It’s Black Friday, and Cathie Blyleven wants to buy her husband Todd a new pair of boots. He needs to replace his current pair, which he’s owned for seven years but hasn’t worn for about six weeks now. They’re made by Durango, light brown and roper style with red tops. Real cowboy stuff. But he’s buried them on a shelf at the top of his closet, near his brown cowboy hat and white-checkered flannel shirt, both of which he hasn’t worn since removing them from his sweat-soaked body on the morning of Oct. 2. The left boot has a tear stretching down its seam. Also, dark splotches of blood have dried across the leather on both boots, prompting Todd to break out in a cold sweat every time he glances at them.
And so on this Friday, Cathie, Todd and their two children — their 14-year-old son, Dylan, and 11-year-old daughter, Gracie — pile into the family’s black Dodge Ram and find a Boot Barn tucked into a strip mall in Frisco, Texas. Located about 25 miles north of Dallas, Frisco is one of the country’s fastest-growing cities. The Blylevens moved there in August from Orange County, Calif. Todd, a 45-year-old former professional baseball player and scout, and the son of the Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven, had been offered a marketing job for a software company that works with sports businesses.
In Boot Barn, Todd strolls the aisles, scanning the racks. A pair of dark brown leather boots, made by Ariat, catches his eye. He finds his size, 13, and tries them on as his family watches. He stands up, moves around a bit and stretches.
“They’re really comfortable,” he tells his wife and kids. “I can definitely run in them.”
Later in the day, Cathie pulls him aside.
“Do you know what you said before while trying on the boots?” she asks him.
All Todd can recall is mentioning how comfortable they were.
“You said: ‘These are really comfortable. I can definitely run for my life in them.’”
Todd, a man who grew up in baseball clubhouses where feelings were shunned, not shared, is reminded of a question his father had recently posed to him over the phone:
“When,” Bert asked, “do you think you’ll be back to your normal self?”
It’s February 13, 2000, the night before Valentine’s Day, and Todd and Cathie are out on their first date. They’re in Anaheim, dancing at a country bar to George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart,” a song they’ll dance to again at their wedding 17 months later.
They only met a few weeks ago — Todd is recently divorced, and one of his friends is dating one of Cathie’s friends. Cathie spotted Todd one night at a party, took note of his blue eyes and red freckles and broad shoulders. “A piece of American pie,” she’ll refer to him later, after they fall in love. People, she noticed, just seem to gravitate towards him.
“Why can’t I meet someone like him?” she asked her friend.
Their second date is two weeks later, at Disneyland. Soon after they’re a couple, spending evenings dancing at country bars with friends, with Todd’s rhythmic steps leading the way. One night, while sitting in the back of a friend’s truck on the way to a bar, someone asks Todd a question about baseball.
“Why does everyone always ask you about baseball? Cathie asks. Todd laughs.
“My dad was a baseball player,” he says.
“Oh, like the kind on TV?”
Todd laughs again. Yeah, he says. He tells Cathie that he was a baseball player too.
“Like, on weekends? I’d love to come watch you play.”
Todd gives Cathie the CliffNotes of his career: He spent five seasons pitching in the minor leagues, and another eight as a Major League Baseball scout. His connection to the sport is deeper than that, though. As a kid, he’d hang out in the clubhouse of whatever team Bert was playing for. He’d shine shoes and serve as a batboy. He’d shag fly balls alongside All-Stars like Kirby Puckett and talk pitching with Frank Viola, who later on taught Todd how to throw a changeup. Once, Todd broke his left arm while swinging a bat in the clubhouse alongside Pete Rose’s son; but Bert was pitching that day, so he didn’t inform his dad until after the game.
As the years went by, Todd became a talented pitcher himself. He starred at California’s Villa Park High and was offered a number of baseball scholarships. He eventually signed with the California Angels and spent seven years pitching in the minor leagues.
“He worked real hard and had a good curveball,” recalls Lee Stange, who was one of Bert’s pitching coaches and also one of Todd’s in the minor league. “Just not as good as his dad’s.”
When he first met Cathie, Todd was working as a manager at Boot Barn. To her, he’s always been more than just a baseball hound, even when others never viewed him as much more than a jock. There were multiple nights where she received a call from him saying he’d be late for their date. “There’s a 10-car pileup on the freeway and I’m going to see if anyone needs help,” he told her one time. “There was a lady with a baby standing out in the rain waiting for a tow truck,” he said another night. As Cathie puts it today, matter-of-factly, “Todd’s always been a very helpful person.”
It’s a hot October night in Las Vegas, and Todd and Cathie, along with 16 other family members and friends, disembark a party bus and make their way south on the Strip. Their destination is an acre-long patch of asphalt resting in the shadows of the 43-floor Mandalay Bay Resort, home this evening to the third night of the Route 91 Harvest Festival country music show.
The Blylevens and their friends have spent the past three days enjoying a typical Las Vegas vacation: Playing slots and lunching at Mario Batali’s restaurant during the day, dancing to the music of country stars like Sam Hunt, Jake Owen and Eric Church at night. Todd, though, is especially ecstatic about the evening ahead. It’s the festival’s final night and Jason Aldean, one of his favorite singers, is the closing act.
Aldean takes the stage at around 9:30 and Todd, in his brown cowboy hat and white-checkered flannel shirt, spends the next 35 minutes in the back of the venue alternating between dancing and swigs of beer. A few minutes after 10, Aldean is belting out the lyrics to “Any Ol’ Barstool,” the penultimate song of his set:
Ask any ol’ barstool in this town
Ask my new found party crowd
Sure I take more jack in my coke now
A little more high in my smoke now
Todd’s left hand grips the right hand of Brianna Barnes, a family friend who’s come along for the trip. His feet glide across the concrete as the two dance and sing along, with Todd’s smile stretching from ear to ear. He hears something that sounds like a firecracker but continues dancing. Aldean croons the final line of “Any Ol’ Barstool,” his voice drowning out the sound of five more pops.
“What do ya’ll say we pick it back up just a little bit?” Aldean asks the crowd. The band hits the chords for “When She Says Baby,” one of Todd’s favorite songs. Aldean begins singing.
More pops ring out. This time, it sounds like two dozen. Cathie asks Todd if it’s fireworks.
His eyes trail the sound back towards the Mandalay Bay Hotel, where he catches a glimpse of a light flashing about 30 floors above the ground.
“It’s gunfire,” he yells. “Get down!”
Todd and the rest of the group collapse to the ground and cover their heads with their hands. Aldean flees the stage. Some of the venue’s lights go dark.
For a moment, the barrage of bullets stop. “We need to get out of here,” Todd shouts. He spots a line of food trucks at the eastern border of the venue and points a Budweiser cart out to Cathie and his friends. “We can get cover there.”
They start sprinting, with Todd’s 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame serving as fullback, as more gunfire rains down. Todd hears the ting of a bullet striking metal. He hears the thud of a bullet striking flesh, followed by a person gasping for air. He sees chunks of white dust kicking up around his feet, his fight-or-flight reflex blocking out the screams around him — his focus honed in on the shelter now just a few yards away.
He reaches safety, unharmed. His family and friends have made it too. More pops ring out. They sound like they’re coming from different spots. Are there multiple shooters?
They find a pair of squad cars and take cover next to an officer with a hole in his foot. He has no information to share. They rest for a few moments and then sprint north up Giles Street. Todd sees a man carrying a girl like she’s a pair of scissors. She’s wearing boots and a tank top and can’t be more than 18 or 19 years old. She reminds him of his niece.
Todd helps the man lay the girl’s lifeless body down. He sees the showy World Series ring he wears on his right hand, the one he earned as a scout for Anaheim Angels in 2002, and feels guilty, as if he were disrespecting the dead.
He turns the ring inward.
“Take Cathie and everyone else and get them out of here,” Todd tells his brother-in-law. He hugs his wife goodbye and darts back towards the festival. Near where he first took shelter, he finds a woman bleeding. He lifts her up with the help of a stranger and leaves her by the two squad cars. Back inside, he searches for water but is forced instead to settle for a different stranger’s beer. A small blonde woman who says she’s a nurse comes over and asks what she can do to help. Todd leads her to an injured man huddled by the squad cars. He runs back in again and begins searching for wounded bodies. “Who needs help?” he shouts. More pops ring out.
The shooting lasts 10 minutes.
Ten minutes is all it takes for Todd’s life to change forever.
Todd spends the next couple hours lugging bodies out. He loses track along the way but believes the number to be a couple dozen. Some he saves. At least four he does not, like the girl who reminded him of his niece, or the petite brown-haired girl who he tossed over his shoulder, only to realize upon laying her body down that she was already dead.
At around 6:30 in the morning, Todd calls Cathie. She texts him her location. A stranger had invited her and the group into his condo for safety, where they’ve spent the night, and Todd, it turns out, is only 50 yards away. The two haven’t spoken since 2:30 AM, when he called to update her. She could hear him over the phone barking orders and calling for medical help.
Todd walks down a dark street and finds his wife. He collapses into Cathie’s arms, his clothes soaked in the blood of others.
Later that day, he speaks to his father over the phone. Bert wants to know why Todd stayed behind when he could have fled.
“Dad,” Todd says, “If that were me laying down there I would hope that somebody else would have come back in to help.”
It’s October 2, 2017, the night after the shooting, and Todd is back in Frisco. He and Cathie flew home that morning. Their son Dylan, a star pitcher, catcher and third baseman, has a game, and so they drive straight from the airport to one of Frisco’s local parks.
As he walks toward the bleachers, Todd senses the eyes of the other parents on him and Cathie. Some approach them. News of their past 24 hours has traveled fast. By now, details of the shooting have emerged: Fifty-eight people dead, plus the shooter himself, a 64-year-old man named Stephen Paddock. 851 injured. It’s the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States. No motive has been discovered.
Todd approaches the field. There are three innings remaining. Dylan’s team is hitting, and so he sprints out of his dugout and into his dad’s arms. Todd pulls his children in tight. It’s a habit his family will notice him develop over the next few months — his hugs growing stronger and kisses lasting longer. Seated in the bleachers, Todd’s eyes survey the field. Baseball has always been a sanctuary for him, especially his son’s games, but he struggles to concentrate. The contrast between his past two nights is weighing on him. He’s gone from blood to baseball, from families sobbing to smiling.
He’s surrounded by life but all his brain can think about is death.
And yet life ticks on, ready or not.
A few weeks later Todd returns to work. One day, while sitting in his downtown Dallas office, he hears the opening sounds of Aldean’s “Any Ol’ Barstool” come up on the office radio. He gets up from his desk and descends down three flights of stairs to a quiet space. His body is begging for him to cry. But Todd’s the big and strong professional athlete, a man raised in baseball clubhouses and on the mantra of “no blood, no foul.” The only time he can remember crying in the last five years is when Cathie’s mother died. It happened alone in his bedroom, because, he says, “I thought it was my job to be strong for others.” Cathie describes him as having a “hard outer shell.”
He waits long enough for the song to end and returns to his desk.
Slowly, those around him return to their usual routines. Dinners are scheduled, nights out at country bars are planned. Todd goes along, but even among friends and his beloved country music he doesn’t feel free. He can no longer sit with his back toward the room. He scans for exits when entering restaurants. If Jason Aldean comes on, he walks outside. He argues with Cathie about sending Gracie to a youth event at their church.
His kids begin to notice that Dad is different.
“What happened, that’s going to be on Dad’s mind for a long time,” Cathie tells them.
Todd wonders why he survived and others didn’t. He thinks about how many more people he could have saved, if only he had EMT training. He joins Facebook groups for survivors of the shooting and checks them multiple times a day. He wants to hear the stories of the other survivors, and tell them that they’re not alone. Some members send him videos of his heroism. Todd’s brain has blocked out much from that night, but the clips trigger his memories. In one, Todd is seen carrying a girl to safety while bullets buzz around him. He watches the video with Cathie and says, “A guardian angel wrapped me in its wings” — his attempt at explaining why he survived. But that doesn’t help him fight back the nightmares.
Thanks to his last name, his story has made the rounds in the news. He receives invites from cable networks and town halls to share his views on gun control. But he’s not interested in engaging in politics or becoming a spokesman for that cause. Todd’s focus is elsewhere, on himself and the other survivors — of Route 91 but also of all the mass shootings in America, a group that grows larger by the month — scratching to reclaim their old lives. He starts seeing a therapist, but it doesn’t do enough to help release the pressure he feels bubbling up in his head. He switches to a specialist in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a treatment designed for combatting traumatic memories, and meets with her every Monday afternoon. She helps unlock some of the trauma his brain has hidden from him, and scenes from that night in Las Vegas go from foggy to vivid.
Todd realizes again how lucky he is to be alive.
On Sunday morning, November 5, Todd’s watching his son play baseball again when his phone begins buzzing. There was another shooting, this time in a church in Sutherland Springs, just outside San Antonio; 26 are dead, 20 more injured. It’s been just four weeks since that night in Vegas. He fights back tears, and also the urge to jump in his car and make the five-hour trip south. He thinks about all those who’ve died but also the survivors who, like him, might now be struggling.
One Sunday soon after, Todd’s sitting in church with Cathie. It’s a new tradition for the family, one they have added since Vegas.
He and Cathie are seated alone in a pew in the back corner, no kids, no family.
Sitting there, with his wife, listening to the choir sing about love, Todd brings his hands to his head.
Tears rain down his cheeks.
It’s a weekday morning in February, and Todd is on the phone while driving to work. He wants to talk about what he’s been through the past four months, for himself but also so that others enduring similar ordeals know they’re not alone.
“In American culture we’re supposed to get over stuff in, like, 30 days,” he says. “Someone passes away and it’s like, ‘It’s been a week, so are what you going to do now?’”
Every week Todd’s memories from that night grow clearer. He says he’s doing better, that he no longer fears crying, a message he’s tried to pass along to his son. He still checks in on his Facebook groups, but not as frequently as he once did. His conversations with his dad have changed, too. Recently, Bert left him a voicemail: “Just wanted to see how you’re doing. I’m really proud of you, take your time, and we’re here for you.”
There’s no more mention of being normal or returning to his former self.
Certain events change a man. Bert, like Todd and Cathie and the rest of the Blyleven family, now recognizes that this new man is who Todd is. And if they ever forget, all they have to do is glance at his right arm and the tattoo stretching from his shoulder to his elbow. Todd got it just a few days ago. It features a cross with the number 91 between a pair of angel’s wings. “To respect my guardian angel from that night,” he says. The date of the massacre, 10-1-2017, is sketched above the phrase COUNTRY STRONG.