A few months ago, Nadia Martinez and her 16-year-old daughter, Brianne Matthews, drifted into an uncharacteristic conversation about life and death.
Martinez is not sure about what led to the discussion, but she felt a little odd when Matthews calmly told her how she would like to be remembered after she died.
“She wanted her ashes to be sprinkled all over a softball field because that’s where she lived,” Martinez said about Matthews, who had a 14-4 pitching record as a freshman last year for Mater Dei (Calif.) High School. “It didn’t matter where. As long as it was a softball field with a mound. That’s where she dominated.”
Always an overachiever, Matthews had gotten it done off and on the softball diamond. She carried a 4.0 grade point average at academically testing Mater Dei and was committed to pursue a career as a neonatologist. Despite being only a high school sophomore, Matthews already had accepted a full-ride college scholarship offer to play softball for national powerhouse Arizona after she graduated in 2012. A phenom.
Socially? Forget about it. At 16, Matthews had friends for days, thanks to a dynamic personality and her huge softball following. Considered the No.1 young pitching prospect in the nation, Matthews had a way for attracting crowds and had grown into a Pied Piper character for the sport.
For unknown reasons, though, Matthews did not feel right in this role and on Feb. 25, she killed herself hours after returning home from softball practice.
A tragic ending to a young life with so much promise.
An ending that has left many unanswered questions.
“I don’t want to talk about the suicide,” Martinez, who found Matthews dead at their Anaheim apartment, told FanHouse recently. “And I don’t want to talk about what may have led her … we can only speculate and I don’t want to do that. No answer is going to be good enough.”
According to official reports, on the night of Matthews’ death, Anaheim fire and police were sent to the family’s apartment regarding a girl not breathing. Paramedics administered CPR to the girl and she was taken to a local hospital where she was pronounced dead at 8:22 p.m. PT.
The Orange County Coroner’s report ruled Matthews’ death a suicide, “by ligature hanging.”
“I don’t believe it was spontaneous,” said Bill Jackson, who coached Matthews for three years when she played for the Firecrackers, a youth softball travel team based in Orange County. “She was depressed. Everything you hear indicates to us that it was something that was thought out a little bit. She knew what to do and how to do it. … Teenagers and the internet nowadays. I don’t think we’re ever going to know why she did it.”
Last week, a standing room only crowd of more than 1,500 attended an outdoor ceremony for Matthews at the Huntington Beach Sports Complex, a multi-softball field site where many of her games were played.
High school players and travel ballplayers were encouraged to wear their uniforms and most did. With a stage set behind second base and the remainder of the softball diamond filled with well-wishers, the afternoon felt more tribute than wake as family and friends took time to talk about Matthews, called Bri by family and friends.
“Sometimes, you meet people and right away you know that they were supposed to be there [in your life]…,” said Shannon Bustillos, a teammate on Orange County Batbusters, a travel team Matthews joined a year ago. “Anybody who knew Bri, knew that she was filled with life, love and happiness. She had a laugh that anybody could hear. A hug that could crack anybody’s back and a drop-off [pitch] that nobody could hit.”
For Martinez, the ceremony was a fitting sendoff.
“We are taking it moment by moment and day by day,” Martinez said. “That’s really all we can do. It’s unimaginable.”
“Bri just loved sports and she probably got that from me … But she was different. She was very driven. She competed in everything she did in life. She just went after everything 100 percent and I don’t know where she got that from. I don’t know what her motivation was but she was very very motivated.
“That’s just who she was. If she was going to throw a ball, she was going to throw it harder and farther than everyone else. If she was going to hit it, she was going to hit it harder and farther. I don’t know … that’s just how she was made.”
Pressure of the Sport
News about Matthews’ death traveled fast among southern California’s softball followers, a community where everyone seems to know each other. And that’s because they basically do.
For years — from elementary school to college — the same group of softball players and parents not only play and travel together but also compete against one another on a regular basis through school teams, local park leagues and travel squads.
“The softball community is a very small world,” said Jackson, who coached Matthews for three years with the Firecrackers. “The entire country is on the phone, the internet and everywhere else. We are a very in-touch community, even though we are very spread out geographically.”
It’s this type of family environment that has added to the sadness. Many families can relate to the demands that come with the sport.
Cindy Kelly, whose daughter Jenna started playing against Matthews when they were both nine, is one of those parents.
“It was just a terrible shock,” Kelly said about Matthews, who on the day of her suicide reportedly gave her athletic bag to a teammate and told her that she likely would not need it the next day. “You don’t know if she put too much pressure on herself or what. But the thing is, she had so much going for her. She had a full-ride for college and a bright future. You just had to think that everything was good with her.”
Some people involved in softball believe the sport’s ultra-competitive nature has evolved into a major problem for today’s players. Too many are working under tough circumstances in hopes of making it to the highest level and that has added extra pressure to their lives.
“You realize that these kids give up many many hours to develop their softball skills,” veteran southern California softball umpire Paul Morines said. “They sacrifice social time with friends. They spend all weekend on the ball field. Some days they want to go home, but they can’t because they have to play.
“I am always so impressed in how these kids are willing to give up so much of their time to dedicate themselves to one sport in order to be a top notch softball athlete. But that’s the only way that you’re going to get yourself a scholarship.”
According to Morines, that’s one reason why Matthews was considered a hero to so many.
“These kids are hard core and Bri was probably the epitome of that type of ballplayer,” Morines said. “Everyone looked up to her as the model for the commitment that you needed to make in order to go to the highest rank as possible.
“I only umpired one game with her last year and you could tell that she was one intense kid. She definitely had a presence on the field. She just stared you down. And you knew that she put in hard work to become so good.”
Always an All-Star
From young biddy players to crusty, old coaches, it was always “The Bri Show” whenever Matthews was around. Dominating ability can attract that type of attention.
“Obviously we thought very fondly of Bri and her talents,” said Arizona Coach Mike Candrea, who along with his coaching staff attended Matthews’ tribute. “That’s why we wanted her to be a Wildcat.
She was such a very special athlete. A very special student. She worked very hard to be the best at what she did.”
Umpire Mike Carver, who worked numerous games involving Matthews, said he will always remember how she played.
“I’ve been around the game for over 20 years and you can spot a kid with that much raw talent a mile away,” Carver said. “She was throwing at least 70 miles per hour, and that’s something. I know some people may not agree but I thought [Bri] was as good or better as [U.S. Olympic gold medal pitcher] Jenny Finch.”
Matthews — who grew up in a modest environment with her sister, mother and stepfather, Diondre Price — played a variety of sports. After excelling in everything from basketball to volleyball, she took to softball after Martinez signed her up for a local youth league when she was 8.
“She didn’t know what it was to go half-speed, literally, with anything that she did,” Martinez said about her daughter, who had a 0.94 ERA with 138 strikeouts in 107 innings last season for Mater Dei.
“I remember when she was 8 or 9 years old and was just starting pitching lessons. Her pitching coach at the time wanted her to slow down and feel what she was doing with her pitching. So they moved her up closer to the catcher and told her to take her time so she could feel her pitch.
“But my daughter couldn’t do it. She just could not slow down. She threw the ball as if she was pitching at full distance. That’s just how she was. Everything she did, she did it at full speed.”
It’s this never-back down attitude that helped separate Matthews from her peers. She was known to arrive to practice an hour early in order to warm up for warm-ups, and was always the last person you wanted to promise a ride home after practice.
That’s because Matthews also put in extra time to work on her game and often considered her workouts just half over once practice ended.
“She wanted to achieve things in life,” Jackson said. “Everything she tried, she excelled at and physically, she could have been a star in any sport.”
Matthews, who had a complete career goal list by the time she began to play for Jackson when she was 11, also proved her toughest critic.
“Bri always had kind of a little cloud in her life,” Jackson said. “She was a happy kid who worked hard but she always had a little cloud. Personally, I don’t know why. But it was there.”
At the tribute for Matthews, Jackson addressed rumors that have surrounded her death.
“People are saying different things,” Jackson said. “They come up to me and say, ‘Do you think it was the pressure? Do you think it was the boyfriend? Whatever it was, it really doesn’t matter now. So that’s what I didn’t want to do and that’s talk about those issues. I was trying to make the point that if you even discuss what it might be, you are lending credence that one of those reasons might be good enough.”
It’s been the out-of-sight whispers that have bothered Martinez the most since her daughter’s death.
“The toughest thing has been coming to grips with the fact that your child is no longer here and that you did your best but somehow that wasn’t enough,” Martinez said. “You can’t help but think about why you couldn’t do more.
“I know that it’s probably something that I should not have done but to fill my time, I’ve read all of the comments that people have left on stories about her death and on different internet sites.
“Anybody that has done anything at the level that [Bri] was at knows that you don’t get that good without a personal commitment. I know that people like to speculate about pressure being put on her but I would like to stress the fact that there’s nothing anyone can do to push people to excel at the level where she was.
“It takes a personal commitment and that’s the truth. You can’t make people go run. You can’t make them put in that extra work to be great. … It’s something that she did. Something that she wanted to be the best at.”