Bluejacket basketball remembers life lessons with Travis Sims’ slogan
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
CARLISLE, Ky. – Travis Sims carved quite a legacy in Nicholas County. It’s probably much more than he ever imagined.
That’s how it is with the great ones.
And around Nicholas County, Travis Sims was truly a great one. He lived a story that words can’t express without pauses for tears, reflection and grasping for words..
But rest assured the legacy of Coach Travis Sims is so great that the Nicholas County High School boys’ basketball team is honoring the school’s baseball coach who died July 31 after a battle with brain cancer. He was only 47 years old.
“Even though I just knew him for two or three years, being at work with him, I learned so much just because of the way he held himself together throughout the tough times he had,” Blue Jacket coach John Michael Reitz says. “It speaks volumes of what he was going through and why we shouldn’t complain every day. You don’t think about it until you see it every day in front of you. He made me a better person. That’s the impact he had on me in just a couple of years.”
It was an impact that reflected how Travis Sims was remembered in his obituary: “He was a member of the Carlisle Christian Church and a loving & faithful servant of Jesus Christ.”
That service speaks loudly in the legacy Coach Sims left behind.
“We as a team try to represent that in the right way,” Reitz continues. “From our warmups, on the back of the warmups, we have the quote, ‘We’ve Got This.’ He made that quote while he was going through the battle with cancer.”
That battle lasted more than 18 months. According to a story that appeared on WTVQ, Sims’ wife found him unresponsive in their Nicholas County home in late December 2019. Not long afterward, doctors diagnosed Sims with glioblastoma, a rare but aggressive form of brain cancer.
Sims, who had been head baseball coach at his alma mater since 2002, told his team, which had been expected to contend for the 10th Region title.
“At first, it hit me that I was sad,” remembers infielder Jacob Hatton. “It affected us all. But at the end of the day, you have to push through.”
Which is exactly what Coach Travis Sims had been teaching his team and would continue teaching until the disease finally claimed his life.
His top assistant coach, Josh Earlywine, has been named to take over the Blue Jacket baseball program in addition to his duties as athletic director and assistant principal at the school. He vividly remembers when he learned that life was throwing Sims a wicked curveball. It was at that moment that a simple slogan would start making an impact on a team, a school, the baseball fraternity and an entire community.
“When Travis first found out he was sick and had cancer, me and Travis and Scot Allison, who is an umpire, are best friends,” Earlywine remembers. “Travis texted us and told us what was going on and he thought it was bad. Scot sent him a message and I sent him a message to him and I made the comment, ‘we’ve got to stick together.’
“It wasn’t Travis. It was ‘We’ve got this.’ And Travis started using it a lot on his Facebook posts. I started using it and it’s kind of turned into a community saying, not just a school saying. You know with the flood (which ravaged Nicholas County one day before Sims passed away), it was ‘We’ve got this.’ That was from Travis.”
A simple phrase communicating a can-do attitude became a way of life for the Nicholas baseball program.
“He had that mentality to just keep pushing. We’ve got this. We’ve got this. He kept pushing through,” says outfielder Tate Letcher.
“He always wanted us to treat him like he never had cancer,” adds sophomore catcher Lincoln Morris, who like Hatton and Letcher, is also a member of the Blue Jacket basketball team.
It was just as Sims was demonstrating in his life. Despite being given a short time to live, Sims returned to his job as physical education teacher at Nicholas County Middle School and kept preparing for the 2020 season. “School was shut down on March 13 and he was here. He was fighting (the cancer),” Earlywine says.
The COVID-19 closed schools for the rest of the academic year and claimed the 2020 season as a victim, but when students returned to school that August, Sims was confined to a wheelchair.
But he was still pushing through.
We’ve Got This!
And Travis Sims was still making impressions in his hometown. A local high school baseball star, Sims had gone on to Georgetown College, where he’d been a member of the Tiger baseball team. After graduation, he’d returned home where he became the beloved physical education teacher at Nicholas County’s only elementary school.
“If you go back and you were in the eighth grade or below in 1998 in Nicholas County, you had Coach Sims as your P.E. teacher. He was the only one in Nicholas County,” Earlywine says with a smile. “I looked at it and if you are anywhere between 5 and 35 years old, you had Travis as P.E. teacher in elementary school. That’s an age group of 30 years and a lot of kids, before they moved up here (to Nicholas County High School), had Travis for nine years.”
Earlywine paused, then chuckled, “A lot of kids thought his name was Jim because a lot of teachers would say, ‘It’s time to go to gym.”
It was at Nicholas County Elementary that Sims made an impact on Reitz, who is a special education teacher at the school.
“My first year here, those first couple of months, he treated me like I was his own son,” says Reitz, who played high school basketball at neighboring Harrison County for his father, coach Mike Reitz. “He showed me the ropes around what we should do, how you relate to kids, how you communicate with them and be a mentor to the kids you are coaching.
“Every morning, I talked to him at least 20-30 minutes before school started. That’s how we got a relationship going.”
Earlywine could relate as Sims had been his mentor when he suited up for the Blue Jacket baseball team – “I was a sophomore when Travis came back as an assistant coach in 1997,” he says – and as an assistant coach beginning in 2005. The relationship evolved into being best of friends.
By 2005, Earlywine had finished college and, like Sims, returned to his hometown to teach and coach baseball. He started out as his mentor’s assistant in charge of the middle school program but eventually became the top assistant. By last spring had taken over many of the coaching duties. While Sims made most of the Blue Jacket games, he was confined to his wheelchair.
Yet, the veteran coach’s impact beyond Nicholas County became even more apparent. “One of the first games he missed, we were at Richmond Model (an 11-1 Nicholas win on April 16) and I am coaching third base and trying to keep him updated. I think he Facetimed me maybe 15 times. My phone was almost dead by the time the game was over. We had two umpires there that knew him well and they lived in the Richmond area. One wanted to see Coach Sims. So here we are between innings and I am the phone Facetiming with him. He had that kind of effect and a lot of respect.”
Two of the Blue Jackets’ big rivals paid tribute to Sims as well. District foe Harrison County printed shirts with the word “United” and the school logos for their game and 10th Region rival Bourbon County, which wears burgundy and gold uniforms, had its players wear Nicholas County blue caps with “TS” imprinted for their game. Later, the Blue Jackets learned that Boyle County, more than a 90-minute drive away, had a special night for Sims.
But around Nicholas County, there was a growing sense that 2021 would be Sims’ last. The Bluejackets won their first eight games and made it all the way to the 10th Region semifinals before eventual champion Campbell County ended what could be a dream season, 10-0, in Covington.
The fast-acting cancer was taking its toll. “There were certain days that were good days and certain days that were bad,” Morris remembers.
But Sims was there as much as he could be.
Earlywine’s voice breaks as he describes the emotional scene following the season-ending loss. “We all pretty much knew it then that was it for Travis,” he says. “After Campbell County beat us, we were talking to the team and Travis kept telling them, ‘There’s always tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow.’ He hadn’t figured out yet we had lost in the region and that was our last game. I went to push his wheelchair off the field and he asked me, ‘Josh, what time do we play tomorrow?’
“That was probably one of the worst feelings in my life. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. Travis is my best friend, so I am not going to lie to him. I said, ‘That’s it. We’re done.’
“The first thing he said was ‘I let the boys down. I have been telling them there is always tomorrow but we don’t have tomorrow. I need to go back and talk to them and apologize to them. I let them down.
“I said, ‘No you haven’t, Travis. We can go back and talk to them and you can tell them thanks for all the time they’ve given you and they’ve given Nicholas County baseball.
“When we walked off the field that night, I knew I would never walk off a baseball field with Travis again.”
The Blue Jackets knew it too. But they also knew they had a legacy that went beyond the baseball field.
Reitz says the idea for the warmups is just part of the bigger picture. Through games of January 18, the Blue Jackets had struggled with youth – there are just two seniors on the roster submitted to the KHSAA – and injuries. At one point, they had won four straight but had lost four in a row dating to an All-A Classic loss to Bishop Brossart on Jan. 8.
“(Sims) taught me just to be a good person and care about people,” Reitz says. “It’s just a game at the end of the day, what we coach. You know, win or lose, the best thing he taught me was do the best you can with what you’ve got. Play hard, play smart and play together and it will be there for you.
“I am trying to teach our kids that in life, you never know what is going to happen to you. We should appreciate every single day. You should appreciate your teammates every single day. You don’t know the next day what you are going to do or what you are going to have. And I think our kids have responded the right way.”
The Blue Jackets are reminded every time they pull their warm-up shirts over their jerseys. “We wanted to do something to show our appreciation, to love him more and to think about him every day,” Reitz said.
Adds Morris, “I always think of him when I take my warmup shirt off and see his slogan on the back.”
We’ve Got This.
Nicholas County sophomore Wyatt Clark waits in the warmup line. The “Jackets Strong” on the front of the team warmups refers to overcoming the floods that ravaged the community in July and are also a nod to former baseball coach Travis Sims’ battle against cancer. (Photo by John Herndon)