And here’s the funny thing: It wasn’t the jersey.
Or the hat. Or the autographs. It wasn’t the hugs. Or the high-fives from giant after giant.
It was the hair.
Chase Kent took one look and decided — right then and there — that Roger Gonzalez was his mane man.
“He was really shy,” Chase’s mother Mary said of her son’s first meeting with the Winthrop baseball team last fall. “After everything he’d been through, we drove home and he said, ‘I really like the catcher, Mommy.’ He said, ‘I like his hair. I want his hair.’ It was super cute.”
This was several chemo treatments ago, of course. Chase had been diagnosed with leukemia in January 2015, just before his fifth birthday, a haymaker that cost Mom and Dad sleep and, for much of last year, cost a kindergartner his brown locks.
“When a child is diagnosed with cancer, you don’t know what your life is going to be like,” Mary said. “He’s not resistant to treatments. ‘Do what you have to do, I want to get on with my life.’ For a 6-year-old, that’s tough to do. I don’t know how he does it.”
With friends, mostly. For the last six months or so, some of his best have been the ones in garnet and gold. The love goes both ways: Winthrop’s baseball team has won 12 of 16 at home this spring, wings soaring on the wind of their smallest teammate. And biggest heart.
“I think I’ve said this before,” said coach Tom Riginos, whose Eagles (16-16) host Radford Saturday on ASN. “But he gives us more than we give him.”
Last December, Winthrop “drafted” young Chase, a kindergartner from Rock Hill, S.C., to their roster, a relationship bridged by Team IMPACT, a national organization that partners college teams with local children facing life-threatening or chronic illnesses.
“A lot of times, not that the game is repetitive or anything like that, (but) it’s easy to take things for granted,” said Gonzalez, a senior who began the week with a .336 batting average and a team-best 10 doubles.
“But when you see what things he has to deal with and what (he) really has to fight at such a young age, that puts things in a perspective for us. It just means a lot to me; even if you’re having a bad day, you can step back for a second and put everything in perspective about life, you know?”
Chase spent the summer before kindergarten bombarded by radiation. When he wasn’t poked, he was prodded. It’s a three-year treatment, Mary said, and even though the cancer is in remission, they’ve got two years left. He takes oral chemo every day. Every three months, there’s an infusion through a port in his chest.
Little by little, the hair went. The spirit didn’t.
“Most of the time after that, after having treatments, he’s like, ‘Where are my friends outside? I want to go play,’” Mom recalled. “He doesn’t let it get him down … he just fights throughout. We all know that chemotherapy is something that makes you feel not well. It’s hard to explain, but he’s like, ‘Whatever. Let’s do what I have to do. And I want to get on with my life.’ That’s really what helped us as a family kind of push through this.”
In a small way, the Eagles helped, too. As part of the ice-breaking, a news conference was held in early December to introduce Chase as the newest member of the Winthrop program, with future “teammates” such as Gonzalez attending to lend support. Riginos kept the doors open, inviting the Kents to visit fall workouts and even to his home for the team’s annual Christmas dinner.
Chase found a kindred spirit in Gonzalez. A native of Miami, the catcher’s parents are in the medical biz, and he’s been around tough cases — and tough patients — much of his life. But nobody he’s seen has been as stout, at such a tender age, as Chase. Pain is relative.
“Absolutely,” Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t even think about the worst day I’ve ever had in the field … I can only imagine what he’s gone through is 10 times worse on his body that anything (we’ve) been through. Mary says he’s always battling, always ready to go. That’s just so crazy that someone, a young kid at such a young age, could keep battling.”
The fight is a few winters old now, after Mary and husband Bryce noticed a pre-schooler with a Hemi motor becoming slow and lethargic — and more lethargic by the day.
“Chase, he’s a tough little kid,” Mary recalled. “And by the time I brought him to the pediatrician, he was very anemic. We spent the weekend in the hospital and (after a shot) he did so well and looked so amazing. He came home and we’re thinking, ‘We’re OK.’ And he just didn’t move after that.”
A bone marrow biopsy confirmed the worst. Mary, a physician’s assistant, was floored.
“And I can’t put into words the devastation that we felt as a family,” she said. “Here I am, treating patients all day long and I have this little boy (who’s ill). He (was) this healthy little boy. So it was just a crushing time for us, but we got through the first couple months.”
Before long, the battle was joined.
“We just had this amazing outpouring of support from the neighborhood,” Mary said, noting that a social worker had suggested partnering with Team IMPACT, “because (Chase) is just so outgoing, he loves sports.”
The wheels on the Eagles part of the narrative began turning exactly a year ago. A Team IMPACT rep connected with Winthrop associate athletic director Scott McDonald and a meeting was arranged for the upcoming fall. Riginos and Gonzalez have been added to the family contact list ever since.
“For us, it’s a really good distraction,” Mary said. “Him and his older brother (Jordan) always want to be doing something. They like to get to the games. It’s something they look forward to, and it’s fun. We’re very appreciative of what they’ve done for Chase.”
The Kents have new friends, a new purpose. The Eagles have a beacon. A bond.
“I use the saying sometimes, ‘Compared to what?’” Riginos said. “Sometimes, you think you’ve had a bad day when you go 0-for-4 or you lose a ballgame or you don’t pitch as well. Then reality sets in. And some of these guys have had pretty good lives compared to Chase, had pretty good lives compared to what he’s gone through and the tribulations. And he’s only (6) years old. That he’s had to battle this disease and at this point, he’s beaten it … that’s big for us.”
Last Tuesday night was big, too. Chase was invited to throw out the first pitch before the Eagles met the Charlotte 49ers last Tuesday night at BB&T Stadium, the home of the Charlotte Knights.
“I think, more than anything, it’s probably (shown) how he’s grown around us from Day 1,” Riginos said. “Where he was clinging to Mom and Dad and wouldn’t come out on the field (last fall) to last week, (when) he would come down on the field and throw with the guys. He got more comfortable, and that showed (in Charlotte). He walked right out to the pitcher’s mound and without his parents coming out there with him.”
And fired a strike.
“He made a perfect throw,” Gonzalez recalled. “I was little disappointed by that, in that it was almost too perfect from him, and I kind of dropped it at the last minute. His arm’s getting better. You could clearly see he wasn’t as interested in baseball before and you can see how baseball is starting to grow on him.”
Which, as it turns out, isn’t the only thing that’s been growing on him since Christmas.
“Chase is growing out his hair now,” Mary explained. “And just this past Tuesday, I said, ‘Oh, what did Roger think about your hair?’ I saw Roger point to his hair.”
To that, the littlest Eagle grinned.
“Roger told me,” Chase replied, “I’m getting some flow now.”
“He’s a really special kid,” Gonzalez said.
Hair, there and everywhere.
Above, on the cover: Chase Kent warms up before throwing out the first pitch. (Photo courtesy Mary Kent. Video courtesy Jeremy Wynder/Winthrop)
Middle: Courtesy Tim Cowie/Winthropphotos.com.
Bottom: Courtesy Mary Kent