Road to Branson: Shallowater Vipers honor late coach with tournament trip

SHALLOWATER, Texas — It was common for Duncan Hudson to get a call from John Campbell well past midnight. They would talk about whatever the night called for, which most often involved baseball.

Hudson has lived in Shallowater, Texas for 23 years, but only got to know Campbell on a personal level over the last few years.

“Our wives accused us of having a ‘bromance,” said Hudson.

That may have something to do with how the two men created an opportunity for youth baseball that had never been seen before in their community.

Shallowater rests 12 miles northwest of Lubbock and spans less than two square miles with a population of about 2,500. Campbell’s son is in the same grade as Hudson’s grandson. Both love baseball, but opportunities were few in a town that had never been known for little league. The local kids that participated only played 12-15 games per year.

Hudson, who had already started two high school baseball programs and coached basketball for years, helped Campbell change that two years ago.

The two began the Shallowater Vipers program with a 13U squad.

There was immediate interest as the team launched into a 62-game schedule in their inaugural season. They competed against 13U teams from across West Texas and into New Mexico despite having mostly 11- and 12-year-olds.

They almost exclusively played up, opting to take the lessons from a 9-7 defeat from quality competition rather than running off a string of 10-0 wins.

Campbell platooned third base next to his son, Hunter, who played alongside Hudson’s grandson at shortstop. Hudson, an occasional disciplinarian, took duties along the first base line.

They keep the players involved in community service, routinely helping mow lawns and provide food for homeless people. The team raised nearly $1,000 when a local family lost its home in a fire.

The boys also improved on the field dramatically as the season progressed. By the offseason, interest had spread to neighboring before this season.

“We have boys from other towns begging us to play,” said Hudson.

As the schedule grew to include over a dozen tournaments, so did the travel itinerary. The Vipers wanted to play competition from other parts of the country.

“(Campbell) had mentioned that he wanted to take them to a big national tournament. I said: ‘Let’s make it happen.”

Hudson had visited Branson, Mo. with his wife in the past and had looked for an excuse to go back. The thought was that a summer tournament at Ballparks of America could be that reason.

After the idea was floated to the players, they returned the next day with plenty of knowledge about the facility after spending the evening scouring the Internet.

They decided to compete at Ballparks of America in the summer of 2018, a dream-in-the-making for the two men that spawned the Vipers.

Tragically, that dream took on a new meeting on January 15 when Campbell was killed in a car accident.

“After it happened, I knew I’m not guaranteed my next breath and may not be here next year,” Hudson recalled.

Suddenly, the town was void of a familiar presence. Campbell had held each player, coach, and support so closely, and now they were unable to return that affection face-to-face.

After the funeral, Hudson let his mind eventually wander back to the love he shared with Campbell: baseball. Hunter was still a member of the team and the season was set to continue as planned.

“We try to keep (Campbell) a part of the team. The kids will say things like: “At least he’s coaching third base in heaven.’ They’re a lot more resilient than us adults.”

At the start of every game, Hudson will draw Campbell’s initials in the box next to third base. He also routinely hangs Campbell’s jersey next to him as he sits on his bucket outside the dugout to watch the Vipers defense.

Through a twist of fate, that inclusion was reciprocated on February 2. It was 18 days after Campbell’s death and what would have been his 38th birthday. Parents, players, and coaches wrote messages to him on balloons and released them.

The wind blew them southwest over the junior high school. Two weeks later, Duncan’s grandson found a popped balloon on the Viper’s home field that lies one mile in the opposite direction of that wind.

It read simply: “We miss you.”

“I lifted my shirt and showed the players how the hair on my arm was standing straight up.”

Hudson believed another fitting tribute would be to solidify their big travel tournament vision. The trip that Campbell wanted to treat his players to was still on the table and Hudson was determined to keep it that way.

“I told the parents: if you take care of the rest of the tournaments, I will take care of Branson,” he said. “I will commit 11 thousand dollars to this trip to make our dream come true for these boys.”

The parents quickly began fundraising efforts with the players pitching in as needed. The mere existence of the program had been such a welcome sight for the community and some donations came from unexpected sources.

“There was a farmer in the area that had always wanted to see the town more involved in little league. He wrote us a $1500 check anonymously and just said: ‘Thank you for starting it.”

The Vipers eventually had the money to book their spot in the Boys of Summer Classic, the last summer tournament on the Ballparks of America schedule.

It would be a safe bet that Campbell’s jersey and a large chunk of the Shallowater population will be in tow.

To learn more about the Shallowater Vipers, click here.

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