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View from the 'ville
Thursday, July 20, 2006

By Al Myatt

Coach's short life had no shortage of triumphs


One might wonder if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John weren't daunted to a degree with the responsibility of recording the Gospel.

Then again, they had the great inspiration of the same Lord and Savior to whom Keith LeClair dedicated the close of his earthly life.

That in mind, we attempt to pay tribute.

LeClair, the coach who restored East Carolina's baseball program to national prominence, passed from this realm on Monday. His life, though relatively brief at 40 years, was crammed with achievement and created a legacy that will endure beyond the grave.

A celebration of his life is set for Friday at 6 p.m. at the field of his dreams that appropriately carries his name. Many of the coach's former players and colleagues will share testimonials of his impact on their lives. There will be related video on the scoreboard.

Dress is casual. Seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis. Proceeds on drinks from the concession stands will support the ALS Association (Jim
"Catfish" Hunter Chapter) and SPORTworks Ministry.

A memorial service is scheduled earlier Friday, at 2 p.m., at his church, Oakmont Baptist, at 1100 Red Banks Road in Greenville. The family will receive friends tonight from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Wilkerson funeral home, 2100 East Fifth Street, in Greenville.

LeClair's passing brings mixed emotions. We're glad his suffering and incapacitation are over. We have faith that his soul is in a better place. We have the same regret that he expressed about not seeing his children grow up.

LeClair, in effect, had been sentenced to death with a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis following the 2001 season.

The always-terminal affliction ran in his New England family, which may explain the motivation that made him a successful coach in spite of his youth. Like a hitter who may premonition fastball on a full count, LeClair may have suspicioned that genetics would cut his time short.

That factor may have driven him.

There was an insistence that bordered on obsession after a Super Regional loss to Tennessee at Kinston's Grainger Stadium in 2001 that the Pirate program would make it to the College World Series in Omaha. Perhaps LeClair knew then that he was operating on a demanding timetable.

As a player at Western Carolina, as an assistant and head coach of the Catamounts, and in a 5-year span at ECU beginning in 1998, he was involved with teams that reached the NCAA Tournament 13 times. That's pretty amazing, even more so when you consider that he was bedridden and away from an active role in the college game for the last four years of his life.

The news had been incomprehensible at first.

I remember Brett Johnson, now a walk-on long snapper in the football program, telling me in the clubhouse of Northgreen Country Club in Rocky Mount in the summer of 2001 that there had been talk at the East-West games in Greensboro that LeClair had been stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease.

"You might want to check on that," Johnson said.

I didn't want to, but I had to. I called former athletic director Mike Hamrick as I often did to dispel wild rumors.

I was hoping for one of his, "Where do you get this stuff?" responses. Instead, there was a pause and Hamrick, in contrast to his usual bluster, said, "They don't know for sure."

Second and third opinions were sought. One lady contacted the coach and said her mother had been incorrectly diagnosed when she actually had Lyme's disease. There was hope, but it diminished and the handwriting on the wall spelled ALS. No cure, just a slow deterioration of the nerves that control muscular function.

Not to be sexist or politically incorrect, but LeClair took it like a man.

The ECU community loved him even more for that. When he was presented at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at a football game in 2002 following his hall of fame induction the night before, all he could do was wave a foot from his wheelchair on the Murphy Center terrace but it sent electric emotion — high voltage — through the cheering crowd.

He didn't immerse himself in self pity or curse his fate. While he could, he traveled with his family. He got to know the Lord. He even wrote for Bonesville.

And he followed baseball. Coaches and players often visited, many for counsel. He saw Chad Tracy and Sam Narron make it to the majors. He saw his Red Sox finally win a World Series. He saw the Pirates extend their string of NCAA appearances to seven.

He had a 212-96-1 record at ECU that included four NCAA trips and three conference tournament titles. He's credited with the team's accomplishments in 2002 although Kevin McMullan essentially guided the team on the field. LeClair, however, provided the inspiration.

The Pirates went into that season's Conference USA Tournament in Kinston having finished sixth in the league's regular season standings. Their only apparent means of getting to the NCAA Tournament was by seizing the C-USA tournament championship. The players expressed their feeling for the coach, who was watching in a blue van along the right field line, by finishing unbeaten in four games in the double-elimination event.

They ran to him in celebration and modified the traditional Gatorade dousing by pouring it on the van.

LeClair rebuilt the program on the goal of making it to Omaha. That meant expanding the recruiting base, toughening the schedule and improving facilities. It would be hard to get to Omaha without a stadium capable of hosting NCAA Tournament games. That situation has, of course, been more than taken care of.

Clark-LeClair Stadium is a $10 million testimonial to the coach's impact and the support of the ECU community for his dream.

As the end approached, LeClair communicated with the world through a specially-adapted computer procured by former football coach Steve Logan. It responded to his eye movement. I interviewed him one time through his saintly wife Lynn. She relayed the questions and you could hear the keys strike one by one over the phone. Then she read his answer.

Last winter, he sent out a blanket e-mail explaining that he couldn't answer everyone personally. We knew it was a sign of what was coming.

And Monday, it finally came.

I like to think of Coach LeClair joining those Chicago White Sox players that materialized out of the corn field in "Field of Dreams." There were eight of them, I believe. Now they have enough for a team.

Heaven is better than Omaha anyway.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

Dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 12:30:30 AM


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