CLEMSON — Mike Kent and his West Springfield (Va.) High School teammates used to inscribe motivational messages under the bills of their caps. Before each inning he pitched, Kent walked to the back of the pitcher’s mound, took off his cap and studied the reminders to be tough and execute.
The sports psychology tactic helped him become the 13th best prep baseball prospect in Virginia. He has taken the routine to Clemson, but these days there are no words written inside his orange hat. Instead he stares into the dome of his cap before each inning and thinks about his ailing brother, Matt, who is battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“It’s just a quick look, a quick glance,” said Kent, a redshirt sophomore for the Tigers. “I think of him all the time. How much he’s struggling, how much he’s fighting. … That’s what gets me focused in the zone.”
On April 21 at Maryland, Kent was summoned from the bullpen in the late innings to save a game. Two days later he was donating bone marrow stem cells to save his brother’s life.
‘His last chance’
As Kent peered into his cap behind the mound at Maryland, he could think of all the heartache his family had endured.
He can still remember the phone call from Matt three years earlier. His only sibling and older brother of five years had been feeling weak and collapsed. The diagnosis was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.
Kent remembered the failed treatments. There was the chemotherapy robbing Matt of his hair. The failed stem cell transplant of Matt’s own cells. The weight loss. The inability to walk. The depression.
“I think about the pain he’s going through, pain he’s been through the last three years now,” Kent said. “He’s a fighter and that’s what I’m trying to be.”
Kent remembers receiving another phone call last year from his mother, Susan Kent, asking him to be tested to see if he was a donor match. Matt was running out of options. He needed healthy bone marrow stem cells. It was a long shot: Mike had only a 25 percent chance of being a match.
“I said I am not going to lie to you,” Susan told Mike. “This could be his last chance.”
Kent flew home to be tested in December. He was a match.
The procedure was scheduled to take place immediately after Clemson’s series at Maryland last month.
Kent was required to receive four straight days of Granulocyte Colony Stimulating Factor (G-CSF) injections, a hormone that stimulates bone marrow to produce stem cells in the blood stream.
These cells grow and divide into red blood cells, platelets and infection-fighting white blood cells.
At 6:45 a.m. on Saturday, April 21, Kent left the team hotel for the University of Maryland Medical Center for his third straight day of injections. Doctors told him because the process increases white blood cells, it has the side effect of producing flu-like symptoms. They said he wouldn’t be able to pitch.
He returned to Maryland and warmed up at the stadium. Fatigue and pain set in. Clemson coach Jack Leggett and pitching coach Dan Pepicelli approached Kent to ask how he was feeling.
“Basically, I had the flu,” Kent said. “Coach said, ‘Listen, if you can’t do anything, let me know.’ ”
Kent told his coaches he wanted to play.
As starter Dominic Leone struggled in the sixth inning, Leggett pointed toward Kent, who was warming in the bullpen. Kent entered the game with the bases loaded, two outs and Clemson up by three runs.
“We weren’t throwing him a bone,” Pepicelli said. “We needed him.”
Kent, who has a 3.34 ERA, jogged on to the field. He went to the back of the pitcher’s mound and to his routine.
He gave up an infield hit to the first batter, but retired the next one to end the threat. Only one run had scored. His mother watched in the stands.
Holding on to hope
As Kent went out for the ninth inning at Maryland, three outs from securing a save, he knew he had much to be thankful for, regardless of how the game ended.
His roommate Spencer Kieboom has been there for him, researching his brother’s illness.
There is Leggett, who became something of a father figure.
“He knows we care about him,” Leggett said. “I had gone through some similar things at this time in my life when I was in college.”
Leggett’s freshman year at Maine was filled with despair: His girlfriend died in a car accident; his parents divorced; his grandfather died; and he suffered a broken ankle during football camp,
You have to keep moving forward, Leggett said.
After retiring the first two batters in the ninth at Maryland, Kent allowed a single before getting the final out on a fly ball. Clemson won, 5-3, and Kent was congratulated by his teammates.
As his team returned to Clemson, Susan drove her son back to their home in Springfield, Va. Early the next morning, Kent was back at University of Maryland Medical Center.
In a traditional bone marrow transplant, a portion of the sponge-like cells are extracted from bone. But Kent was able to donate bone marrow stem cells found in his bloodstream.
The procedure involves removing whole blood from the donor’s veins, spinning the blood in a centrifuge to separate the blood into its components. The extracted stem cells are transfused into the patient.
When the six-hour procedure was completed, a nurse returned to show Kent a plastic bag containing the donated cells.
“It looked like tomato soup,” he said. “It’s a reddish-pinkish color. (The nurse) said ‘This is good, this is going to be nice.’ ”
Before returning to Clemson, Kent visited Matt’s room, a place where his brother would be quarantined for weeks to avoid exposure to bacteria.
“Matt said ‘Thank you, Mike,’ ” Susan said. “Then Matt began to cry. He knew the gift that his brother had given him.”
On their way to the airport, Susan expressed her gratitude to Mike.
“I said ‘Thanks for everything and I love you and you can’t imagine how this makes me feel that you’ve done this for your brother,’” she said. “He just said ‘I hope it works out.’”
The early returns have not been promising as the new cells are destroying Matt’s platelets. But he continues to fight while his younger brother holds on to hope.