Finding solace in sports

Bel Air's Jeff Klingler continues to work through his grief after losing both of his parents.

May 10, 2006|By MARY BETH KOZAK | MARY BETH KOZAK,SUN REPORTER

As Bel Air senior Jeff Klingler runs out to center field, he kisses a St. Rita medal that hangs around his neck. The medal of the patron saint of baseball players is a constant reminder of his father, Dave Klingler, who gave it to him when he was younger.

Jeff Klingler's world changed four years ago when his father's body was found on Easter morning after he had committed suicide. The death of Klingler's father came a year after his mother lost her battle with alcoholism and liver cancer.

Klingler, who lives with his aunt and uncle, has used sports as an outlet to help him work through his grief.

"People thought he would go downhill, like go into drugs and become depressed," said Lindsay Klingler, his older sister. "There were always thoughts in my head, but I prayed every night that he would stay with football and sports. My brother being into sports has really helped him. That is all he thinks about. He's the type where you tell him how to play a sport and he'll play it."

Klingler's adjustment wasn't a smooth one. Initially, he kept to himself and was in denial about his situation.

"I was with him every day through it," said Kevin Fisher, Klingler's best friend and teammate on the Bobcats' baseball and football teams. "He was really down with everything with his father. He's a hilarious kid and it took him a while to come back out and joke around."

Having to deal with losing both of his parents caused Klingler to gain new perspective on his own life.

"I think there is a different appreciation," Bel Air baseball coach John Swanson said. "He understands every day is a great day to be alive and every day you get to be who you are. He understands how things work, like you have to work hard for things. Life is cruel with things, but you have to figure it out for yourself."

Klingler, 18, admits that he still struggles at times with the void in his life that will always be there.

"There are times when I look at it and wish they were here. You go to your parents for certain things, and I don't really have that luxury," he said. "I have my aunt and uncle, but they're not my parents."

Klingler's parents divorced when he was 8. He lived with his father and the two of them developed a strong bond.

"My dad was my best friend," Klingler said. "He was the closest person I'd ever been close to. We did everything together. He was definitely everything to me."

While the loss of his father left Klingler confused and hurt, his relationship with his mother, Michelle Brooke, left him with regrets after her death.

"My mom was a strong person," he said. "My relationship with her was good, but as she started drinking really bad, I didn't want to be around that at the time. But if I had known she was going to die, I wouldn't have been so [distant]."

Klingler, who will attend Robert Morris in the fall on a football scholarship, found strength through sports and a solid support system.

"If he wasn't playing sports, I think he would be struggling with school and with his behavior," Bel Air football assistant coach Craig Reddish said. "I think what he's done through sports is he's found a brotherhood in some of his teammates. Being a good player, people look up to you and you feel that you have some self worth. It gives him something to be excited about."

Said Fisher: "We respect everything that he has gone through - coming out for the team- a lot of kids could have just stopped caring about everything. He handled his situation well and he knows that we are all here for him."

Swanson said that besides having a strong work ethic and positive attitude, Klingler is one of the best athletes he has coached.

"He sees the ball so well off the bat," Swanson said. "He runs like a deer - a single turns into a triple because of his speed. He does what he's supposed to do and knows how to do it."

Klingler, the Bobcats' leadoff hitter, is batting .400 with a .451 on-base percentage. He is leading the county with 17 stolen bases.

"I don't think anyone plays a better center field than him," Fisher said.

Klingler has seven doubles, two home runs and one triple this season, including the game-winning homer against county rival Fallston last week.

"I felt my dad did that for me because we really needed it," Klingler said of his home run. "He's my biggest fan. He was at all of my games. When I came home I knew he was there with me. I knew he hit that with me."

Klingler also had a standout season in football as a wide receiver, breaking the school record for receptions. He finished with 52 catches for 686 yards and seven touchdowns.

Reddish says Klingler most of all wants to please the people around him.

"He seeks out approval because he doesn't have those people in his life who are supposed to constantly give it to you," Reddish said. "He's done a miraculous job going on with his life. I think he will be successful because he's a likable kid. He doesn't hide things and he's honest. He's let me into his life and trusts me."

Fisher said he has learned from Klingler's hardships.

"When I am being disobedient, I just [think] that I have someone there who cares for me and Jeff doesn't have the people he wants to care for him there for him," Fisher said. "It just makes me appreciate everything that I have."

Klingler said he will have his parents in his thoughts in August when he goes to Robert Morris in Pittsburgh to begin football training camp.

"Even though they passed away, I don't want to let them down. I know they see the things I'm doing and if I'm doing anything bad, my parents brought me up right. I just try to stay strong and try to keep a smile on my face every day," Klingler said.

marybeth.kozak@baltsun.com

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