neurologists. Nobody ever told us.”

When they attended an epilepsy conference in Chicago, other shattered families shared a similar story. They didn’t know a sudden seizure could be deadly. Because it is so rare and unpredictable, physicians often don’t tell their patients of the possibility.

His purpose isn’t to alarm epilepsy sufferers, Cassell says, only to inform them.

The fact is epilepsy didn’t define Chris Cassell. Baseball did.

His parents, with help from friends Bob and Lana Martin, crafted a plan to honor their son’s life and passion. And the Chris Cassell Memorial Baseball Scholarship was born.

Local varsity baseball players who intend to play college ball are eligible. This year, one $2,500 scholarship will go to a Palo Verde player. Another $2,500 scholarship will be awarded to a qualifying Clark County School District senior. (The application deadline is Feb. 27. Contact the Public Education Foundation at 702-799-1042, for more information.)

Chris would have liked the idea of helping other ballplayers chase their dreams on the field and in the classroom, his father says.

I suspect spring, if it ever returns, will be a long time coming for the Cassell family, but they now are assured their son’s love of the game remains part of his legacy.

He was a ballplayer, you know.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at or call 702- 383-0295. He blogs at