Sportsmanship, friendship one year after Little League hug

Little Leaguers define the true meaning of sportsmanship (5:48)

In the boys 2022 Little League Southwest Region championship, Tulsa's Isaiah Jarvis showed the world the true meaning of sportsmanship by consoling Texas' Kaiden Shelton after being hit by Shelton's pitch. (5:48)

THIS MOMENT FELT different. It stymied even the most jaded keyboard warriors and moved people so deeply that some sent handwritten letters, addressed to various places in Oklahoma, that somehow found their way to Isaiah Jarvis. One person mailed him one of his Special Olympics medals. A woman from New Jersey penned a greeting card: "May you never change."

On Aug. 9, 2022, at the boys Little League Southwest Region championship, Isaiah "Zay" Jarvis of Tulsa National and Kaiden "Bubs" Shelton of Texas East-Pearland -- a couple of 12-year-olds from opposing teams and rival states -- participated in an act of sportsmanship that would become known simply as "The Hug."

A pitch that got away from Shelton hit Jarvis in the head. Jarvis got up, collected himself and went to first base, but noticed Shelton was rattled. In a game that would put the winner in the Little League World Series and on national television, Jarvis dropped his helmet, slowly strode from first base to the mound, and wrapped his arms around Shelton. "Hey," he told Shelton, "you're doing just great."

The internet blew up. Texas East defeated Tulsa National, but that became a mere footnote. The video went viral. Everyone wanted to know more about Jarvis, the auburn-red mulleted shortstop from Oklahoma, and Shelton, the 5-foot-10, 172-pound pre-teen Texas hurler. Why did two junior high boys care so much? Whatever happened to them after that game? Did they become friends?

A year after becoming instant celebrities, Zay and Bubs still have staying power. And in a world that has seemingly lost its manners, with parents attacking coaches and umpires, with signs hanging in ballparks reminding people to be nice, Jarvis and Shelton are held up as an example of how to practice sportsmanship. How to live.

"I don't think it's changed me," Jarvis says, "but it's changed my lifestyle. I would say I'm quite a bit more busy now. The standard I raised ... People know me, and so I always need to be doing the right thing."

"OH, GOD, OH, GOD," Tulsa National coach Sean Kouplen uttered after Jarvis' helmet went flying and he fell to the ground, clutching his head. Kouplen thought Jarvis had been hit square in the face. Coaches and a trainer surrounded Jarvis, who lay motionless for about 20 seconds, then got up. Jarvis had a bit of a headache, but was OK. Shelton wasn't.

"I got to first base, and looked over at the pitcher and saw him with his glove on his face," Jarvis says. "I saw his face somehow, and could see he was crying so I dropped my helmet and went over there."

Jarvis' dad, Austin, was in the crowd, and he walked to the edge of the field to hear the medical staff tell him that his son would be all right. But whatever happened after that, Austin didn't hear. He was fixated on Isaiah, who was headed to the mound. Austin Jarvis is a baseball coach, and he knows when a batter gets plunked, he generally isn't going to the mound to exchange pleasantries; he's going to fight.

But Austin knew his son wouldn't do that.

"For some reason, I knew what he was doing," Austin says. "And he's never done it before, and I've never seen it done. Maybe just because I know him, and I know that walk or whatever, I just knew what he was doing. I didn't know he was going to give him a hug, but I knew he was going to let Kaiden know that, 'Hey, I'm good.'"

Marvin Norcross Stadium in Waco, Texas, site of the regional, grew hushed as Isaiah made his way to the mound. When he put his arms around Shelton, the stadium erupted in cheers. Some of the clapping fans cried.

"I think the reason why people cared so much is because the world is in a really bad place right now," Isaiah says. "They were like, 'Oh, dang, this still happens?' I think people just lost hope, and then boom, there's these two kids showing compassion for each other."

The Tulsa National team, assembled just a month earlier, had been considered an underdog as the boys advanced through regionals. The boys from Oklahoma lost their opening game in Waco, and staved off elimination four times. They won three of those games by one run. But they managed to stay loose, and every day when they went to the batting cages, they'd glance over to the limousine rental company and see a white Hummer limo and ask Kouplen if they could ride in it to a game.

"No," Kouplen told them. "We need to keep a low profile."

But Kouplen finally relented before the championship game against Texas East. If they won, he figured, it would be a great way to celebrate. If they lost, they could ride together one last time in style.

After Texas East won 9-4, the Tulsa team was enroute to Outback Steakhouse in what Kouplen called "the most expensive 15-minute car ride in history." As Kouplen followed, his phone rang. It was a New York call. In a flash of wishful thinking, he wondered whether it was the Little League World Series calling to tell him Texas East had been disqualified and that Tulsa was going to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

It was a producer from "Good Morning America." She wanted to speak with Jarvis about the video. Kouplen thought she meant video of Jarvis catching a line drive up the middle in the game, but no. She was calling about The Hug.

"It is viral," he recalled her telling him, "and it's one of the most viral videos we've ever seen. It's gone wild."

They hung up and his phone kept ringing. "CBS Morning News," The New York Times, The Washington Post and ESPN. Kouplen put Jarvis in a separate booth at the restaurant and held up his phone as Jarvis did 15 to 20 interviews.

THE HUG OCCURRED with two outs in the first inning, but Shelton did not face another batter after he hit Jarvis. He told his coach he couldn't do it, he couldn't pitch anymore that day. It was unlike him. Shelton loved to throw hard and strike people out. But he'd beaned Jarvis, and didn't want to hurt anyone else. The pitcher's mound in Little League baseball is 46 feet from home plate -- 4 feet shorter than the distance he and Jarvis were used to playing in select baseball. Shelton, who's been clocked at 76 mph, had hit batters before, but never in the head.

It got to him, the sound of the ball hitting the helmet, the sight of Jarvis on the ground. As he sat in the dugout, crying with his head back, the cameras panned to his face. His older sister, Kaylee, ran to a spot near the dugout and tried to talk to him. She told him to breathe.

Kaylee, like her brother, has had anxiety and panic attacks. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and Bubs was home all the time, Melody Shelton, who is an educator, realized then just how much her son was dealing with that anxiety.

"We went to a lot of counseling," Melody says, "and he's been on anxiety medication for maybe two years.

"So that was one of my concerns when Kaiden hit Isaiah. Because [Kaiden] was pacing back and forth on the field instead of taking a knee. My concern was that his anxiety was going to overtake him."

Kaiden had to regroup. First baseman Austin Cummings came in to pitch, and Shelton needed to take his place in the field. He eventually grabbed his glove and played first base. Shortly after that, he hit a double that put Texas East up for good.

Kaiden later told D.J. Johnson, his longtime select coach for the Texas Bluechips, that he felt badly that he didn't hug Jarvis back. Johnson said it was OK.

"You were in a moment," he told Shelton. "You're human."

Had Jarvis not come over to console him, Shelton says, he isn't sure he could have pitched in the Little League World Series. In the days leading up to Williamsport, he worked on his pitching stance and his arm motion. He didn't want another ball to "leave my arm like that."

He even tried to take some velocity off his pitches.

"Kaiden's an emotional kid," Melody says. "He carries all his feelings on his shoulders.

"I was just heartbroken for him because I knew he was worried about Isaiah. He was worried that he was letting his team down. So it was really stressful. I think I might've been crying a little bit, trying to hope that he was going to work through it."

Bubs had met Isaiah a day or two earlier, after most of the other teams had cleared out of the La Quinta Inn & Suites in Waco. The boys played video games.

"He was a pretty nice guy," Bubs says. "He was pretty cool to hang out with."

Bubs' little sister used to call him "Bubby," and when he got older he told her to stop because it sounded "babyish." So when he was about 8, they shortened it to Bubs, which sounded tougher.

But in a practice or a game, inevitably someone slips out a "Bubby."

On that August day a year ago, after Texas East's victory, Bubby hit the big time, too. Melody's phone started ringing nonstop, and she initially didn't answer, figuring they were spam. But the callers were persistent, and redirected their efforts to the phone of Melody's mother, who picked up and handed the phone to Melody.

"And it was like, CNN News," Melody says.

She pulled over repeatedly during the 3½-hour drive back to Pearland while her son fielded interview requests. When they got home, TV crews were waiting at their house.

Bubs did return to the mound during the Little League World Series. He went 2-0 with a 2.57 ERA and led Texas East to a third-place finish. He made the LLWS All-Star team, hitting .385 with two home runs. One soared 270 feet.

When he went back to school at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Junior High, the campus held a surprise pep rally for him. And the boy who became a pitcher because he idolized Nolan Ryan was hailed for his compassion.

Still, depending on where he is, he gets razzed. If something goes wrong on the field, opponents sometimes yell, "Are you gonna cry?"

JARVIS GETS AN earful too when he's hit by a pitch. "Are you going to hug him now?" It doesn't really faze him. He's had too much fun this past year.

Chinook Seedery shipped him a couple of cases of sunflower seeds; Warstic, a baseball bat company, gave him batting gloves and a T-shirt. Late last year, the St. Louis Sports Commission gave him a Musial Award, named for Hall of Famer Stan Musial and honoring the year's greatest acts of sportsmanship. Shelton presented Jarvis with the award.

They toured downtown St. Louis, went up in the Arch and had dinner at Ballpark Village, which is next to the Cardinals' stadium. They met Albert Pujols. Jarvis has an equally vivid memory of the food.

"OK, there was this coconut shrimp," Jarvis says. "It was an appetizer, but it was so good. Like oh my gosh."

At church camp recently, kids asked Jarvis for autographs. His dad says Isaiah "eats that up," but he isn't worried about it changing his son.

"He is the same kid," Austin says.

Jarvis has 10 siblings in a blended family. His dad was a baseball coach before he was born, and as a little boy Isaiah would hang around practices, but he didn't play organized baseball until he was 7 or 8, post tee-ball.

Austin didn't want his son to think he had to play baseball to please him, or love the sport that had become his livelihood. Initially, when Isaiah tried to play on a select team when he was 9, he struggled against players who were more seasoned. He was frequently on the bench, and Austin wondered whether at the end of the year his boy would decide he didn't want to play anymore.

But it sparked something in Isaiah. He wanted to be good. "That's when his work ethic took hold," Austin says. "People who are around him know how far he's come. He went from a kid who really wasn't very good to one of the better kids in the Tulsa area. That's on him."

Austin had a longtime dream to become a college baseball coach, and in July 2022, a month before The Hug, he was hired as an assistant coach at Carl Albert State College in Poteau, Oklahoma. Landing an entry-level paying job in college baseball is difficult, and it's even harder when you've been coaching high school ball for more than a decade.

Austin Jarvis would get to recruit, something he's always wanted to do, and run the offense. He'd just wrapped up his first season in Poteau when around Christmas time, Isaiah asked him if he'd go back to coaching high school. He wanted to play for his dad.

Poteau is near Arkansas, about two hours southeast of Tulsa, and Jarvis' wife was wrapping up school to be a nurse practitioner and wanted to work in Tulsa. Family won out, and Austin Jarvis is now the coach of Berryhill High School in Tulsa.

Late last week, after Isaiah wrapped up a 6 a.m. football practice, Austin watched his son head to the baseball facility to put in another two hours of work.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach my son," Austin says. "I didn't want to miss that opportunity."

KAIDEN SHELTON IS playing football this fall, too. He stands 6 feet tall now, and so the coaches at his school naturally were intrigued.

Kaiden and Isaiah send Snapchat messages to each other and consider themselves friends -- as much as 13-year-olds can be when they live 8½ hours apart.

Last fall, the St. Louis Sports Commission flew Shelton out to Arkansas, and he played on Isaiah's select team for a weekend. Bubs is trying to get Isaiah out to Texas for a weekend stint with the Bluechips so that they can be teammates again.

Melody Shelton says the trips, and everything that happened last year in Waco, formed a bond between the mothers, too. She considers herself friends with Isaiah's mom and stepmom, and they frequently text.

Austin Jarvis said that although proximity limits the boys' interactions, "They're going to be linked together from now on because of this."

AMONG THE DOZENS of letters and emails Isaiah received a year ago was a note from John Minck, a 92-year-old Korean War veteran. Minck wrote that in his long life he'd compiled a list of heroes that included Winston Churchill, George Patton and Gloria Steinem. Ever since Minck's wife died in 2016, he's sought out everyday heroes who do good things. He mails them AttaBoy/Girl certificates.

"Understand that this award comes from one old man," he wrote, "sitting in an upstairs den, looking out on a sunny day."

Minck, reached by phone, got to thinking about the moment, and his letter. He wondered whether he should have sent one to his parents, too. They're the ones who taught him how to treat people.

Minck said the act probably won't make a difference to the adults who watched it and were temporarily moved. Still, he hopes.

"It's gotta affect any teenager who was watching," he says.

The day Texas East beat Tulsa National and cynics posted their hot takes about compassion equating to weakness, the children on the field had a different view. They surrounded the Texas East teammate who worried so much about the boy he hit that he wasn't sure he could play on, who knocked in the game-tying run an inning later. Their pitcher wound up collecting two hits. They poured Gatorade on Bubs Shelton, and celebrated him.