Special: Part One of Three Parts
Notebook No. 50
Monday, February 11, 2002
By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist
Bold Goals in Face of Adversity
LeClair's Faith Fueling His Fight
GREENVILLE — Keith LeClair has faced his share of curves over the last
seven months. And each time life throws a new wrinkle at East Carolina's
fifth-year head coach, he uses the same approach demanded of his players on
the baseball diamond.
He goes with the pitch.
For even the game's greatest hitters, such a task requires the patience
and discipline to not succumb to temptation. For LeClair, who is battling
his most challenging opponent to date, the test calls for perseverance, not
to mention the will and endurance to wage a lengthy fight.
Photo: ECU SID Office
LeClair, who often speaks in analogies, doesn't shrink from the battle.
He likens his current situation to a race and has prepped himself for the
It is still unknown just what has unleashed its power on LeClair's body,
though the effects are growing increasingly hard to miss. His speech is
severely slurred and sometimes hard to understand. His movements are robotic
in nature, with each one carefully performed.
The symptoms are highly akin to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a
fatal neuromuscular disease for which there is no cure. It's the same
disease that inflicted Hall of Fame slugger Lou Gehrig, with whose name the
illness is most commonly associated.
The possibility also remains that the 35-year old coach has contracted
Lyme Disease, which possesses many of the same traits. The good news with
Lyme is that it is treatable, though the process can be a trying, uphill
It's a climb the Walpole, New Hampshire, native is willing to make as he
strives to return to the physical form to reassume the on-the-field duties
he so dearly relishes.
"I believe that I will defeat this," LeClair said. "I believe that I will
persevere. I believe one day I will hit fungos and throw BP, and coach like
I did before this happened."
Given the circumstances, you could hardly blame LeClair for howling about
how he has been forsaken. After all, he was on top of the world last June,
just outs away from a trip to the CWS.
When you consider the accomplishments — the seven conference
championships, the seven regional appearances — the situation seems
especially cruel. That goes without mentioning his seven coach of the year
honors to go along with MVP hardware from his playing days in Cullowhee.
You won't catch LeClair being spiteful, however, and you certainly won't
find him questioning God. Instead, you're likely to find him praising the
Lord he worships, accompanying it with verses of scripture.
"Sometimes we don't exercise our faith like we should, until our backs
are against the wall, and we have to surrender," LeClair said. "I've been
through that the last seven months.
"I feel that the Lord has given me this time to witness and to help
others. I think people are more open, and have open ears when somebody is
going through trials and tribulations in life, versus somebody that is
experiencing great success."
Perhaps nobody can speak those words with more clarity than LeClair, who
has been on both ends of the spectrum in less than a year. With that in
mind, the former Catamount has begun a new mission of late, one not
measurable by wins and losses.
This one, he says, won't afford him earthly rewards like the ones on his
mantle, instead bringing forth countless treasures in Heaven. Yes, the
Pirates' baseball coach is on a mission for God, and the unknown illness has
become his platform.
"He's shown me how this is a time to glorify him," he said. "I feel like,
right now, he wants me to show others how important he is in my life and how
important he can be to them, if they will just be open to him and receive
Yet, given the choice, LeClair would undoubtedly prefer to be free of the
disease that has progressed rapidly over the past several months. That is
out of his hands, though, something with which he has come to grips.
LeClair has taken on numbing adversity and transformed it into an
opportunity. He even feels blessed by his current set of limitations.
"This has really been a rewarding time," he said. "It hasn't been a
miserable seven months. I have more peace than I've ever had in my life."
Spend an hour with one of the nation's most successful coaches, and
you'll certainly understand why.
Leading the Quest
The more things change around the ECU baseball office, the more they stay
the same. While LeClair is physically unable to perform many of the physical
duties of a college head coach, his mind remains razor-sharp.
And the fire burning in his deep-blue eyes is brighter than ever as the
Pirates ready themselves to deliver on their ultimate quest — a national
Moments after falling just outs shy of a College World Series berth last
season, LeClair proclaimed the Pirates would soon find their way to the
Nebraska heartland. He said it without a doubt.
"What has taken place here is that we expect to get to Omaha," LeClair
said. "We expect to host a Super Regional. Last year we did that, but we
just fell a little bit short."
For the clearly stated objective to materialize this year, the Pirates
must retool a formidable lineup, one that launched 85 home runs during last
year's 47-13 run.
Gone are Chad Tracy, John Williamson, Lee Delfino, Joseph Hastings and
Cliff Godwin, all of whom went on to professional ball. Between the five,
they launched 63 of those 85 blasts, while each batted well over .300.
LeClair and his staff are confident in their replacements, though, and
have the balance of the pitching staff returning. That's reason enough for
third-year assistant Kevin McMullan to focus on taking the next step,
something he started preaching when the Pirates returned to the practice
field last month.
"From the first meeting we had on January 7, to the day of the College
World Series is, I believe, 25 weeks," McMullan said. "We have 25 weeks to
prove why we belong in the national championship game.
"You look around our office, and on my computer screen, it's Omaha. In
our locker room, we talk about going to Omaha. That is our goal. Obviously
there is a journey and process involved with it, and our guys are in that
process right now."
Make no mistake, that process continues to be fueled by LeClair, whose
inspirational battle could become the ultimate symbol of a team on college
baseball's ultimate mission.
McMullan has experienced his share of tragedy in life, starting with the
death of his mother when he was three. At 18, he lost his sister. During his
first year of coaching, he said goodbye to his father.
Having thrice faced the loss of a loved one, you would think that
McMullan, the Pirates' hitting instructor and recruiting coordinator, is
well-equipped to handle the emotional difficulties facing this program. But
McMullan admits LeClair's illness is uncharted waters.
"I've been through some of these types of things," McMullan said. "But
I've never been through anything like this from a coaching standpoint —
being involved with another guy on your staff.
"Coach (LeClair) is going through some tremendous challenges. He's
head-to-head with it — he's battling his tail off."
That personal battle has put things into perspective for both McMullan
and the Pirates, while serving as a source of motivation. Nobody
half-heartedly goes through the motions at Harrington Field, as the Pirates
consistently give their all throughout pre-season drills.
"He's been an inspiration to us," McMullan said. "There are physical
limitations, but his mental game is as sharp as it's ever been. It's really
motivated our players on a daily basis.
"It's a great experience for our players to go through, that they can
share with their teammates, and people outside of their team for the rest of
their lives. Every day you think you're having a bad day, just look over in
that corner at that guy, and he's fighting his tail off to get to Omaha. Our
goals have not changed."
For LeClair, though, the goals have multiplied over the past year while
the difficulty has increased. The odds would be stacked against just about
anybody gunning for Omaha, not to mention defeating what could be a fatal
When you really think about it, though, we're not talking about just
anybody here. We're talking about Keith LeClair.
If there's one thing he knows, it's how to win. That, after all, is the
expectation these days.
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02/23/2007 01:45:43 AM