In mid-November, Florida Atlantic’s baseball team was taking part in its annual Iron Owl competition to test each player’s physical and mental strength. One player, however, was unknowingly on the verge of going through the most difficult test one can imagine.
Collegiate baseball takes a toll on every player’s body, but the pain junior catcher Kevin Abraham was feeling in his right arm was not the usual soreness that comes from playing 60 games in a season. Abraham knew the pain was getting worse and spoke to head coach John McCormack and athletic trainer Andrew Calore about the abnormal discomfort he was experiencing.
“As a baseball player, you’re going to have soreness in your arm,” Abraham said. “You don’t want to cry about it — you want to suck it up. But, it was getting worse and it wasn’t normal at all.”
Standard treatments didn’t soothe the pain, which grew worse each day, prompting Calore to schedule an MRI. While awaiting the results, Abraham began suffering daily fevers that grew increasingly worse.
The MRI showed a mass roughly the size of a baseball in Abraham’s upper arm. While wrapping up the fall season, the catcher was diagnosed with stage four cancer — specifically, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“They told me I probably wouldn’t be able to play baseball ever again,” Abraham said. “Hearing that as a 20-year-old, it hit hard.”
Choking back emotions, he said, “Taking away everything that you’ve worked for. It’s a tough moment for you as a person.”
One initial option for treatment was to remove the bone housing the tumor, but Abraham awaited a biopsy and a second opinion.
“We were hoping it was just an infection,” he said. “Waiting on the results of the biopsy was the longest week of my life.”
When the result showed that the tumor was indeed malignant, the 6-2, 215 pound Miramar, Fla., native was prepared for the unsettling news.
“At that point, I was ready to fight what was coming,” he said. “No more tears, no more panic. I said, ‘Let’s fight.’”
Dr. Izidore Lossos, head of the University of Miami Lymphoma Program, put Kevin on one of the strongest chemotherapy treatments available, rather than opt for surgery, to combat the cancer. While preparing for his first treatment, Abraham relied on support from his parents, Crislayne and Jorge and Coach McCormack, who also is battling cancer.
“Mac was there the entire way,” Abraham said. “He said, ‘You’ve got to be strong. You’re going to be OK. You’re a strong kid and you’re going to fight it.’”
Abraham knew that he would have to miss the 2016 season in order to fight his battle, and McCormack supported him, telling Abraham, “If baseball isn’t here for you this year, it will be next year. We’ll wait for you. Anything you need, we’re here for you.”
Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who also faced lymphoma in his early career, reached out to Abraham. Rizzo was an FAU commit coming out of high school and his brother John was an offensive lineman for the Owls.
“Rizzo called and told me he went through the same thing,” Abraham said. “He told me I’d lose my hair and to live my normal life like I was living it before.”
Rizzo’s foundation assists those suffering from lymphoma across America and supports the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center where Kevin was undergoing treatment. McCormack and the Owls have participated in the Rizzo Family Foundation walks several times.
Just days after semester exams, McCormack broke Abraham’s news to the rest of the team.
“Kevin’s situation has really put everything in perspective for our team,” McCormack said. “He reminds us how lucky we are to be able to go to school and play baseball every day. It certainly changes the way you look at things.”
Immediately following the meeting, teammates as well as other student athletes began to reach out.
“Everybody texted me,” Abraham said. “They were all supporting me and encouraging me.”
On Dec. 16, Kevin underwent his first session of chemotherapy and felt better almost instantly.
“I had suffered fevers for more than a month,” Abraham said. “But after chemo, my body took a complete 180. I felt amazing.”
After his second round of chemo, the side effects became more evident. The catcher recognized by his big frame and nearly-permanent five-o’clock shadow lost his hair and lost 35 pounds in mere weeks. His parents were up at all hours checking on their son and buying him new clothes as his weight dropped.
On Monday, Jan. 27, a little more than a month after treatment began, Abraham received the best news of his life.
“The doctor said the PET scan couldn’t have been more perfect,” he said. “The tumor was gone.”
It took another day for the feeling to settle in.
“Doors started opening with faith and everything worked out the way it should,” Abraham said.
“I had so many people behind me – Coach Mac, my teammates, family, friends and people I didn’t even know were helping me. It was tough. That’s why you have the people who love you.”
McCormack, who had broken the news of his impending treatment to the team just month before knew the battle Abraham would face, but he also knew the strength that the team and the FAU family would provide.
“Kevin has been an inspiration to me and the team. He has never complained or wondered why,” McCormack said. “He has taken this head on and never looked back.”
His approach and optimism has been key to his battle.
“Today is the first day that I feel like I’ve beaten cancer,” Abraham said on Wednesday, “I have no hair now, but I have life. I just beat this.”
While Abraham will miss this season, he knows his time on the field is far from over. After a handful of final treatments, he’ll be able to work on regaining strength and begin his path back to the diamond.
“Baseball saved my life,” he said. “If I wasn’t throwing, I don’t know how the pain would have come about. I’m blessed that I play baseball – that’s what showed me the signs.”
“There was never a down moment throughout this whole process,” he said. “There have been so many positive moments. The rough times absolutely made me stronger and made me look at life differently. The way I look at life has completely changed.”
Above, middle and below: Kevin Abraham courtesy JC Ridley/FAU Athletics.