As he walked Brad Garafola Jr. to the pitching mound, LSU baseball star shortstop Kramer Robertson leaned in close and offered some words of wisdom.
He was going over the plan, like they had rehearsed a week before. Robertson asked whether he was nervous and reminded Garafola to wait for the signal. When he got a nod in reply, Robertson sent him on his way with a quick pat on the back.
Garafola didn’t look like he needed a pep talk. As he had planned, he walked to the rubber on the pitching mound, opting not to throw a shortened pitch from the grass in front of the mound.
If he was going to honor his dad, he was going to do it the right way.
Before the ceremonial first pitch was thrown, the public address announcer informed those in attendance why it was meaningful.
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“Last July, three members of our community’s law enforcement were tragically killed in the line of duty,” LSU's Bill Franques read over the public-address system. “Over this weekend and next weekend, we will be recognizing each one of them in first-pitch ceremonies. Today, we welcome the first of three honorary first pitches in their memory. Tiger fans, welcome to the mound Brad Garafola Jr., son of the late deputy Brad Garafola of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office.”
The several thousand in attendance erupted in a cheer. Garafola wheeled around to see himself on the video board, then settled into his position on the rubber. He got the signal from Robertson, wound up and let it fly.
His mother, Tonja, was in tears as she watched.
“This means the world to me,” she said. “For him to go out there and do that in honor of his dad, it's just amazing. For LSU baseball to honor Brad and the other officers as well, I couldn't ask for more. It means a lot to me and my in-laws and his brothers.”
This moment was set up long ago during much different times.
LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri met the Garafola family only a few weeks after Brad Garafola Sr., Matthew Gerald and Montrell Jackson — all members of Baton Rouge area law enforcement — were shot and killed July 17 in an ambush by Gavin Eugene Long.
Gerald’s father, Ronnie, is slated to throw out the first pitch Sunday. Jackson’s widow, Trenisha, will handle the first pitch next Saturday against Maryland.
Mainieri attended a fundraiser at Sullivan’s Steakhouse designed to provide new equipment for local law enforcement when he saw Brad Jr. He immediately felt compelled to make an offer.
“I saw this young boy, and he just lost his father,” Mainieri said. “I thought, just to give him something to look forward to, I asked him if he could get our season off on the right note by firing the first pitch.”
Brad Jr. said he was “in awe” that Mainieri would ask him to do such a thing. He also had something to look forward to.
“That was all he could talk about for five months,” Tonja said.
Tonja did not hesitate when asked whether the leadup to this moment helped her son with the grief of losing his father.
“Absolutely,” she said. “All of my kids have been amazing with the grief process. We all have our moments, and we know that we're never going to stop grieving. It's just that day by day we get better at it.”
Though Brad Jr. describes himself as more of a football guy than a baseball guy, he practiced for this moment. He wanted to make sure he was on target when everyone’s eyes were on him.
Mainieri invited him to the park last week to calm any sort of anxiousness. He wanted him to be familiar with the surroundings, and he wanted him to meet some players. Brad Jr. immediately gravitated toward Robertson.
The biggest reward that day? He got a follow back on Instagram. As Tonja said, “For a 13 year-old, that's a big deal.”
But Brad isn’t your typical 13-year-old anymore. He has been forced to mature since July 17.
“He is a completely different kid from what he was a year ago,” Tonja said. “Honestly, he's taking the role of man of the house. He's been protective of me, helpful with me; his dad would be so proud of him.”
Tonja envisioned Brad Sr. beaming with pride as Brad Jr. sent the first pitch home to Robertson’s glove, at how he composed himself with the crowd cheering and at how much he has grown since losing his father.
“I know that Brad will be looking down and smiling from ear to ear,” Tonja said. “He would be so proud of his son — just as much as we're so proud of him.”
Brad Sr. might also be proud to know that his son has remained steadfast in his commitment to enter law enforcement, even after what happened to his father.
“It's not about being out there and having the badge and the lights to me,” Brad Jr. said. “It's about helping the community and helping people in a time of need and stopping crime.”
Has the community helped him out?
“Yes, sir,” Brad Jr. said. “Definitely.”
Three months after he was killed in the line of duty, East Baton Rouge Sheriff's deputy Brad…
Updated, 11:45 a.m.: