Chad Holbrook knows a little something about battling back.
The South Carolina baseball coach watched the Gamecocks roar through the losers’ bracket with six consecutive wins at the 2010 College World Series to claim their first national championship. The following season, they had to overcome a string of injuries to key players to win their second national title during a dramatic run that gave birth to the rallying cry of “win anyway.”
But those hurdles were nothing compared to what Holbrook and his wife Jennifer faced 10 years ago, when their two-year-old son Reece was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia while they were living in Chapel Hill. They lived through more than three years of heartache and uncertainty while Reece underwent treatment for the disease.
Thanks to excellent medical care, a UNC community that rallied around Reece, and the youngster’s tenacity throughout his chemotherapy, his cancer went into remission seven years ago. Today, he’s a healthy 12-year-old who’s a baseball player like his dad used to be and a big brother to Cooper, 10.
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The fundraisers to fight pediatric cancer that began in North Carolina, when Holbrook was an assistant coach for the Tar Heels, moved to Columbia as he took a similar position here. In 2012, the Holbrook family established the Reece Holbrook Win Anyway Foundation, a name that embraced the never-give-up spirit of the USC championship teams.
The foundation’s annual charity event and auction takes place Sunday at the Medallion Conference Center on Garners Ferry Road, where the doors open at 5:30 p.m. The golf tournament will be held Monday at Woodcreek Farms. The foundation’s goals are many.
“We want to raise as much money as we can, and that’s important because research for this disease is underfunded. Communities like ours and a foundation like this one can make a difference in, hopefully, finding a cure,” Holbrook said. “But just as important, we want to raise awareness and make people understand there are some parents out there hurting and some kids out there fighting for their lives. We try to put a real-life perspective on it and show there are people who need our help.”
Because his family understands the difficulty of caring for a sick child, Holbrook wants to be an advocate for other families going through the same thing.
“We do feel like, in some way, that we are making a difference and are educating the public about this terrible disease,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d be as passionate if I hadn’t gone through what I witnessed with Reece. One of the main reasons this event is successful is because we’re an example that this is real.”
Ron Neuberg, a pediatric oncologist who serves as the director of the Palmetto Health Children's Hospital Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, got to know Holbrook when the coach arrived in Columbia.
The center has come to be one of the beneficiaries of the foundation’s fundraising efforts, and Neuberg has witnessed Holbrook’s dedication to the cause.
“You can’t sell something unless you’re passionate about it,” Neuberg said. “Chad is very passionate about his story and Reece’s story and how it prompted him to turn what was a terrible negative in their lives into a positive. He’s done that. He has taken a horrible experience and changed it into one where he’s able to help other people in a very significant way.”
The two shared a love for Bayler Teal, the 7-year-old from Bishopville who succumbed to cancer while the Gamecocks were playing in the 2010 College World Series. The youngster came to be an inspiration for the players through the season. Neuberg and Holbrook remain close to Bayler’s parents, Rob and Risha Teal.
“It was a very powerful story and created a very powerful connection between Chad Holbrook and the baseball team and our center,” Neuberg said. “The Teals are still very involved in raising money, as well.”
Holbrook said a sick child can take a toll on a family on an emotional level as well as a financial one. Some parents have to quit their jobs to help provide care. Over the past seven years, Holbrook’s event has raised more than $1 million, which has helped provide support for seriously ill children and their families as well as the facilities that treat them. He cited a supportive community filled with generous people.
“This cause has touched their hearts, and they want to give back,” he said.
Holbrook said he likes to have unique items at his auction, which will feature restaurant gift certificates, golf packages, Gamecock football and baseball packages, and a UNC basketball package. There are signed football helmets from Texas coach Charlie Strong and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Holbrook also had the three dugout lineup cards from last season’s sweep of Clemson framed for an item.
But the most interesting one might be a framed photo of Steve Spurrier and Connor Shaw – signed by both -- embracing after last season’s Clemson victory.
“It’s really, really cool,” Holbrook said.
Sam Tenenbaum, the president of the Palmetto Health Foundation, said Holbrook’s achievements on the baseball field, in addition to his firsthand knowledge of pediatric cancer, make him a charismatic spokesman.
“He understands how important it is to have a medical center that can take care of a child. Because he is such a successful coach, combined with his personal experience, people listen and people help. This is where celebrity is a positive,” Tenenbaum said. “It tells you a lot about him. He’s fully committed and uses all his resources to make sure no child will go uncared for. That is so admirable.”
Both Tenenbaum and Neuberg appreciate seeing the money going to where it is needed most. It could help pay for a child specialist who’s trained to make sure kids are not afraid, go toward the center’s endowment, help fund a piece of state-of-the-art equipment, or it could directly help families in sfinancial need.
“We want to have a positive environment that helps children and their parents deal with what they’re facing and come out whole,” Tenenbaum said.
And Holbrook wants to stage a fun night with his charity event to help realize that goal.
“When you go through something like this, you learn to enjoy each and every day,” Holbrook said. “I don’t look forward to Christmas anymore. I look forward to tomorrow. This disease has a way of making you re-think how you look at things.”