Sacred Heart junior first baseman Fallon Bevino woke up to severe stomach pain at 3:07 a.m. in California for a tournament on March 10, 2017. Thinking she was going to throw up, she ran to the bathroom to be near a toilet and texted her mom. After an hour, the pain subsided and she got up to go back to bed.
The next few moments went on to change her life forever.
“There was a banging on the door,” Bevino said. “I opened it quickly so my teammates wouldn’t wake up and my coaches were standing there. And that’s when I found out.”
The news she received rocked the college softball world: Danielle “Danni” Kemp, former Stony Brook Softball player, had passed away.
Danni was supposed to be a junior this year. She was supposed to play for the Stony Brook softball team as a second baseman, finish her college career in the spring of 2019 and move into the health science field.
She fought her way through tough stretches of her life by playing softball. It is odd to think that the sport she loved unconditionally would soon end up being the beginning of the end for her.
In the summer of 2016 at 19 years old, Danni got hit in the head with a pitch in a summer league, and was diagnosed with a concussion. When her condition worsened, she received an MRI, which showed a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball in an inoperable region of her brain. The official diagnosis was a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, one of the most difficult forms of brain cancer to treat.
“That was the saddest part,” Melinda Kemp, her mother, said. “That day when we found out, it was heartbreaking. A mother should never have to see her child go through this, especially at such a young age.”
She passed away about seven months after her initial prognosis, losing her battle on March 10 one year ago.
“It’s been tough,” Cliff Kemp, Danni’s father, said. “We have known that she wasn’t going to win the battle, but that doesn’t mean it was going to hurt less than it would have.”
Danni’s family said she was a fighter in every facet of her life, whether it be in school, on the softball field or in life in general. She was always a fighter, even in the darkest of times.
“She was such an inspiration,” Shawn Heilbron, athletic director at Stony Brook University, said about the day he found out she had passed. “I was in a meeting and was leaving to walk back to my office. That’s when I got the call. I remember just sinking my head and walking back to my office. Thinking about her, and her sisters in red and white.”
Her father said Danni Kemp was the person who protected the people that never had anyone to stand up for them.
“Danni was always a person who stood up for others,” her father said. “She didn’t have as many friends, but that’s because she chose her friends carefully.”
Of course, she had humor as well.
“Danni Kemp was one of the most sarcastic people I have ever met,” Bevino said, laughing. “She had such sarcastic, dry humor that almost nobody but her friends picked up on. She also had the most contagious and beautiful laugh. There’s not one to this day that’s better than Danni’s.”
Danni grew up in Milford, Connecticut, a ferry ride away from Port Jefferson, the town extremely close to Stony Brook University. Her father said she knew Stony Brook was the college for her the day they came for a visit.
“Honestly, I saw in her eyes the moment we got here this is where she wants to be,” he said. “She even told us, ‘It’s close enough to come home when I want and it’s far away enough that I get to live here as well.’ She was so happy and couldn’t wait to come to Stony Brook.”
Her life was filled with so many joyful memories, clear when looking through her home. Her family’s house is filled with poster boards of photos of Danni through all stages of her life. Whether it is a photo of Danni hitting a softball off a tee or tanning on the beach, she had a smile on her face in every picture.
“She loved the beach,” Bevino said. “I think the beach was her favorite place to go outside of the softball field and her room. For us, that was our go to place. Whenever we needed to talk, vent or just wanted to hang out, she always said the same thing: ‘Let’s go to the beach.’”
The beach right down the road from her house, although filled more with rocks than the smooth, golden sand that sifts between your toes, gave her perspective on how close Stony Brook was. She could see the smokestack towers in Port Jeff from any point she stood.
“The beach was her safe haven,” her father said. “She was always there, and it was her happy place.”
It was so much so her happy place that a few months into her diagnosis, the Kemp family and Bevino decided to take a vacation.
“I’m so glad we took that vacation,” her mom said. “At first I didn’t think it was a good idea because with how scary things have been. But during and after the vacation, I knew it was a great idea. She had so much fun, the most fun a girl with an inoperable brain tumor can have.”
Along with her own family and friends, another family had to find out Danni’s news: her Stony Brook Softball family.
The team, in New Mexico for a tournament, canceled its Friday doubleheader on March 10 of last year because of the heartbreaking information. Earlier in the season, her teammates knew that they were playing for something bigger.
“I think this season consists of us playing for something more,” then-sophomore catcher Irene Rivera said before the season started. “Sure, our goal is to make it to playoffs and win the America East championship, but there’s something more available to play for. We want to play our best and let her know we are thinking about her each day.”
The team kept in touch with Danni during her seven-month fight. Many of them visited her during their free time.
“[Stony Brook Softball Head Coach Megan Bryant] would send about four players on a weekend via ferry to come visit Danni for a few hours,” her mother said. “They would come by and stay with her for a few hours in the living room. That’s where Danni stayed.”
Because of repetitive treatments to battle her cancer, Danni became very weak very quickly. The family living room became her new bedroom, just to the left when you walk into the Kemp household. Bevino spent many days there with Danni.
“We would sit there and watch ‘Wild ‘N Out’ together,” she said about her time home with Danni. “It was such a stupid show and totally not a part of Danni’s personality. But at that point, she loved it so much so that became our show.”
As difficult as it was for her friends and family to process the loss, her team had to and still does have to handle their lives without her. The team was dealing with a serious loss that it could not comprehend, and it was reflective to an overall record of 18-29 last season.
“They have to go out there and play with this in their heads,” her dad said. “They have this pain in their head and their heart and they are out there playing softball still. That’s all that can be asked from them at this point.”
The team continuously shows support for its fallen member. Right behind second base is the universal sign for brain cancer, the baby blue ribbon. Underneath it is the hashtag Stony Brook Athletics has been using for over a year now, #DK23, her initials and number.
As for Bevino, the timing of her stomach pain that fateful day was no coincidence.
“I called my mom after my coaches told me about Danni,” she said. “My mom told me to look back to the time I first texted her about my stomach pain. The time was 3:07 a.m. PDT time. Danni passed away at 6:07 a.m. EST. I never believed in faith that much, until that day. I looked up to the sky and just laughed and said, ‘Okay, Danni. You’re better now. I love you.’”
Everyone wishes to have one more moment with a person they truly care about before they pass away. But Danni’s death was unexpected, as the tumor was stable and not growing. So there was one final thing Bevino wished she had told her friend, her teammate, her sister, her other half.
“I just wish I told her I loved her one more time,” she said. “The last time at the hospital I told her I loved her, but we had one other moment outside of that one that I’m talking about. The last time we were hanging out in her living room. I looked over to her and said, ‘I love you Danni Kemp.’ And her response was, ‘Ew gross, stop being so dramatic.’ And I just laughed.”
Danni can be remembered as so many things. She was the softball player who was dominant in every aspect on and off the field and had so much love for teammates.
She was a warrior who fought an inoperable disease to the very end of her life and has brought awareness to others.
She was a sarcastic, fun-loving, full-of-life person who truly cared about everyone she loved. While she has been gone for a year now, her memory still lives on among her family, friends, teammates and the Stony Brook community.