The Woolridge Elementary Wildcats have an angel in their midst. Kai Noah Galleo is ageless now, but he'll forever be a bright-eyed baby to his parents, Michelle and Darrin, his big sister, Lily, and the softball team that didn't go to bat for him.
Kai died inexplicably on June 18 while sleeping at a day-care facility in Chesterfield County. He was 3 months and 13 days old.
In that short time, Kai, which means "sea" in Hawaiian, had become a sunny presence for the Wildcats, an undefeated team of 10- and 11-year-old girls, which included Kai's big sister, Lily Galleo.
"Kai had never missed a game," Michelle says. "He'd be passed around -- he was a fixture." And on the field, excitement was building.
All season the slow-pitch softball team dreamed of beating its longtime rival, Clover Hill, to become county champs. With 13 wins and one tie, the girls seemed well on their way.
Then came the unthinkable.
Just as Woolridge headed to the playoffs, Kai suddenly died. It was the day after Father's Day. Word of the tragedy spread quickly among those close to the Galleos friends, neighbors, teammates. There was no explanation. "We had a perfectly healthy baby. Then he died," Michelle says, quietly forcing the words.
For many of the girls on the team, it was their first experience with death. That Kai was a baby who was smiling one day and gone the next made it more difficult. Parents struggled with how to talk about it with their children. Girls wondered how they should approach their friend Lily.
Carla King recalls the days after Kai's death. Her daughter Campbell was Lily's teammate. Her younger daughter, Madison, had grown attached to Kai, having held him happily at games.
"I told them, 'Don't treat Lily any differently. Tell her you're there for her and give her a hug,'" King says.
The team did more.
The day after Kai died, the girls had a playoff game. Lily Galleo was there. Her parents let her decide whether to go. King recalls head coach Joel Smith huddled with the girls reverently.
"We come with a heavy heart," Smith told the girls. "All our minds are on Kai. But it's our job as true friends to pick Lily up."
That night Lily, who occasionally pitched for Woolridge, arguably had her best game yet. She pitched strikes. She hit a home run. She helped her team win the game. Parents who were there fought back tears, King says. And when Lily got hugs, she told teammates, friends and family, "Thank you. I did it for Kai."
Smith says in his years spent coaching, he's never seen such a sense of spirit prevail: "Every one of us parents, coaches from both teams, umpires went home and hugged our kids harder that night."
As it happened, the game to determine who'd play in the championship was scheduled to take place on the same night the Galleos were having a memorial visitation for Kai. Without telling the rival team why, the Woolridge team sent word that they were forfeiting the game. They no longer had a shot at the championship. And instead of showing up at a softball field, the team showed up at a funeral home.
The decision was unanimous.
"All the girls were there," Michelle Galleo says, along with parents, neighbors even friends they didn't know they had. "I would never have imagined it," she says. "You go and you play softball with people. But you never expect them to be with you in your darkest hour."
Though the girls didn't say so at the time, the reason for their forfeiture eventually reached their rival team, Clover Hill now the county champs and spread to Greg and Angela Curtis, both slow-pitch commissioners for the Chesterfield Youth Softball Association. And as the story of Michael Vick and his troubles thundered through the media, the story of Kai, Lily and the Woolridge Wildcats rolled across county districts from Woodlake to Meadowbrook to Bon Air.
"It's touched more than our little athletic association," Carla King says. "I think everyone's learned a valuable life lesson: There'll always be another game to play."
Today, the Galleos are living with their loss. Michelle says it's all they can do. She and her husband, an Army reservist who could be deployed at any time, have noticed a change in Lily. "Since Kai died, she's developed this really thick or strong demeanor," she says.
On July 18 the Wildcats had a post-season get-together at Beef 'O' Brady's their regular hangout in Harbour Pointe in Chesterfield County. Greg and Angela Curtis, the commissioners, and Michael Loving, the head coach for Clover Hill, showed up. They presented plaques to the Woolridge coaches; the players got shiny trophies. Inscribed are words that read: "Teammates are worth more than championships." S