ECU coach trusts in faith as he battles ALS
By NED BARNETT, Staff Writer
RALEIGH - East Carolina baseball coach Keith LeClair looked out at his audience at the Raleigh Sports Club on Wednesday and said: "I just wanted to share some things. Hopefully, you can understand me. Can everyone understand what I'm saying?"
There was nothing wrong with the sound system in the church hall when the club met, but there was something wrong with LeClair's voice. It was slurred, sometimes garbled, a sign of the progressing disease LeClair first noticed six months ago when he felt a pain in his left arm.
After extensive tests, doctors gave LeClair devastating news. He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a wasting and almost always fatal condition better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The life expectancy of an ALS patient is generally two to five years from the time of diagnosis, according to the ALS Association.
Like the stricken Yankee who famously declared himself the "luckiest man on the face of the earth," LeClair came up in baseball as a left-handed first baseman, and a good one. At Western Carolina, he set the school record for most hits in a season.
But LeClair's greatest accomplishment has been his rapid rise as a baseball coach. As a head coach at Western Carolina and during four seasons at ECU, LeClair has twice come within a step of taking his team to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. This year, ECU lost in the Super Regional to Tennessee.
And like Gehrig, LeClair spoke about his condition Wednesday with bravery, gentleness and grace. The audience of just over 100 fell into a rapt silence as the coach's struggling voice delivered a message of rare eloquence.
Among those listening at the head table at Highland United Methodist Church were LeClair's wife, Lynn, and local baseball coaches Mike Fox of UNC and Elliott Avent of N.C. State.
LeClair, 35, who continues to lead the ECU baseball program with the help of two assistants, spoke about the importance of team members having faith in each other and in a common goal. He said the Pirates would be a good team next spring and are likely to uphold his average of 46 wins per season.
Then LeClair, a father of two young children -- Audrey, 7, and J.D., 4 -- turned to what is happening to him.
"Now the most important thing I want to share with you is my testimony of the trial that I'm facing in my life at this time. Shortly after the Super Regionals, I went to a doctor, and they told me it was Lou Gehrig's disease, mostly because of my family history.
"Although I have not been diagnosed completely, doctors feel that is what I am facing. It is a real hard reality for someone who was on the top of the world six months ago. After [the diagnosis], the Super Regional, Omaha and competing for the national championship didn't really seem to matter.
"But I believe God uses trials along the way so we can grow in faith. In James 1:2-4, he says: 'Many of you will face trials of many kinds. The testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must be confirmed so that you may be mature and complete.'
"I will persevere, and I will grow to become a better man, a better husband, a better father and, most important, a better servant of our Lord Jesus Christ. So I don't look at this and feel sorry for myself. I look at this as a trial in my life.
"Many of you have probably had trials in your life, and many of you have persevered and become better because of it. If you have ever talked to a person who has been a prisoner of war, when they are released they'll tell one of the things that got them through was the faith they have in God. Every day they were beaten, but the beatings strengthen them and made them a whole person.
"This is something I have to endure and trust that I will overcome. I believe God is a miracle worker and I will receive a miracle.
"What this has taught me is things are never as good as they seem, and never as bad. At this very moment, there is someone out there who is worse off than I am and needs help.
"Winning in Omaha was one of the great goals in my life, but none are greater than our Lord Jesus Christ and our families. I think back on the last 10 years since I've been a head coach and the times that I've neglected my family, my wife and the people who cared most about me. I say to you: Don't let a day go by when you don't tell someone that you love them.
"Everybody knows what happened on Sept. 11. For me, that shows that we don't know when our lives will no longer be. I feel for those families. I grieve for them because so many people didn't have the opportunity to tell their kids, their wives, their moms and dads, they didn't have that last chance to say, 'I love you.' So don't take for granted what you have today.
"I just hope and pray that my faith can continue to grow. And I know many of you are probably praying for me, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart because I believe prayers are answered. And may God bless you and may God prosper you in the years to come."
The audience, some of its members in tears, rose and gave LeClair a long ovation. And unlike other meetings of the Raleigh Sports Club, there were no questions for the speaker. Despite LeClair's difficulty in speaking, they had understood everything he said.