Baseball is Thad Hawkins’ game, but he could probably have been a prize fighter the way he has ducked the punches thrown at him in the last few years.
Within less than a year, the redshirt junior pitcher/outfielder from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, battled cancer, chemotherapy and a serious car accident – all three ravaging his body and putting a hold on his baseball career.
A healthy Hawkins began his freshman season in 2008 feeling strong, but about halfway through the year his body started doing things he could not explain.
“I was tired all the time and my body was really sore,” Hawkins said. “There were things I knew just weren’t right. One morning I woke up and my testicle was sore and swollen, so I went to the doctor. They did a routine check on it and I had an ultrasound and found out it was testicular cancer.”
The cancer had already advanced to Stage IV when it was discovered in the summer of 2008, so although the outlook was positive for Hawkins, an aggressive treatment plan was needed for the then-19-year-old.
“They told me since I was young they were going to give me the toughest treatment they had because I could handle it,” Hawkins said. “(The doctors) said with this type of cancer, there was a 95 percent cure rate and if I was going to have cancer, this was the type I wanted.”
Hawkins had nine weeks of chemotherapy, and is now cancer-free, but restoring his body’s strength was a longer road than expected. He was planning to return for the 2009 season, when two months after his final chemotherapy treatment Thad and his twin brother Zach were in a serious car accident on Dec. 23, 2008. Zach, also a member of the SIUE baseball team, walked away from the accident, but Thad was not so lucky. He was hospitalized for 10 days, and had 10 inches of his colon and his appendix removed, depleting his body even more.
“I felt bad because he had internal bleeding from the seatbelt and I just wish I could have taken that pain from him because he had been through so much,” Zach said. “That car accident set him back a lot, and it was tough because he was in the hospital on Christmas.”
After the accident, Hawkins decided to wait another year before attempting to return to the team.
“(After chemo) I lost about 20 to 25 pounds and I was going to try my hardest to come back and play,” Hawkins said. “Then, after being in the hospital for 10 days without eating after the accident, I knew it took too much of a toll on my body.”
Zach, a junior third baseman for the Cougars, has been there every step of the way for his brother and college roommate.
“I couldn’t have done it without him,” Hawkins said. “Having him here and telling me everything was going to be okay was definitely a big boost for me. I knew I wasn’t going to give up or let it get me down … I knew I had to fight it, but with him here and watching him succeed playing ball helped things.”
“We’ve always been close,” Zach said. “When he was sick, he would go in his room, and I would get him a drink or food. He was so sick from the chemo that he could hardly get up.”
Hawkins continued to travel with the team during the 2009 season, and the incredible support of the baseball program during those trying times were a huge motivation for his recovery. During his chemotherapy, the team visited Hawkins in his hometown, and when he started to lose his hair because of the treatment, the players shaved their heads in solidarity.
“They just kept telling me to push through this,” Hawkins said. “Being able to go down on the field and watch them made me realize even more how much I wanted to come back and play. That’s what helped me get through things. They were there for me and I wanted to be there for them.”
After a year of regaining his strength, Hawkins was able to return to the team, and started 28 games as an outfielder, batting .283 for the season despite not feeling completely back to normal.
“Last year was just a learning process,” Hawkins. “It was hard, but I was just trying to get back in the swing of things.”
This season, Hawkins has primarily pitched in a closer’s role for the Cougars and ranks second on squad with a 2.87 ERA, while leading SIUE with 12 relief appearances. He has posted a 1-2 record and three saves in 15.2 innings of work.
“I like being in control of game and knowing the outcome is going to be in my hands,” Hawkins said. “I go out there and do my best.”
Hawkins’ brother is impressed with the progress he has made over the last two years.
“I’ve seen a big difference,” Zach said. “He’s taken amazing steps from what he battled back from. He’s throwing the baseball hard and getting his strength back finally. He’s turned into the player that he was before he got the cancer, but he is stronger now.”
“I feel like I’m at 100 percent, and I haven’t been 100 percent in many years,” Hawkins said. “I feel like I’m finally there.”
SIUE is riding a four-game winning streak following a three-game sweep of Ohio Valley Conference opponent Murray State. The Cougars, who are reclassifying to Division I, are 7-2 against OVC opponents this season.