Brittlyn Massey remembers the afternoon she returned home from a sleepover at a friend's and found her mom's van in the driveway covered in bright yellow barricade tape. After going inside the house, Brittlyn wondered if she had done something wrong, confused by her mom's strange behavior.
At first, Brittlyn didn't process the information. But once her twin sister Madalyn started crying, the horrible reality of their mother's message set in: "Your dad tried to kill me last night."
On June 17, 2010, Tammy Massey's estranged husband showed up unannounced to the Firestone home she shared with her seven children at 10 p.m. when Tammy was leaving for work. He kidnapped Tammy in her van, holding her at gunpoint. But she escaped.
Her husband was later sentenced to 20 years in prison as a result.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States. Domestic abuse has impacted the Massey family in many different ways, but they have also learned how to embrace and cope with it in many different ways.
Tammy had separated from her husband and was going through a divorce after years of domestic abuse that her four girls and three boys witnessed and also experienced in a different capacity. And what started as a grisly series of situations has evolved over the years into an impermeable family bond, fused by love, support, acceptance, and sport.
People find remedy from trauma in different ways.
Brittlyn, Madalyn and Mikyla Massey discovered their therapy and safe place on the softball field. And there are very few moments in the day — if any at all — you'll see them without huge smiles.
"The final straw was he started choking me"
Tammy met her husband in a Colorado high school when she was 15-years-old and they married two years later. He joined the military in 1991 and they lived in Tennessee, where Tyler was born; Washington, where Brandon, Cammeron and Kendra were born, then returned in 1999 to Colorado, where Tammy had the twins and Mikyla.
"I didn’t have family or anyone to say, 'The things he’s doing are abusive,'" Tammy said. "When you’re a teen mom, even a young love, sometimes you don't know. I think when you’re in an abusive relationship, you don’t tell people. You’re afraid to because you think it makes you look weak."
The abuse went on for years, but Tammy didn't know what was happening until she moved to Firestone in 2001, where she met her best friend Corey and began opening up about her experiences.
"The final straw was he started choking me," Tammy said.
She was also horrified when she found out he had been treating the kids badly behind her back, too. "They started telling me things after the trial (2010-11), and I never knew," she said. "I don’t know if they felt more comfortable and safe once he was in prison."
Brittlyn and Madalyn, now 16; Mikyla, 15; and Kendra, 18, remember their dad keeping them up until 3 a.m. cleaning the house — like, washing the walls cleaning — while Tammy was working a graveyard shift as a janitor at the Federal Aviation Administration building in Longmont. When Tammy was home, they remembered the arguments, too.
"Sometimes after mom and dad had a fight, he’d come out of their room and be angry," Madalyn said. "He’d take his knuckle and hit us on top of the head."
Tammy kicked him out and got a restraining order in January 2010. He began stalking her and erratically appearing at events, like the girls' rec softball games, without notice.
"Don’t make me shoot you down the street from our kids'"
It was Father's Day week when Tammy's husband startled her walking up the driveway as she was leaving for work. He said he wanted to say goodbye to the kids before he left for the mountains.
"He would come and visit every now and then (from Littleton), but not very often," Tammy said. "I had the restraining order lifted so he could see the kids, but usually when was around, it pertained to getting me back — not about seeing them."
She added: "You know that instinct you get when you know something is wrong? I just felt, 'I need to get him out of here."
He saw the kids, except for Kendra and Brittlyn who were out with friends that night, and Tammy agreed to drive him to his car oddly parked down the street. In her 15-passenger van, he went into his backpack to get two sodas and pulled out a gun.
"I put the car in park and jumped out and started screaming for help. I knew everyone around, but it was so late," Tammy said. "He jumped on top of me as I was trying get away, put the gun to my head and said, 'Stop screaming and don’t make me shoot you down the street from our kids.'"
Madalyn, who was sick with strep throat, remembers being confused and scared when her grandma and police officers showed up, and not knowing where her mom was. Mikyla recalls waking up to blue and red flashing lights flashing and going to her brother's friend's house to sleep over for two nights.
After returning home, Brittlyn told Madalyn she wished she was there the night before, and afterwards developed separation anxiety from the psychological trauma.
"I couldn't be at the friend’s house unless Madalyn was there, or when I was there, I'd feel I had to clean," Brittlyn said. "I just couldn't enjoy it for a long time."
Tammy broke free, and ran away across the highway to some bushes where she hid and called 9-1-1. Her husband turned himself in the next day. In June 2011, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted by a jury of second-degree kidnapping, aggravated motor vehicle theft and felony menacing.
Maturing on the diamond
After the kidnapping ordeal, Tammy continued raising her seven children as a single mother, and the family fell upon even more taxing times. Their home was foreclosed, and the family of eight had a few moving stints between some three-bedroom trailers and different apartments before they finally — happily, comfortably — settled into their current Firestone home fit for a big family in July.
The girls had started playing rec softball when they were five and, with the exception of Kendra, started taking it a little more seriously around high school. Brittlyn, Madalyn and Mikyla joined a competitive team with the Colorado Venom club in Northglenn, where the twins have played four seasons, and Mikyla for three.
Kendra, who graduated from Frederick in 2016, opted for volleyball instead and played for the high school and spent three years on a club team with Extreme.
"The softball field is always the place they smile and laugh," Tammy said. "They could have easily turned to drugs, alcohol or dropping out of school, but they didn't. No, they don’t have a dad and they’ve been through hell, but they know how to persevere. You can’t deal with life that way. You have to move forward."
Sports really helped with the anxiety the girls were going through, and allowed them to take the "what ifs" out of their minds, and just focus on the present.
"Your No. 1 focus is what's going on right now, compared to us thinking about the future, where we get most of our anxiety from, thinking if something bad is going to happen," Madalyn said. "But in softball, it's just what's your next goal in the moment."
Brittlyn agreed: "It's definitely an in-the-moment game. I also prefer being outside and am less stressed in the open air."
For this season's 12-7 Frederick varsity team, Brittlyn and Madalyn, both juniors, played second base, shortstop or catcher, and third base, second, shortstop or outfield, respectively. Mikyla, a sophomore, mainly played on the JV squad and was slotted at outfield, second or first.
The Warriors are an 11-seed heading into the 2016 Class 4A softball regional tournament, and start off the day playing 22-seeded Ponderosa (9-10) at Barnes Softball Complex at 10 a.m. on Saturday in the double-elimination format. No. 6 Mountain View (16-3) and No. 27 Evergreen (11-8) are the other two teams in Frederick's region.
Frederick softball head coach Roger Dufour, in his 22nd year with the program, said he missed Kendra on the field because she chose volleyball, but the other three always put a smile on his face.
"The twins came in and weren't big in size, but had a lot of speed. As a coaching staff, we suggested they go to the left side of the plate and try to become slappers, either bunting the ball or slapping it infield and trying to run it out," Dufour said. "Mikyla has a ton of potential. She's a little bigger than the twins, and also very coachable. She's come a long way since the first day of practice."
On the softball field is also where the Massey girls met Joe Wolfinbarger, Tammy's boyfriend of more than a year who lives with them, and whom Tammy also just had her eighth child with: newborn Arabella, who was welcomed into the world with plenty of love from a big family on Sept. 30, 2016.
Joe has been a longtime club softball coach, and met the girls back when they were young rec players. He's been coaching for Pro Swing the last five years and has a handful of Frederick girls on his squad.
"The girls are actually playing with my team for one tournament, the FroShow Showcase in Arizona on Nov. 4," Joe said. "Every scout in the nation will be there."
The girls have been considering playing softball in college, but it's not their main priority. Coach Dufour said there has been some interest in Adams State.
"If I can get a scholarship, that’ll be my path," Madalyn said. "But if I don’t, I’m not going out of my way to make sure that’s my No. 1 goal. At least I've had these years enjoying it."
The twins and Kendra want to go to school to become hygienists, possibly opening a family business. Mikyla wants to be either an author or a high school English teacher.
But when discussing future careers and interests, all girls always come back to talking about psychology — especially social psychology and the way other people affect you.
They're very aware of the way people affect them, and they understand when something is not right.
"We surround ourselves with positive people," Madalyn said. "If it’s someone who’s always negative, we’ve never stayed long with them. It's easier to hang out with positive people, because that’s always what we’ve had to do."
Not only are the Massey girls positive towards others, they're very positive towards one another, and lift each other higher. Dufour said the chemistry between all the siblings is incredible, and he's never seen them argue — a definite rarity for sibling behavior.
"Life is tough and it's okay to rely on others"
The Massey family has embraced their reality, and they've all done it with a smile and lots of laughs.
"I think Tammy is the true champion here. She’s held that family together and has instilled in them that it’s ok to be open," Dufour said. "They’re not trying to hide anything. Their recovery steps have been to move on from their situation and the outlook they take is: we have to grow from here and get better as people, and better as a family."
The seven kids have been far from alone going through all this, and the family component has been crucial to their current outlook on life and ability to laugh off things from the past they cannot change.
"It makes you feel better to see someone else emotional, because you realize it’s okay to feel that way," Brittlyn said. "We’re a lot more mature than anyone else our age, but we had to grow up a lot faster and face life."
Mikyla added: "Life is tough and it’s okay to rely on others. I can’t imagine what I would have gone through without my family."
Despite the hard times, the Masseys have only come out stronger than ever because of it. Coach Dufour is right: they aren't hiding anything, they're embracing it, all with a smile.
"You're not alone"
There has been a huge spotlight on domestic violence cases involving professional athletes, notably Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Floyd Mayweather Jr., and domestic abuse has been a very hot topic in sports over the last few years.
It's an ugly problem.
One of the things Tammy Massey said about her own domestic abuse is she wishes she would have told someone earlier what was going on. She said at first she didn't know any better and realize what was happening.
But she added: "I think when you’re in a domestic violence relationship, you don’t tell people. You’re afraid to because you think it makes you look weak."
Maybe you know someone who has been a victim of domestic abuse. Or maybe you don't. Or maybe you just think you don't because the person who has been harmed is too terrified to say anything, kind of like Tammy was.
"It's important to encourage people to speak up more about it," Madalyn said. "Because you're not alone and someone feels the same way."
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence compiled national statistics that said every nine seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten; an average of 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute, equating to more than 10 million abuse victims annually; one in three women and one in four men have been physically abused by an intimate partner."
"You can stand up for yourself, and you do have support," Tammy said. "It makes people stronger when they know they have help and support from others."
When people embrace they're not alone in this, awareness can truly spread.
Victims of domestic violence can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.