Chad Holbrook and Clay Owen share a bond that goes much deeper than their connection to the University of South Carolina.
Holbrook, USC’s baseball coach, and Owen, a North native and 1982 USC graduate, both know the gut-wrenching agony that comes with helping their young sons battle cancer.
Holbrook’s 10-year-old son Reece was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 2. After more than three-and-a-half years of treatment, Reece’s cancer went into remission five years ago. Owen’s son Killian, who also had ALL, passed away at the age of 9 in 2003.
Holbrook and Owen stood together Thursday afternoon at a luncheon benefitting Curing Kids’ Cancer, the charity founded by Owen and his wife, Grainne, who has become a driving force in an effort to raise money for childhood cancer research.
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They met a handful of years ago when Holbrook attended a check presentation from Ray Tanner’s foundation to Curing Kids’ Cancer after Grainne Owen tracked the former coach down at one of his baseball camps and asked for his help in the cause. The Owen family then learned of Holbrook’s personal link to the disease.
“That made it easy for her to ask me to be a part of it. I’m glad they did. It’s a great organization that they’ve got going,” Holbrook said. “I’ve seen first-hand the need for our facilities that treat kids with cancer. So it’s a joy to be a part of it.”
The organization has raised $2.5 million since its launch in 2005 as Coaches Curing Kids’ Cancer, where the fundraising idea revolved around asking youth sports teams to donate money in honor of their coach instead of buying a gift. In exchange for the donation, coaches were sent a T-shirt and a personalized certificate thanking them. Killian Owen had been active in recreational sports, and that struck his mother as the perfect way to spread the message of cancer research to families across the country.
The Owens, whose two oldest sons, Pierce and Garrett (Killian’s twin) now attend USC, have made a concerted outreach to coaches across the nation, with ESPN personality Lee Corso serving as honorary chairman. They were thrilled at the participation in Thursday’s event of Holbrook, Tanner, women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, men’s golf coach Bill McDonald, equestrian coach Boo Major, former All-American pitcher Michael Roth, and Jerri Spurrier, the wife of football coach Steve Spurrier.
“That’s one of the most special things as a Carolina grad to have so many people say, ‘Yes, I’ll help.’ The willingness on the part of everybody at Carolina to get behind us has been incredible,” said Clay Owen, who is a communications executive in Atlanta. “I really hope this can be an annual event, and we can get the entire community behind it.”
He hoped the event, which featured a memorabilia auction and a presentation honoring several children who are battling cancer, would raise around $20,000.
The foundations of Holbrook and Tanner combined to contribute $5,000. Clay Owen noted that they like to keep the money local. Grainne Owen stated that Curing Kids’ Cancer has worked to fund a position at Palmetto Health Richland’s Children’s for Cancer and Blood Disorders.
Holbrook related the story of Bayler Teal, a 7-year-old from Bishopville who was adopted by USC’s 2010 championship team. Bayler succumbed to cancer while the Gamecocks were playing in the College World Series, but he called the youngster an inspiring force for that team. Bayler’s parents, Rob and Risha, also attended the luncheon.
Holbrook adds that Reece winning the fight with cancer so far is clearly the most important victory of his life.
“There’s not anything much more unfair than having to tell a kid that they have cancer. It’s a cruel disease,” Holbrook said. “When you have situations like (the Owen) family and Bayler Teal’s family and you lose people who are close to you, you can try to think of what more can be done so this doesn’t keep happening. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there is still such a long way to go. I’m committed to be a part of it until the day I die.”
Clay Owen feels the same way, and he loves having Holbrook and the rest of the USC coaches on his team.
“People rally around the university. It’s a passion point for people,” he said. “To be able to combine our passion of raising money for childhood cancer research along with Coach Holbrook and the other coaches, we feel like there’s a lot of potential to raise a lot of money here in Columbia.”