CARY, N.C. -- Ernie Kirkwood needed to be with his family, but how?

It was just a couple of months ago that Kirkwood received word that his dad, Ernie Jr., had not only suffered a stroke but needed heart surgery as well. The situation was dire, an emergency of the utmost sort.

Ernie Kirkwood and Ernie Kirkwood Jr.
Coker Athletics

Please don’t let this be happening.

Ernie III had to somehow figure out a way to get to the hospital in Pittsburgh, and that was a long, long way from the campus of Coker in Hartsville, S.C. He didn’t have the kind of money it would take to get a plane ticket on that short a notice. What college kid does?

Imagine what it must have been like to be in the young man’s shoes, so far away from where he needed to be and no way to get there. If ever there was a helpless feeling, this had to be it. Just when the situation appeared hopeless, his second family -- his baseball teammates and other students at Coker -- stepped in to help.

One by one, they chipped in a few bucks each and gave it to all head coach Dave Schmotzer. The longtime Coker skipper in turn purchased a plane ticket to Pittsburgh for Kirkwood through the school’s baseball program.

There’s tight, and then there’s Coker tight. Kirkwood transferred at the beginning of this school year from a community college in his native New York, and with the help of his new friends, he made it to the hospital in time to see his dad before surgery.

“Everyone surprised me with the ticket home,” Kirkwood said. “It just all worked out for the best. I broke down. It wasn’t just the baseball team. It was everybody. They’ve just known me for a year. It meant the world to me that I could go be with my family. They all gave me a hug and said, ‘We love you.’”

His father made it through the tricky procedure, in which an aortic valve was replaced. Doctors told the family that had the surgery not been performed, Ernie Jr. might have had one to three months to live.

Kirkwood made it back to campus in time to help the Cobras on their drive through the postseason, which progressed through to a victory in the NCAA south region tournament. What he didn’t know was that his dad was on his way there, too.

On the morning of the championship game against Georgia College, Kirkwood was on his way to breakfast at the team’s hotel when the elevator doors slid open. There stood his dad with assistant coach Ricky Meinhold.

“It was unbelievable,” Kirkwood said. “I didn’t know prior to that he was coming. I was going down to the lobby to eat, and when the door opened, there’s my coach and my dad. It was the first time I’d seen him since the day after his surgery. I was half asleep and all of a sudden, there he was.

“We gave each other a hug. It completely surprised me. I’m pretty sure Ricky was the only one who knew. He kept the secret really well. It was awesome he got to experience us dog-piling [after the win]. Just being there, seeing us go to the World Series was awesome.”

Watching the players pile on top of each other wasn’t the only thing Ernie Jr. was able to experience. After picking themselves up off the ground following the traditional post-championship dog-pile, most of Kirkwood’s teammates headed toward the stands to celebrate with fans.

Kirkwood did, too.

“The first person I wanted to be with was him,” Kirkwood said. “That was the first time I’d seen him since the surgery. He was already crying, and that made me start crying. It was remarkable.”

Starting pitcher Dan Meyer went the nine-inning distance in Coker’s 7-2 victory against the Bobcats. The ball used to record the final out would’ve made for a nice memento for his trophy case. Instead, Meyer gave it to Kirkwood’s dad.

“That was his first time meeting Dan Meyer,” Kirkwood said of his father. “For Dan to pitch a nine-inning championship game his senior year, Dan deserved that ball. For him to give it to my dad, after meeting him five minutes earlier … I couldn’t say anything.

“I saw Dan hand it to him. He said, ‘Hey, you deserve this ball. I want you to have it.’ Dan gave my dad a hug, and I went over and gave Dan a hug. It was unreal that he would even think of doing that. I tried giving the ball back to him, and Dan said no.”