CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — Not close to grown up but generally too big for his own britches, a 17-year-old Tony Stockman had no idea he was meeting his future wife in that study hall at Medina High School. At first, the freshman girl seated in front of him was simply a target — not of his affections, but of rolled up wads of paper he’d throw at her to distract her from her work.
To say Stockman was sure of himself would be an understatement.
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“The first thing he ever said to me was, ‘Don’t you know who I am?” the former Brittany Keltz remembers. “And I had no idea. I was a freshman. I had heard his name, but I actually thought he was someone else.”
Stockman laughs at that story. He doesn’t remember it; he also doesn’t doubt one percent of its accuracy.
“I already had my scholarship to Clemson,” he said. “I was cocky as all get-out. Couldn’t nobody tell me nothing.”
Stockman was Ohio’s Mr. Basketball at Medina in 2000, then played at Clemson for two years before transferring to Ohio State. Brittany became his girlfriend, then became pregnant before his senior season at Ohio State, and Tony knew the arrival of a baby boy in the thick of the Big Ten schedule would change his life.
He thought he knew lots of things. Back then, Stockman was still a shoot-first, shoot-second point guard with a professional career ahead. Now he’s a husband, a father, a coach and a servant — a totally changed person.
“I’ve come a million miles in eight years,” he said, and that’s not related to all those stamps on his passport.
Brittany lost two pounds over two days late in the pregnancy, and worried doctors ordered an ultrasound. They soon discovered the baby she’d been carrying for 37 weeks had stopped growing.
There had been no issues with the pregnancy, no signs that anything might go wrong. But that ultrasound showed a cyst on the baby’s brain, and Tayden Stockman was brought into the world three weeks early, in late January 2005, and immediately sent into surgery.
More surgeries have followed. So, too, have diagnoses of other issues, from diabetes to blindness. Tayden doesn’t hear, see or communicate. He requires constant care and battles seizures, some of which his parents can’t even tell are happening.
Tayden Stockman is a big brother now. He’s also the source of inspiration for his father, who after a pro career that included stops in France, Germany, Israel, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, was hired last spring as men’s basketball coach at Ohio Christian University in Circleville. A school of 600 or so on-campus students and almost 3,000 via online programs, OCU competes athletically in the National Christian College Athletic Association.
It’s small-town, small-time, small-college basketball. It’s what Tony Stockman calls the “perfect” opportunity.
“Basketball has been great to me,” Tony said. “Maybe I needed to realize it, maybe I made a couple wrong turns. It’s what I love, and I really believe I’ve been called to use basketball to help, to give back. I owe thanks to a lot of people.”
One of Stockman’s goals is to push the OCU basketball program to new heights, including membership in the NAIA and the introduction of athletic scholarships and increase in overall competition that would come with such a move. All of Stockman’s players are enrolled in four-year-degree programs. Some attend OCU because of their beliefs and their level of basketball talent. Others are considered transitional players, those who might need academic help or some time to mature before possibly moving on to a higher level of competition.
“We have some kids who probably should be at a higher level,” Stockman said. “It comes down to not just grades, but their approach to life. Some guys, it’s a family situation. Some guys just need an attitude check. I want them to listen to me. I’ve been there.”
Brittany Stockman is working toward a business degree at OCU and works for the school, too, as a recruiter for adult and graduate programs. She’s able to work from home and be available when any of her three boys need her.
Maddox, 4, is a natural basketball player who shoots hoops “for hours at a time” in the basement. He recently told his parents he was ready to take up coaching, too, and when Tony asked him where he was going to find his players, Maddox told his dad they were in his closet, waiting for their first game. Braysen, 5, loves running and swimming but drives his dad a little crazy because he hasn’t taken to basketball.
Both look like their dad — and, like their dad, have been known to call their own shots on the basketball floor.
“(Braysen) will come to practice with me,” Tony said, “and then he’ll decide he wants to take a nap on the court.”
Every day is a different adventure.
It was after midnight — and after a long stay in the hospital — last Sept. 12 when Tony and Brittany were driving Tayden home, and Tayden starting having a seizure. They had been told time and again at the hospital that there’s generally nothing the doctors and nurses can do for his seizures, but as his parents looked into the back seat they thought this one was different.
“We should go back,” Tony said, and Brittany agreed.
A mix-up with his medication had caused Tayden’s sodium levels to skyrocket. The hospital stay had been about getting those levels to drop, which they did. But they kept dropping, to dangerously low levels, and sparked the seizures. Tony turned the car around, Tayden went into intensive care, and after three more seizures doctors eventually got his levels to stabilize.
Had they gone home, Tayden and his parents would have gone to sleep. Tayden wouldn’t have survived the night.
“He has no guarantees,” Brittany said. “I don’t like to think about it often, but we have talked about it. Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow, but he has his own challenges.”
Tony performs “extra” checks during the night, not just on Tayden but on the other boys. With the younger boys, the Stockman family wellness policy is a little like the basketball games Tony and his older brother Adrian played in the park while growing up.
No blood, no foul.
“When you think about what we went through with the first one, the other guys have been easy,” Brittany said. “They’re tough. They’re fine.”
Said Tony: “When Tayden gets a cold or the flu, it usually means a few days in the hospital, just to be careful. With Braysen and Maddox, it’s put a Band-aid on it and get back in the game.”
Getting back in the game as a coach is something Brittany thought her husband would do, but Tony swears is not something he saw in his own future.
“It’s been interesting,” Tony said. “It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun trying to mold and learn the different personalities. When you see things clicking, that’s the fun part. It’s rewarding. I’ve been on a ton of different teams and really molding things, it’s never easy.
“I see my old coaches come out a little bit. I hear them in my voice. All my coaches wanted me to play defense. Now, it’s come back around on me. It’s making me a little bit old, but the good times are worth it.
“I’ve been wanting to sub myself in a few times.”
Tony plans to use his Northeast Ohio roots and connections to his advantage in recruiting for future seasons, but he’ll also focus on inner-city kids who might benefit from individual attention and virtual isolation in Circleville.
Circleville is a little less than 30 miles southeast of Columbus and seemingly 500 miles from anywhere to kids from, say, Cleveland or Dayton, so a big night out for OCU’s players is a trip over to Coach Stockman’s place to watch NBA games.
On most nights, the Stockmans just plop on the couch and take a breath. Because of Tony’s professional career, the longest they ever had been in one place as a family was nine months in Brazil. They’re approaching seven months in Circleville, and Brittany laughs when she says “we’re trying to beat that nine-month record.”
Tony always saw himself playing pro ball well in to his 30s, but when the opportunity to coach at OCU came, he said he realized the right thing to do was to give his family a stable home.
“I’ve been slowly changing,” Tony said. “I was always gifted, but I had to see things differently and check myself to make a jump as a basketball player. You don’t ever think about it or realize it, but you’re changing as a person, too.
“Everything I ever did was to benefit me. Then when Tayden came, everything changed. I want to serve, and I want to help. One of my main goals is I want every player, that when he’s done playing, to know what he wants to do and be prepared for it. It took me 10 years, but I’ve found what my way of helping can be.”
Because he’s both outgrown and outdone his old one, Tayden is in a wheelchair loaned by his school. Tony and Brittany have been saving and participating in fundraisers trying to raise approximately $3,000 to purchase a new one.
Tony Stockman was raised by his mother and grandmother after his dad went to jail. Now, father and son are closer than ever before. And Tony says being a father “is my most important job . . . my whole mindset has changed.”
Tony remains in contact with Ohio State coach Thad Matta and Illinois coach John Groce, a Buckeyes assistant when Stockman was playing. He spoke to both during his interview/hiring process last spring, and he laughs about the coaching advice both gave him after he got the job.
“Be careful with players like Tony Stockman,” Tony said.
Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus is about a 20-minute drive from their home, which is so close to OCU’s campus that Tony doesn’t even know road names. It’s only been seven months, but it really feels like home.
“Some people have told me that this is a great starting job, but I tell them they’re wrong,” Tony said. “I thought if I ever did coach, I’d be a Division I assistant. But that’s too much travel, too much recruiting, too much everything. I’m here for the long haul. We want the Stockmans to be good for Ohio Christian University basketball, and vice versa. It is. It’s great.”
Here, Tony can spend his mornings and early afternoon in the office, in the weightroom and wherever else on campus he may need to be, making sure things are in order. On one weekday earlier this month, he stopped for sandwiches and greeted Brittany and Maddox at home by a little after 2 p.m. Practice didn’t start until 4 p.m.
A little before 3 o’clock, Brittany went to the end of the driveway to meet the school bus. A few minutes later, she wheeled Tayden through the front door and into the living room, where his father and youngest brother were waiting.
Tony and Maddox smiled. Tayden, of course, was wearing a basketball sweatshirt.