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Family turns loss into campaign of saving lives

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HOUSTON (FOX 26) -

He was only 18-years old and he dropped dead at his home.  We've heard it too many times before: a seemingly healthy child dying suddenly of a heart attack.

This time, Cody Stephens' grieving parents are determined to turn their loss into someone else's gain.  Scott and Melody Stephens said the health industry has made too many medical advances to still be doing the same old middle and high school physicals that were being done decades ago.  The Stephens are on a mission to make heart screenings mandatory during physical examinations for student athletes.  This comes after their high school senior fell asleep at home and never woke up.

"I miss everything about him," Melody said.

"A lot of people called him the gentle giant," Scott said.

Take one look at Cody's photo and you can clearly see where he got his nickname.

"He was 6'9", 300 pounds," Melody said, smiling.

"My not so little, little brother," Cody's older brother Clay said, laughing.

Everything about the 18-year-old seemed super-sized, from his size 17 shoe to his heart.  He volunteered with special-needs children.

"They liked to measure him," Melody said.  "They would measure how many of your feet fit in Cody's foot."

Unfortunately, Cody had a big heart in more than one way, but his parents didn't find out until the teenager's autopsy revealed he suffered hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  On May 5, just days before his high school graduation, Cody fell asleep beside his parent's bed in his dad's recliner and he never woke up.

"I could hear my dad screaming in a voice that I've never heard before, screaming Cody's name," Clay said.

"He just looked like he was asleep," Scott said.

Cody played sports, so he was always getting physical exams.  In fact, he was headed to college on a full football scholarship.

"He was recruited by half the nation," Scott said, smiling.

The Stephens also have a great time telling about the time when Cody knocked two opposing players flat on their backs, allowing his running back to score a 99-yard touchdown.  When Cody fell to the ground with the two guys, he heard one player yell to another, "I think he's going to eat us."  The parents laughed.

Cody towered over most people, including his fellow football players.

"He once had 13 pancake blocks," Scott said, smiling.

How could Cody just have a heart attack and die when he was playing so well and passing physicals?

"It breaks my heart that he's not here to make a difference in the world because he was prepared to do it," Scott said.  "And that's why we're speaking out and doing what we're doing.  We've got to be his voice."

The Stephens are pushing for a new policy that would force all student athletes to get heart screenings.  Some have asked how much that would cost.

"I know what the cost is for not doing it," Scott said.  "I can take you to the cemetery and show you the cost."

"If you save one kid, to me, it's worth it," Clay said.  "If you just save one Cody."

The Stephens took family pictures 16 days before Cody died.  They had a massive graduation party one day before his death.

"I graduated from UH.  My sister graduated from A&M, Cody from high school.  There were 150 friends and family members at our house," Clay said.  "That was literally one of the best nights of my life."

"Since all three of them were graduating we wanted to do something special.  It was a pretty wonderful evening," Scott said.

"I'm grateful that God gave us that," Melody said.

"I'm grateful he gave us 18 and a half years with such an amazing son.  Cody was my fishing and hunting buddy, my football friend.  I don't know how I'm going to hunt without him," Scott said.  

They're also thankful for one of Cody's last voice messages.

"Good night.  Love y'all," Cody said over the phone.

Scott plays that message over and over.  A special hunting hoist Cody made for charity went up for auction two weeks after he died.  Friends and members of the community got together and paid $8,000 for the $300 game winch.  The money went for a good, charitable cause.  The hoist was given back to Scott.

"Go big or go home.  It was Cody's favorite saying," Scott and Melody said.

The Stephens have created a non-profit organization by that name.  They started the foundation by raising $76,076.76.

"76 was Cody's football jersey number," Melody said.

The money will be used to pay for college scholarships and to help pay for heart screenings for student athletes.  There's an area non-profit organization that will travel to schools and perform Electrocardiograms for $20 per student.  

The Stephens said these heart screenings should be required.  They point to 15-year-old football player Chris Aguilar whose life was saved last year when Hargrave High School made them mandatory.  Aguilar went on to have life-saving heart surgery after the screening discovered the teen's life-threatening heart problem.  

Scott is meeting with area superintendents to encourage mandatory high school heart screenings.  He will also speak to the board that makes public school sports policies.  That meeting will happen in Austin on Oct. 21.  That's the day Cody would have turned 19 years old.

"It won't be easy.  It'll be difficult, but it's something I have to do.  I know this will save lives," Scott said.

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