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Insights and Observations

Henry's Highlights
Monday, July 24, 2006

By Henry Hinton

Our inheritance from Coach: life lessons, memories


7:00-9:00 a.m.

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Death can be cruel. Sometimes it can be kind. One could make a case for both where Keith LeClair is concerned. Coach LeClair was much too young to leave us but it seems the time had come for his suffering to end.

The last time I saw him was in the narthex of Oakmont Baptist Church, the very church that was the site of his memorial service, on Father’s Day of this year — just about a month ago.

His beautiful daughter Audrey sang in church that day. It was a song about faith and the relationship of a father and his children. Coach LeClair, his wife Lynn and their son J.D. sat together in the sanctuary as Audrey sang the song.

Where did she get the strength?

I was just one of many who could not restrain the tears as that beautiful child sang to her father. It was just one of many, many, many shows of strength from that family the last four years.

Lynn LeClair is a saint — pure and simple. No one can know her pain and the amazing way she dealt with the ultimate sacrifices. Her love and devotion to Coach was simply the most incredible thing I have ever witnessed.

After the service I made a point to see Coach before he left. I knew what he was thinking and wanted to say to me but I also knew there would be no words. It had been a long time since he could make his feelings known simply by speaking the words.

In this particular case words were not needed. I told him how beautifully Audrey had sung and how great it was to see him out at church.

The truth is that my heart was breaking watching my friend near death and unable to respond.

Gone were the days of joking around at dinner after an East Carolina game on the road. Gone were the conversations about life and families that we shared — Coach almost never wanted to talk baseball off the field.

Even gone were the conversations in his home with him continuing to joke around with his eye-gaze computer. During the time he used that amazing piece of technology to communicate, it was easy for me to tell that the Keith I knew and loved was still there — still mentally the same jocular guy.

Visits to his home would result in a sense that he was “alright” and I should stop worrying and feeling so guilty about his situation.

However, the cruel disease would eventually take away even the computer. His eyes continued to fail to the point he could no longer use the technology, making communication extremely difficult.

An old fashioned letter board was all that was left and even that was such a chore for him that visits became difficult.

Prior to the 1999 baseball season, my receptionist made me aware that I had a visitor in the lobby of the radio station. “Coach LeClair is up here and wants to know if you have a minute,” she said on the intercom.

I didn’t know him that well at the time — just a few comments here and there at the ballpark or at university functions.

“Sure,” I said. “Tell him to come on back to the office.”

After a bit of small talk, Coach LeClair said to me “I need something from you.”

“Sure. What can I do for you?”

“I need a bigger commitment from you to carry more games on the radio,” said Coach LeClair. “At Western (Carolina) we had about 25 games a year on the air and it really helped build excitement.”

The first thing that went through my mind was “Oh, no. How can we carry more than the 10 or so games that we do now. We already lose money on it and no one really wants to listen to college baseball on the radio.”

I started to explain the economics of radio to Coach and he immediately stopped me.

“We’re going to be pretty good this year," he said. "We have some real talent now and I promise you we are going to build a program here. I need your help. We need to get people involved.”

I don’t know why I said yes to Coach LeClair that day. I think it was probably just because I liked the guy. I was hoping he was right — that he was going to build a program. But, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect.

However, he took the time to come to my office to ask for help and I wasn’t going to turn him down.

That year we scheduled about 25 games to air, mostly away games. In fact, I liked Coach LeClair so much that I made the commitment to do the play-by-play of most of the games along with former ECU baseball player Jake Jacobs.

Then, as all Pirates know, the magical year began.

The 1999 season culminated with the team winning the CAA title and accepting the school’s first ever number one seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

I will forever believe that the 11-10 win at LSU in the regionals is the single best sporting event I’ve ever seen. I will never forget the exuberance of the players, ECU fans and administrators and the pure shock of the Tiger fans in Alex Box Stadium.

It was that weekend that the idea of a new baseball stadium was born. At dinner that night Coach LeClair said to then-athletic director Mike Hamrick: “We have to build a new stadium for this program. Coming here as a number one seed just isn’t right.”

That season and the next few I became close to Coach LeClair and his staff. The chemistry of the coaches and players was rare. It was a true family and they always made Jake and I feel a part of it on the road.

I looked forward to late night dinners with the coaches or chats in motels on the road. It was a great time and the Pirates were winning. That made it even sweeter for everyone.

This week I have had the chance to relive some of those memories with past players and coaches.

There were a lot of contributors but there was one leader.

I have my own memories of the man that I will always cherish. Listening to others at the funeral and the stadium event on Friday evening made me realize that Coach made us all feel special — like we were the closest of friends to him.

I’m not sure I have ever known anyone who touched as many people in such a positive way.

We miss you Coach. But we will never forget you.

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This page updated 04/21/08 07:01 PM.

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