Hayden Nierman isn’t alone. He has his teammates to pick him up. His mom doesn’t miss a game.
And around his neck, when he takes the mound for Scottsdale Desert Mountain High’s baseball team, the senior pitcher finds strength through the ashes of his father he wears in a silver amulet on a chain around his neck.
“I feel like he’s over me watching me and he’s still with me,” he said. “My family got it ordered, especially made for me.”
Derek Nierman, Hayden’s dad, died at age 49 on Jan. 2. The cause of death still is pending, said Debbie Nierman, Hayden’s mom. She said it is uncertain if it was from an accidental prescription medication overdose or a health issue they weren’t aware of.
It’s been a shock. Still is to Hayden, who has committed to playing at Gateway Community College.
Even though his parents divorced when Hayden was 1, they maintained a good relationship that included coaching their son’s Desert Hills Little League teams together.
“I thought that was cool,” Hayden said.
Debbie said Hayden’s father loved watching Hayden play.
Derek could be hard on Hayden but he also brought out the best in him. Hayden wanted that, because, in the end, his father’s greatest advice was this:
“Don’t be scared against anyone,” Hayden said.
This season has been as much a catharsis for the Desert Mountain baseball team as it has been for Nierman.
When players and coaches first found out about the death, it hit everybody hard.
During the Christmas break, teammates got Hayden out of the house, kept him moving.
Hayden’s father wanted to do something special for Hayden’s senior season and buy new jerseys for the Desert Mountain players.
That didn’t happen, so the Nierman family did that in Derek’s memory. The team added the initials DN sewn onto the left sleeve of each jersey in support of Hayden.
“They surprised us,” Debbie said. “When the jerseys arrived and presented them to the team, the coach shared with the team that the maroon jerseys are in memory of Hayden’s father.
“That shows you how supportive this team has been for him. Without the baseball team, it would have been more difficult.”
Hayden Nierman wears that maroon jersey proudly. More important is part of his father that he carries with him onto the field.
“He won’t play without the amulet,” Debbie said.
Hayden has always been the life of the team, joking, always ready race out of the dugout to chase foul balls on the days he is not pitching.
He always has something to say.
That voice, that big personality, was missing after his father died.
Slowly, it’s coming back this season.
“It was shocking,” first-year coach Erik Kehoe said. “For anybody to go through that, let alone a 17- or 18-year-old kid, who is about to start his senior year, it affected all of us. It affected him the most. But it took us about two weeks before we got back to being ourselves, laughing, joking around at practice.
“Hayden is a great kid, great personality, loose. He was a shell of himself for about three weeks, probably longer. It affected him on the mound, too. But he’s been on the mend.”
Nierman appreciates what the team has done for him to lift his spirits.
“I’m mostly in a good mood, so that was rough,” he said. “This is the most supportive team I’ve been a part of. I’m fortunate to be a part of it.”
Desert Mountain senior catcher Jack Silverman calls Nierman “a grinder.” He said he knew Nierman’s dad.
“It was a hard time,” Silverman said. “Hayden is the funniest kid you’ll ever meet. He’s always a happy kid.”