With each sly grin and cloud of dust that came from his headfirst dives back into third base, one young ballplayer began to establish a legacy that has led to something bigger than even he, his coach or family could have ever dreamt.
Slade Russo was a 13-year-old all-American boy that enjoyed this nation’s pastime almost as much as his parents, Steve and Beverly Russo, loved watching or Mike Davis relished coaching.
"Slade had a personality that was unbelievable and the saying that I use all the time is ‘just dust off and smile Slade’s way,’" Davis recalled. "Whenever I was coaching third base, he would dive back in or almost get thrown out, stand up, dust off and just kind of grin.”
After an ATV accident took the life of the young teen May 17, 2015, the family and Davis established the I Play for Slade Foundation. Three years ago, the group formed an annual youth baseball tournament with hopes to change the lives of those who cannot run, play or experience the game “Slade’s way" one donation, raffle ticket and pitch at a time.
Davis noted the primary focus of the annual I Play for Slade Memorial Classic has always been to provide the Russos with another opportunity to enjoy baseball in its most pure form. He explained the weekend helps keep Slade's legacy alive and also allows the family another outlet to cope.
"Just hearing the smiles and laughers really helps the family," Davis said, "and that is what really matters most this weekend."
It just so happens the tournament also serves as the perfect opportunity to raise funds for local individuals or groups.
With those goals in mind, Davis was excited to announce all proceeds this year will benefit the Miracle League of Ellis County and its pursuit of a handicap-accessible baseball field.
“We knew the Miracle League would always be a big part of this, but we wanted to wait until they got closer to building a field to help them out,” Davis said. “These kids deserve a field to play on. It is just the perfect deal to help continue Slade’s legacy because these kids deserve a field that they can call their own. We are hoping this will raise awareness in the community so that they can step up and we can get that field built. That’s the goal.”
The three-day tournament, presented by Waxahachie-based Legend Exteriors, is scheduled for Friday through Sunday, May 18-20 at The Optimist Park in Waxahachie.
The third annual I Play for Slade Memorial Classic will see over 70 select baseball teams descend on the Optimist Fields and Waxahachie Sports Complex from as far away as Oklahoma City.
The gates open at 6 p.m. Friday, May 18, and the opening ceremonies and ceremonial first pitch are at 6:30 p.m. The Miracle League of Ellis County will then hold the first game of the tournament at 7 p.m. Friday night.
Tournament play begins at 8 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday and lasts until about 10 p.m. each night.
In its inaugural year, the memorial tournament drew roughly 30-select baseball teams to Waxahachie and was able to raise just over $20,000. Those funds were donated to Campfire Creek, a local therapeutic riding center. Year two then raised over $42,000 with close to 80 baseball teams registered in support of Scott Dorsett, the longtime Daily Light Photojournalist who was severely injured after being struck by a car while jogging near his home Aug. 24, 2016.
"We've exceeded our goal the first two years, so hopefully we can do that for the third year," Davis said.
He added, “When we started this tournament, we made it known and were transparent that we give everything back and don’t keep anything. Ellis County really stepped up when Slade had the accident and really got the family through a tough time. Because of that, the family just really felt like they needed to give back."
Legend Exteriors stepped up to the plate to serve as the title sponsor of the USSSA sanctioned tournament, which consists of 6U to 14U teams.
Davis said the foundation is “really appreciative" of the generosity shown by the school district, Johnson Baseball Group LLC, volunteers, numerous Slade's Way sponsors and, especially, Legend Exteriors.
He also thanked the continued support of Brian Simmons and Chris Key, of Superior Construction Services. "They really stepped up and made a really nice donation once again. Chris and Brian have supported this tournament all three years, and we really appreciate all they do for the community."
In addition to the sponsorships and entry fees, items ranging from sports memorabilia and tickets to arts and crafts have been donated for a silent auction.
Food trucks and vendors will also be on site, as well as a first-ever cornhole tournament that begins at noon. Those interested in playing can sign up at the ball fields.
The silent auction begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 19 and closes promptly at 2:22 p.m. Sunday — a significant number, as Slade always wore 22.
There are also options to make a straight donation by contacting Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or by utilizing the PayPal option on the foundation’s website sladerussothelegend.com.
"We want the community to just be a part of the weekend,” Davis added. “[…] I am excited, and it is a great cause. Slade was such an amazing person — not only did he touch the people who knew him but he has also touched people who knew him, and he is still touching people today. That is kind of what it is about. I am passionate about it because the family is just so special. You can’t turn it into a positive, but we can sure try to do something good out of it, somehow.”