True warriors

They’ve never met in person, but Emilio Alcantar and Gavin Kilcullen have a lot in common. Loving families. Video games. Sports. Especially sports.

One of 12-year-old Gavin’s favorite basketball teams is the Golden State Warriors. By extension, he roots for all athletic teams with the moniker.

It’s perfect, then, that Alcantar is a senior outfielder on the Lewis-Clark State College baseball team. Their mascot: You guessed it.

But their bond goes deeper than games. From the hospital beds Gavin has occupied for much of the last year and a half, the preteen has taught Alcantar a lot. How to endure. How to care. How to live.

The underdog

Sports are in Alcantar’s blood. His father, Albert, and uncle were standout high school and college wrestlers. But being small for his age and the younger of two boys meant wrestling with expectation. Being underestimated.

These challenges might have discouraged most kids. But Jill and Albert Alcantar taught their son that he could control two things: his own attitude and hard work.

Alcantar saw this lesson modeled by Albert, a longtime teacher and coach and now the district’s director of athletics and safety. “It’s kind of clichéd to say that your own dad was your influence, but he brought me up in what I thought was the right way, held me accountable for my actions and never let me off the hook,” said Alcantar. He learned from Albert the kind of soft skills he doesn’t see often these days: saying hello, holding doors, showing respect.

At Hudson’s Bay High School, Alcantar carried that wisdom to silver medals at the state wrestling tournament his freshman and senior years and a fourth-place finish his junior year. He seemed poised to follow his father and uncle’s path.

But he didn’t.

Ever the underdog, Alcantar pivoted in his junior year to a sport that he hadn’t played in competition since eighth grade.

“No one thought that I would go play college baseball,” he said. “So I thought, I’m going to take a shot at that and see what happens.”

At 5 feet 5 inches, he wasn’t tall and lanky, like many college outfielders. The southpaw knew that some of his skills needed to be strengthened. But he wasn’t afraid of working hard to realize his baseball dreams.

The effort paid off. He was recruited to College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California, following his 2012 graduation from Hudson’s Bay. After a year, he returned to Vancouver, then landed at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon. Later, a season playing summer baseball yielded a call from the baseball coach of the top-ranked team at Lewis-Clark State College. By fall 2015, he was in Lewiston, Idaho, ready to join the Warriors for the 2016 season.

Then came the pitch at a game just two weeks into the season. It shattered his fifth metacarpal bone on his throwing hand. The injury required surgery, a pin and seven months of recovery. No baseball.

He was ecstatic for the Warriors when they won their 18th national title that year. It hurt though, watching his teammates dogpile on the field as they celebrated victory.

Alcantar could have wallowed in that feeling. But through a friend, he learned of Gavin. The then-11-year-old some 1,300 miles away had been diagnosed with leukemia. Chemo was unsuccessful.

The best moment
Gavin’s story brought perspective to Alcantar’s struggles. The boy’s father had passed away from cancer a few years earlier, leaving Gavin, his brother and their mother. Gavin awaited a bone marrow transplant at the Diamond Children’s Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. He longed to play sports again.

“As athletes, when we’re given scholarships or opportunities, you take it for granted sometimes. You don’t realize that there’s other people who would love to be in your shoes,” said Alcantar.

“It was a growing moment for me. That could be you. That could be someone you know personally. You need to suck it up. This is the kid that you need to be playing for. These are the people that you need to be playing for, people that are fighting for their life every day.”

In August 2016, he sent Gavin a postcard from Idaho to supplement Gavin’s collection from every U.S. state. A care package followed, with Warrior apparel, team baseball cards and a written letter. This thoughtful gesture triggered an ongoing correspondence. Said Alcantar, “He reminded me of me when I was a little kid.”

Alcantar shared Gavin’s story with his teammates. “He’s a true warrior,” he told them. They agreed—and their response was unequivocally positive.

Around the time of Gavin’s bone marrow transplant in November 2016, the team sent him memorabilia to lift his spirits. “He is amazed that an entire college baseball team is inspired by him. He thinks it’s pretty cool that your team name is the Warriors! Gavin likes that you all see him as one tough warrior,” wrote the family on a Facebook page dedicated to the boy’s progress.

Then, good news: Gavin was declared cancer-free in February 2017.

But the following month, his kidneys began to fail.

“As athletes, when we’re given scholarships or opportunities, you take it for granted sometimes. You don’t realize that there’s other people who would love to be in your shoes.” —Emilio Alcantar

The Warriors decided to dedicate their season to their young fan. They slugged through the playoffs and into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics title game against Alabama’s Faulkner University.

Before the championship game, the players inscribed initials on their hats: GK. In their locker room was a T-shirt that said “Warrior strong, no one fights alone” on the back. On the front: “Gavin’s Team.”

When the team took the field for the last inning, Alcantar’s heart thumped in his chest. We can’t lose this game, he thought.

The Warriors defeated Faulkner 6-4 to clinch their third consecutive national title. It was the Warriors’ 19th overall—15 more than any other NAIA baseball team.

Alcantar was in the dogpile this time. He could hear his teammates yelling: “We did it for Gavin.”

Said Alcantar, “That was the best moment.”

The meeting

As he finishes his final year of college, Alcantar’s got a lot to look forward to: one more season with the Warriors. He is earning his bachelor’s degree in justice studies, which he hopes to parlay into a federal job in law enforcement. But first, he has an important meeting in Nevada, where Gavin finally is home, after multiple surgeries, and continuing to battle for his health.

When they meet, Alcantar is planning to give T-shirts to the family and a bat signed by the team to Gavin, along with a special gift: Alcantar’s championship ring.

“He deserves the ring more than anyone,” said Alcantar. He gets overwhelmed imagining the day when he can hug Gavin and tell him how much he hopes that Gavin can one day play sports again and enjoy life.

Alcantar has a hope for himself, too.

“I hope this relationship that me and him have sticks forever.”

“We did it for Gavin.” —Emilio Alcantar

Photos by Katharine Kimball.

November 17th, 2017|Categories: Graduate success|Tags: |