Dealing with it: Hattiesburg's Hartfield battles through health to reach glory

By CAMAL PETRO,

Last May, Joe Hartfield was on top of the world. The Hattiesburg Tigers had just clinched the school’s first state baseball championship since 2006, and it was the first title of Hartfield’s head-coaching career. Some know the pain he has dealt with during the last couple of years, but most don’t know the whole truth.

The sparkling Golden Glove trophy raised by high school teams at the end of every season was something Hattiesburg coach Joe Hartfield coveted for more than 20 years as a head coach. It was elusive and it was the biggest obstacle of his career, but in what could be his last season at the helm, Hartfield captured what he deserved – that prize.

It’s not too often you see a coach join his players in a postgame dogpile, but Hartfield did before embracing his family, who has been with him every step of the way. Even for a game that took Hartfield away from his wife and children a lot of the time, they were just as happy as the Hattiesburg skipper.

“They’ve been chasing this thing, too, for 20-something years,” Hartfield said. “The most emotional I got after the state championship – I had tears coming down after I threw my hat and jumped on that dogpile – and I called my wife down to that field. That’s the very first thing I did and my kids came down with her. We all cried.

“It was so emotional because they went through all of this with me. Baseball took me away so much. Even when my kids were little, I missed a lot of time with my family chasing a state championship, and at the end of the day, they were so happy for me.”

After taking a moment to gather himself, Hartfield admitted the absence was tough for his family. 

As hard as those times were, the Hartfields now have another major obstacle they must overcome. It’s been widely known that he had spinal surgery in 2017 that caused him to miss nearly half of the 2017 season, but a common misconception is that the spinal issue is what might cause Hartfield to step down as head coach.

Hartfield couldn’t name the exact disorder, but the root of the pain he deals with on a daily basis comes from his small nerve neuropathy. According to the Mayo Clinic, nerve neuropathy is when damaged nerves interfere with the messages sent between the brain and areas of the autonomic nervous system.

Hartfield has spent most of his high school coaching career in the Pine Belt. After coaching six seasons at Lumberton, he went to George County for two years before taking over for Larry Knight at Hattiesburg.

His coaching staff is filled with former players, too. Two of his players at Lumberton, Eddie and Nicky Easley, have coached for the Tigers’ skipper, and Brent Barham, who played for Hartfield in his Dixie Youth days, has also been on the staff for 13 years.

The Easley brothers were players during Hartfield’s state championship runs while at Lumberton. As history says, the Panthers couldn’t get it done in the two tries. Eddie, who was on the staff for 12 seasons, was still on the staff this season and the experience of playing and coaching under Hartfield made 2018’s title special for both of them.

“You couldn’t be more proud of an individual,” Easley said. “(Lumberton’s state championship) was 18 years ago and that’s always been on my mind, so I couldn’t be more proud of him for finally accomplishing that.”

Barham was on the staff when Knight was the coach at Hattiesburg, and there was a moment when he thought Hartfield would replace him with other coaches he wanted in place.

“I actually thought he was going to fire me,” Barham said, who, at the time, had just finished his third season as an assistant coach at Hattiesburg. “Unfortunately, he had to make some other coaching changes and he was going to bring in his staff. When he actually asked me to stay, I was like, ‘Yes! Wonderful.’ This guy has really changed my life.”

That wasn’t the first time Hartfield touched Barham. During Dixie Youth, when Hartfield was picking the All-Star team, he chose his team’s catcher for the squad instead of Barham. There were 13 players allowed on the All-Star team and Barham was chosen as the 14th, alternate player.

That meant he couldn’t dress out for games nor get the trophy if the team won, but Hartfield made sure to include Barham in every practice and activity. When it was time to pass out the trophies, Hartfield gave up his trophy to Barham.

“I actually still have that trophy today,” Barham said.

Both Easley and Barham have seen just about every side of Hartfield. Unfortunately, that means the bad along with the good. When Hartfield missed time in 2017, Easley was in charge of the team.

“Although he was out, we still had our group chat going,” Easley said. “We’d fill him in as much as possible. We always met before practice and after practice to go over the plan for the day and the plan for the week. I think he understood we were going to do the very best we could while he was out.”

Easley was named head baseball coach at Meridian in June and he’ll take a lot of insight and experience from coaching under Hartfield up Interstate 59.

“There is so much that I’ve learned over the years,” Easley said. “One, for sure, is the hard work and pride he takes in everything that he does.”

In 2012, Hartfield started to experience some problems with his body. He’d get nauseous, he would pass out and sometimes he would lose the sense of where he was. While driving, for example, he’d be on Highway 49 then all of the sudden, he’d be on a small county road and he wouldn’t know how he got there.

Barham and Hartfield actually completed their master’s degree together, and one time in class Hartfield abruptly left to use the bathroom, Barham assumed. Turns out, Hartfield passed out and a teacher found him and rushed him to the Emergency Room.

“It was just a very mixed up thing going on in my head,” Hartfield said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I thought maybe I was going through panic attacks. My whole family thought I was having panic attacks, but after a while, I just knew it wasn’t panic attacks. (My symptoms) just didn’t correlate with it.”

When Hartfield eventually did find out what was going on with this body, his family apologized for brushing it off as panic attacks, Hartfield joked.

“They just thought that’s what it was, and I had stopped talking about what was going on because I just couldn’t find anybody to help me,” Hartfield said. “I couldn’t find a doctor to tell me what it was, so I just kind of shut down and worked through it.

“The problem, at that time, was it just progressively got worse. It was five years before we found out what it was.”

Starting in 2012, Hartfield made trips to many different doctors, including the Ochsner Medical Center in Louisiana, but his questions were not answered. Finally, a correct diagnosis was made.

The discovery happened about a year ago, but the damage was done, however. Everybody knew about the spinal issue, and that was a separate problem entirely. When the blood disease was discovered, he didn’t think it had the possibility of ending his coaching career.

It’s not cancer, he wants to set that straight, but he does have to go to a cancer center in Hattiesburg weekly. Mornings are rough; the medicine makes him feel awful, it’s painful and going to sleep isn’t easy.

At this moment, Hartfield doesn’t feel good enough to continue coaching. But, that decision won’t be made until at the end of 2018 when he and his doctor come together to analyze the situation.

“We’re not going to give in to me not coaching anymore,” Hartfield said. “We’re going to continue to work and give it another six months or so to see how I feel at that time. That’s going by doctor’s orders, not my orders.”

The disease has made it to where he can’t feel his feet anymore nor the tips of his fingers and his body will continue to go numb. It’s attacking his involuntary functions, and there’s nothing that can be done, Hartfield says.

“I can deal with that and I can work with that,” he said. “It is an issue, but it’s not going to keep me from working. The thing that’s going to keep me from working is the pain, nausea and all of the other things going on.”

The numbness Hartfield is experiencing cannot be reverted back to normal either. While he said he wouldn’t be able to feel his feet again, the disease isn’t affecting his motion, so losing the ability to walk isn’t a concern.

About his spinal surgery that caused him to miss time last season, Hartfield said in May he had one more scheduled visit to check his progress. All signs point to everything being OK with it, though. Besides being a little sore and having problems getting in a comfortable position to sleep, the spinal issue won’t keep Hartfield away from the field. It may limit his ability to throw batting practice, hit fungo and other duties, but coaching he can do.

His nerve neuropathy, however, could keep him from coaching.

“This other deal, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” he said.

Easley and Barham both saw the effects of the disease. At practice some days Hartfield would feel great. He’d pick up a bat and start hitting infield, but at the same time, his assistant coaches would wince. They knew Hartfield would feel the pain the next day.

“He has his good days and bad,” Barham said. “He needed to be at home, but he loves this program and players so much that he couldn’t do it. There were times we were telling him to go home. He’s hardheaded, and I say that with the most respect possible because when he feels good, he gets out there and hits fungos.

“He’d have a really good day and it feels good for him to be normal again, but then the next day it takes a toll on him because he overdid it.”

Hartfield will battle with this for the rest of his life, but he’s not giving in to the disease. While he fought through the pain in 2017, the agony he experienced in 2018 had nothing to do with the spine and everything to do with the blood disease.

If 2018 was Hartfield’s last season, all of his victories at Hattiesburg will be cherished, but his 389th win will be remembered forever. That, of course, was for the state championship.