College baseball: LSU-South Carolina matchup special for Gamecocks bullpen catcher
Long before John Hawkins earned a spot as a bullpen catcher for the University of South Carolina, he was an infielder with dreams of playing big-time college baseball.
Hawkins was a three-year starter for his St. Joseph's varsity club in Greenville, South Carolina. In his last two years, he started at second base for a team that won consecutive state titles.
He used an 11.5-inch Rawlings infielder's glove those last two years. It was light brown with a "36" stitched into it in black thread. Hawkins was the glove's second owner.
"I loved that glove," Hawkins said.
Its previous owner was former LSU shortstop Austin Nola. The story behind how Hawkins came to use that glove is unlikely as it is inspiring.
Nola gave it to Hawkins personally in 2010, when Hawkins, stricken with Stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma, was touring his dream school as part of the Make-A-Wish program.
Hawkins was a 14-year-old cancer patient then. He was about to embark on a harrowing stretch that would see him lose his hair, his taste buds and roughly a third of his body weight.
Today he is a 21-year-old cancer-free young man.
On Friday, he will suit up in the place he always wanted to be, only in a different color uniform. It's going to be weird. For someone who has experienced so much in those 21 years, this weekend will be a first.
"Everyone knows how big an LSU fan I am," Hawkins said. "I have an LSU sticker on my truck that I drive to the baseball stadium here [in South Carolina], and everyone teases me about it. I've got a South Carolina sticker on there too.
"I was just joking with everybody and I was like, 'This is going to be the first time in my life I'm not pulling for LSU when they play.'"
'I felt right at home'
Hawkins was born and raised in Greenville, but he inherited his LSU fandom. His family is from the Lake Charles area, and he's been rooting for the Tigers for as long as he can remember.
"Everybody who knows me knows how serious it is for me," Hawkins said. "I pull for everything, even their gymnastics and track teams."
Perhaps the only thing that eclipses his passion for LSU sports is playing the sports themselves. He was a solid athlete who started at shortstop for his varsity baseball team as an eighth-grader.
This was the thing that bothered his youthful mind the most about his diagnosis — everybody else was out playing when he couldn't.
"I didn't consider it was something that was life-threatening at the time," Hawkins said. "The one thing that came into my mind was, 'I'm not going to be able to play baseball or football.'"
He first learned something was wrong at football practice the summer before his freshman year at St. Joseph's. He noticed purple dots scattered across his arms, hundreds of them. He said his skin bruised instantly at just a slight touch.
It was initially diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, or ITP, a disorder in which the immune system destroys blood platelets, which naturally clot blood. He said platelet count was hovering around 5,000 — well below the normal range of 150,000-450,000. That was it for football.
On a family vacation to Washington D.C., Hawkins suddenly felt pain in his back while touring the city on foot. The pain got to be so bad he "couldn't stand up straight or sit up, I would have to lay down completely flat for it to stop hurting."
An X-ray revealed a fracture in his back, but various tests couldn't determine exactly what the origin of the fracture was. Hawkins wore a back brace to school and dealt with the pain until the cause was finally determined: near the fracture, there was a tumor. It was one of many.
The diagnosis was finally clear: Stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma, the most serious stage of the disease. He was 14 years old when he went through his first chemotherapy treatment in 2010.
This is where his path took him to LSU. The Make-A-Wish Foundation grants wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses. Hawkins wanted to get an all-access tour of LSU's sports scene.
Patty Giovingo is on her 15th year as a Make-a-Wish volunteer in Baton Rouge. She drew the assignment to escort the Hawkins family in Baton Rouge and tick items off the wish list.
What struck Giovingo then as it does now was how simple the request was, especially as it relates to something she had started to take for granted as a standard ritual on fall Saturdays.
"To think that it meant this much to this young man," Giovingo said. "He was offered anything. He could've gone to France, he could've gone to Italy, he could've gone to England, Ireland — anywhere he wanted to go.
"He chose to come to Baton Rouge, to LSU, to watch a game in Tiger Stadium. It made a big impression on me."
Giovingo made calls. She had worked with LSU vice chancellor and athletic director Joe Alleva with a previous child and saved his number. She talked to her co-worker, Stacie Nola — mother of LSU baseball stars Austin and Aaron — to set up something with the baseball team.
LSU put on the full-court press, bending over backward to ensure the family enjoyed themselves. Hawkins and his family toured the entire expanse of LSU athletics properties. He met Austin Nola and Mikie Mahtook, then went to a football practice where he went wide-eyed as he spoke with Patrick Peterson.
He played catch with then football coach Les Miles.
"Les Miles was unbelievable," Hawkins said. "He became one of my favorite people after meeting him. I felt right at home. Very warm and welcome."
The family was inside the barricade for LSU's walk down victory hill, where Miles recognized Hawkins and gave him a high-five. They took in the LSU and Tennessee game from field level and emphatically celebrated a crazy ending. It was an incredible weekend for a young LSU fan who needed one.
"We just try to give them every special moment that we can, give them that time so they can forget about needles and medicine and chemo and doctors and hospitals," Giovingo said. "Let them be the kid they deserve to be, even if it's just for a weekend or a week, however long it is."
The worst of his battle with his illness was yet to come.
He went through several rounds of intensifying chemotherapy and radiation treatment, a span he estimated took about a year and a half. He would go into remission only to find out a few weeks later the cancer was coming back.
The family decided to pursue a stem cell transplant. The 15-year-old Hawkins went to a hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, and didn't leave his bed for 26 days.
"I spent 26 straight days in the hospital, literally in bed for 26 straight days," Hawkins said. "I got up just to walk to the bathroom and back. I went through the most intense two weeks of chemotherapy treatment they give you where they wipe out everything. It kills every cell in your body pretty much. I lost all my hair, my taste buds."
The taste buds didn't matter much at that stage. He couldn't keep any food down. He said he weighed about 145 pounds when he started treatment, and tipped the scales at about 100 when he was done.
"I've thrown up, in those two years, probably more than the entire population honestly," Hawkins said. "I remember for hours and hours throwing up, throwing up nothing, throwing up stomach bile because I can't eat anything. So, that wasn't fun."
When he was wheeled out to the car after leaving the hospital, he walked the last 20 feet. The once spry teenager was out of breath by the time he reached the car.
But the important thing was that he was able to walk to the car, and he would be able to do it better each progressive day. The stem cell transplant worked.
Hawkins is a cancer survivor.
'It brought me to where I needed to be'
Giovingo said Make-a-Wish volunteers are not encouraged to develop personal relationships with those they work with, for obvious and tragic reasons.
"We grant wishes for kids with life-threatening illnesses," Giovingo said. "They don't necessarily have to be terminal, but unfortunately in many cases they are. There are kids I've granted wishes for that are no longer with us.
"I'm very thankful John is one of the survivors."
She could not help maintaining a steady relationship with the Hawkins family. She made it to the wedding of Hawkins' older sister, Lauren.
"We still consider her family," Hawkins said.
She's been counting down the days until Hawkins made his trip to Baton Rouge in South Carolina gear.
"It's almost like I'm a kid waiting for Santa Claus to come," Giovingo said. "May 5, 6 and 7, I've got tickets. I'm going to be there all three games just because he's going to be there. Even though I'll have my purple and gold on pulling for my Tigers, I'm going to be there to support him."
This won't be Hawkins first trip back to Baton Rouge. He went to a couple baseball camps after he regained some of his stamina — usually staying with the Nola family each time.
He wanted to play for LSU when he was younger. The cancer probably took away any realistic shot of that happening, robbing him of two years' development of his body and skills.
Though he knows he's lucky to be here at all, he admits the thought of what might've been sometimes gnaws at his thoughts.
"It's just never the same when you have to go through that, you know?" Hawkins said. "I probably dwell on this more than I should, but ... there are guys who I played with on my travel team who are in the minor leagues now. I think about that, and it sucks."
"But I think it made me a much better person overall, it brought me to where I needed to be."
This article is written by Luke Johnson from The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.