A Full Circle Around the Bases
NC State freshman Harrison McKinion, whose childhood relationship with Wolfpack baseball helped him survive a long battle with a rare blood cancer, is ready to join the program this spring.
NC State second baseman Logan Ratledge flung the double-play relay with the same force he threw everything else during the Wolfpack’s 2013 College World Series season. He did not remember that young Harrison McKinion, an 11-year-old cancer patient, was hanging out with the team and taking a few plays at infield before practice one day.
“Oh, my gosh,” someone asked the frail kid with the bald head under his red hat. “Were you scared?”
“With everything I’ve been through,” said the plucky preteen, “I don’t have time to be scared.”
At the time, a rare blood cancer was raging in Harrison’s body. He and his family had been through a rollercoaster of diagnoses and prognoses, none of which were favorable.
Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent and his team did what they could to keep his spirits up, from shaving their heads in unison with Harrison’s chemotherapy, to having him sit in the dugout during games to letting him hang out at practices and camps.
Harrison cherished his time being with the team, not knowing if he would ever get the chance to fulfill his dream of one day being part of the baseball program.
Now, however, it’s about to start.
A Growing Relationship
Shortly after his dad noticed he wasn’t playing with the same energy during a travel baseball tournament, Harrison McKinion was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia a few days after his 10th birthday.
“All the nurses were asking him what he liked to do and what he wanted to do when he grew up,” says Steve McKinion, a professor of systematic Christian theology at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest. “He told them all his dream was to play college and professional baseball, obviously for the Pack.
“The doctor came in and told him point-blank that he would probably never play baseball again.”
It was devastating news, delivered just before the Christmas holiday.
Through some mutual friends, Avent heard about Harrison’s plight, and it hit his most empathic nerve. He grabbed a trash bag at his office at Doak Field at Dail Park and loaded it up with some extra gear, a few signed bats, baseball hats and other stuff lying about. He drove over to different parts of campus and asked other coaches to donate some things as well. A signed football. A regulation volleyball. A logoed swim cap.
Anything he thought would make a 10-year-old Wolfpack fan feel just a little better.
“That week when Coach Avent called and said he wanted to come over, we were thrilled,” says Steve McKinion. “We’d been to countless NC State baseball games, with him, my older son and daughter. Harrison just lit up.
“It was like a visit from Santa Claus.”
It was, however, just the beginning of Harrison’s harrowing journey. More than three years of chemotherapy and treatment put the cancer in remission. Soon after, just before his freshman year of high school, Harrison had a stroke and multiple seizures. His hip collapsed and he needed replacement surgery.
He missed an entire year of school, and the cancer returned. He spent months in a hospital bed. All his muscles atrophied. He lost 70 pounds he couldn’t afford to lose.
After hearing about an immunotherapy drug trial, Harrison and his parents went to Seattle for a month for what they considered a last-ditch effort to save his life. The frail young teen was considered an adult by then.
“He had to sign all the papers to participate in the trial,” Steve McKinion said. “I remember looking at his face when the doctor told him the possible side effects, including the one that said he might die from this. I was sitting there watching him recognize his own mortality.
“After all he had been through, the treatments, the stroke, the hip replacement. The four months he spent in the hospital when he lost 70 pounds. He was listening again to a doctor tell him he might not make it.”
Harrison looked up at his dad and said, “If we’ve got to do it, we’ve got to do it.”
A Coach’s Giving
While this is about Harrison McKinion’s fight against a rare disease, it’s also about Avent’s caring nature and his willingness to connect with causes.
NC State athletics’ second-longest tenured coach and his team were among the first to help with the Miracle League of the Triangle, a summer baseball program for children with special needs.
Every Veterans Day, when NC State’s four ROTC units meet up at the Memorial Tower at 6 a.m. for a three-mile formation run around campus, Avent and his team are there running with them, step-for-step.
When Avent’s long-time communications director, Bruce Winkworth, fought lung cancer, Avent and his team were with him, from home to hospital to hospice. The entire team showed up for, and Avent spoke at, his funeral.
And when one of his first players at State, first baseman Chris Combs, was diagnosed with ALS, Avent was the most vocal supporter of Combs’ foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for ALS research, including some done on NC State’s campus. NC State and ACC-opponent Boston College, where the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge began in 2014, played in an ALS Awareness Game at Fenway Park to raise money for the Pete Frates No. 3 Fund. Avent personally took Combs to centerfield of the baseball stadium shortly before he died to help hang his honored jersey No. 26 on the outfield wall.
Avent – Wolfpack baseball’s all-time winningest coach with an 1,113-744 overall record and an 889-531 mark at NC State entering his 25th season at the helm – is the most passionate, and usually most popular, speaker at all Wolfpack Club and athletic department gatherings, because few people put so much energy into supporting his alma mater.
There’s no underlying motivation for doing it, other than that’s who Avent is. Recently, the coach went from phone calls with some struggling former players at NC Wesleyan and New Mexico State, just before hopping on a Zoom call with the McKinions to talk about Harrison’s journey.
It’s his nature to have a kind heart, and he believes it’s his obligation to instill that in his players.
“All our players have been really good about giving back,” Avent says. “It’s not just because I want them to or because they think good things will happen to them. I try to teach our guys that you have to do things for how it makes you feel inside, not for what people may say about you.
“We don’t promote it a lot, but I think our players understand what it’s all about.”
And Avent has been around to see how others with similar fights – from Combs to coaches Jim Valvano and Kay Yow – inspire others.
“When you see the things that Harrison has done in life and what all he’s been through, well, I’ll tell you what, if that doesn’t motivate you to find something good about your day, I don’t know what to say.”
A Red Letter Day
Last spring, when Harrison McKinion went out to get the mail, there was a big red envelope with his name on it. Inside was his acceptance letter to NC State, as a freshman in the general studies program. It was a dream that had often blurred into the fog of constant treatments and therapies and harsh realities.
“I’d always hoped that I would end up here,” says Harrison, who came to campus in the fall and took all virtual classes. “Especially since the baseball team had done so much for me. I always thought, if this is what being part of the Wolfpack meant, I wanted to be there and be with the people there.”
Of course, it was about that time that much of the world had shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was an unbelievably exciting day for the McKinion family.
Then Harrison got a phone call from a happy Elliott Avent, asking if he would like to join the baseball program as a student manager to keep going the life-sustaining relationship he had with the team throughout his teenage years.
“That’s a real full circle,” says Avent, whose team began workouts for the upcoming 2021 season earlier this week. “He’s part of our team, and no matter what role you play in our program, as a coach, a player, a manager, an equipment manager or the Friday night starting pitcher, you are part of the family.
“I just can’t tell you how proud I am of him and the journey he has been through. We’re all just so proud he is going to be around our program this spring.”