He pitches with heart — a brand new one
GODDARD, Kan. — It’s a picture-perfect afternoon for baseball as…
The news hit me like a fastball to the gut.
“With overwhelming sadness, we need to share that the Lord called Josh home today,” Krista Prindle, one of Josh Oakley’s five older sisters, wrote on Facebook. “Thank you for your continued prayers for our family during this unimaginably difficult time.”
Josh was just 23 — the same age as my son Keaton.
In 2016, I was blessed to tell the inspiring story of how Josh, then an 18-year-old Kansas high school baseball player, came to receive a life-saving heart transplant.
“It’s an absolute gift from God to still be able to play this game,” Josh, a member of the Northside Church of Christ in Wichita, said after a successful pitching outing on a blue-sky April afternoon.
Before the transplant, Josh’s parents, Darrell and DeVona Oakley, had feared they might lose him, I reported in a front-page Christian Chronicle feature.
“I’d already accepted that God was going to take him,” his father told me, “and I was preparing myself to have to feel what he felt by giving up his son.”
Steve Tandy, a longtime minister for the Northside church, recalled: “It looked like Josh wasn’t going to make it. … Things were crashing pretty fast.”
But as Josh lay unconscious at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., in October 2015, the perfect heart became available.
“Ernesto Alonso Aguilar’s family made a selfless decision under unimaginable circumstances and provided a life-saving miracle,” Josh’s obituary noted.
The faithful young man spent the next five years making a difference.
“He wanted to be better because he understood his second chance,” said Matt Carden, youth and family minister for the Eastwood Church of Christ in Hutchinson, Kan. “Not many people get a second chance in that manner, and he didn’t want to blow it.”
After high school, Josh attended Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., on a baseball scholarship.
During college, he remained active in church activities. He served as a counselor at Kansas’ Silver Maple Camp, which is associated with Churches of Christ. He worked as a summer intern for Carden at the Eastwood church.
“For me, it’s really easy to see why God gave him those extra years.”
“For me, it’s really easy to see why God gave him those extra years,” said Carden, who was 18 when he first met Josh, then a 9-year-old camper at Silver Maple.
“He definitely had a heart for the outcast,” the youth minister said. “He was really good at making sure the loners, the outsiders, the awkward people knew that Jesus loved them.”
Josh “was always trying to be better for Jesus because of Jesus’ grace. It was never an ‘earn my way into heaven’ thing but always, ‘I’m inspired to be better because of Jesus.’”
After Josh finished his undergraduate studies last spring, he entered Tabor’s master’s in business administration program while working as a second-grade teacher’s aide and a baseball coach at Life Prep Academy, a Christian school in Wichita.
He loved children. Absolutely loved them.
“He’s got 15 nieces and nephews, and at family get-togethers, he’d be out in the yard playing football with them or playing baseball with them,” his mother told me.
At Life Prep, he played “rock, paper, scissors” with a special-needs boy in his class and made him feel important, DeVona recalled.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a heart rejection episode this past November forced Josh into an Oklahoma City intensive care unit. He spent Thanksgiving in the hospital, eating a home-cooked meal provided by the Britton Road Church of Christ.
But as 2021 rolled around, he was doing better.
“Josh was cautious, but he refused to live scared or in isolation. He went back to work in January, continued spending time with our family and his friends and kept on coaching. He lived life every day and loved big!”
“Josh was cautious, but he refused to live scared or in isolation,” DeVona said. “He went back to work in January, continued spending time with our family and his friends and kept on coaching. He lived life every day and loved big!”
In late February, Josh woke up one Monday feeling sick. He tested positive for COVID-19 that Thursday.
On Friday — Feb. 26 — his condition worsened. DeVona called 911 at 12:45 p.m. Firefighters quickly moved him to the floor and performed CPR for 45 minutes. He was pronounced dead at 2:03 p.m.
His sudden passing at home, surrounded by family, came as a definite shock.
“You kind of prepared yourself more for it five years ago,” DeVona said, fighting back tears.
“He was living life,” she added. “He was doing so many things, feeling so good. There’d be bumps in the road as far as (heart) rejection and things like that. But for him to code and go into cardiac arrest, you know — no, I don’t know if you’re ever ready and expect that.”
More than 400 people showed up for Josh’s socially distanced memorial service at the Northside church.
Many mourners wore Sooners jerseys or T-shirts or attire for other favorite teams, as suggested by the family. Besides God, his family and friends, Silver Maple Camp, baseball and fun, Josh also loved University of Oklahoma football.
“We had no idea how far-reaching his influence was on people.”
“It was just really cool,” DeVona said of the size of the crowd that filled the church auditorium and an overflow area. “We had no idea how far-reaching his influence was on people.”
Josh never threw a perfect game, but oh, what a difference he made on his way to the ultimate Hall of Fame.
“One of the things that he said was that he didn’t have to worry about it anymore,” DeVona said of her son’s reaction to his positive COVID-19 test. “And then he said, ‘If it’s my time to go, I’m ready. Either way, I’m good.’”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.