This was like no other unofficial visit by a baseball player to the North Carolina campus. When the young recruit and his family arrived in February for a full day of activities to include a baseball scrimmage, a men’s basketball game at the Smith Center and a meeting with Roy Williams, Reece Holbrook was already a recognizable name to the UNC family.
Holbrook threw out the first pitch at a Tar Heels baseball game as a 3-year-old. He sat on Williams’ lap in the coach’s office where his mother, Jennifer, was an administrative assistant. He rode in the passenger seat of a tractor countless times as his father, Chad, dragged the Boshamer Stadium infield as a UNC assistant coach.
Beyond that, the young Holbrook was known to many across the Chapel Hill campus through the annual Reece Holbrook Golf Classic and Sports Memorabilia Auction to support seriously ill children and their families. One year, the highest bidder won a round of golf in a foursome that included Dean Smith.
Holbrook was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 2. After more than three years of IV chemotherapy, oral chemotherapy of 10 pills daily, spinal taps and blood tests, the leukemia began to exit his body. Five years after the treatments concluded, in 2012, Holbrook was deemed to be clear of the cancer.
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This past spring, the freshman at Hammond School in Columbia, S.C. committed to play baseball at UNC. When he wears a Tar Heels jersey for the first time in the 2021-22 school year, he will have completed a remarkable cycle that even his parents never believed possible.
“It was a school, a community and an unbelievable group of people that supported him and us during that tough time,” says Chad, now the head coach at College of Charleston. “As he went through all that as a kid, being born there, being treated there, we just as a family and his parents wanted him to see his 15th or 16th birthday. We would have considered that a win. We never would have considered him able to play baseball, let alone where I coached and where I played.”
A baseball rat
It would be convenient -- and misplaced -- to label Holbrook’s commitment to UNC as a legacy deal, one where family considerations override playing ability. A limit of 11.7 scholarships to a baseball program most often prevents that from happening, and Holbrook’s projection as a standout beyond high school belies that thinking.
Perfect Game grades and ranks high school prospects. The website says Holbrook is a “highly projectable” prospect, No. 96 nationally in the 2021 senior class. At 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, Holbrook possesses an “athletic frame with square shoulders and a long, projectable build with room to fill,” according to Perfect Game.
Holbrook is playing this summer for a third consecutive season with the Diamond Devils 17-and-under travel team based in South Carolina. Holbrook, at age 15, is the team’s starting center fielder and bats second in the order.
Current major-leaguers who played for the Diamond Devils under coach John Rhodes include Justin Smoak, Matt Wieters and Grayson Greiner. Then there is Jordyn Adams, a UNC commitment in football, who was the 17th selection in the recent baseball draft. Adams signed with the Los Angeles Angels.
“You know, if you’re not careful, in a couple of years, you’re going to be facing the same decision Adams faced --- whether to sign or go to school,” Rhodes told Chad Holbrook recently.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Holbrook responded.
Reece Holbrook began to make his mark on the baseball field when was promoted to the Hammond School varsity as an eighth-grader. By ninth grade he was a starter and leading the team in hitting.
“If he keeps going like he’s going right now, he’s going to make North Carolina proud,” says Hammond School coach Ray Derrick.
What scouting reports do not reveal is Holbrook’s passion for baseball. Occasionally, on nights when his father stays overnight at the family’s Columbia home, he will see a light shining in Reece’s room at 2 or 3 in the morning. More often than not, Dad finds his son watching a frame-by-frame breakdown of his major league idols, Bryce Harper and Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals.
“A coach always wants a baseball rat,” Chad says of his son, “and he’s a rat.”
Jennifer Holbrook, who played basketball at Presbyterian College, is forever thankful that her oldest son can enjoy the game he is smitten with.
“There were a lot of days we thought, ‘Lord, let him live, we don’t care if he ever plays sports,” Jennifer says.
"Something was not right"
Fourteen-month old Reece Holbrook was listless and tired throughout the Labor Day weekend of 2004. Chad and Jennifer believed the red dots on their son’s skin were merely a rash. Then, as Chad pulled a shirt over his son’s head on the Tuesday after Labor Day, he noticed a large bruise about the size of the palm of his hand on Reece’s abdomen.
Chad shuttled his son to daycare and proceeded to his office beneath the Boshamer Stadium stands at UNC, thinking all the way about the bruise that nearly covered Reece’s stomach.
“I was trying to convince myself that maybe he ran into something,” Chad says. “Maybe he ran down the hall and ran into a chair and bruised himself.”
Shortly after lunch, Chad reversed field. There might be something wrong with Reece, he thought, so let’s get him to the doctor. Blood work was done on Reece, and doctors informed the family that a second test was needed.
“I knew something was not right,” Chad recalls. “(I knew) they needed to take a second reading because the first reading didn’t make sense to them.”
Chad could carve out time during his offseason schedule as an assistant coach at UNC to help care for Reece. Jennifer was on the first day back to work in Coach Williams’ office after maternity leave following the birth of their other son, Cooper.
Williams was one of the first to learn of Reece’s leukemia.
“If you’re away from work one day, one week, one month, one year,” Williams told Jennifer, “you will have a job when you return.”
Dr. Stuart Gold, who recently celebrated his 30th year as a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at UNC Hospitals and UNC Rex Hospital, took on Reece’s case.
“It’s the most common type of cancer that we see in childhood,” said Gold, speaking with permission from the family. “It’s the most common type of malignancy we see in children. . . . It’s a little variable, it depends on variables because leukemia isn’t the same (for everyone). The cure rates are very good, probably 85 percent or so. For certain subcategories, it’s more like 90-95 percent.”
Gold and Reece hit it off from the outset. If Reece was not swinging his plastic bat and tossing a ball in the hospital hallways, he was kicking his doctor’s shins and laughing. The two played as if they were childhood friends through 3 1/2 years of treatments for Reece. While Gold’s child play kept Reece happy throughout, it could not calm the psyche of Chad and Jennifer.
“I don’t like using the word ‘hell’ but it was close to it,” Chad says. “You know how you get apprehensive or you get anxiety every time you go to the doctor to get some tests done? Well, we had that every day for about 3 1/2 years. It was a long road, for sure.”
Chapel Hill memories
The treatments had adverse effects on Reece. Nerve damage in his eyes kept him from tracking moving objects. Because of the treatments, Reece was held back one year in school.
Then came news in November 2007 that Reece no longer needed treatment. Five years later he was free of leukemia, although he still maintains an annual checkup in Chapel Hill.
“The worry part just never goes away,” says Jennifer, who cringes at Reece’s desire to play for the Hammond football team. “When your child gets a cold or gets a bruise, you think, ‘Please, Lord, just let that be a cold, or please, Lord, let that just be allergies.”
Reece was 6 when his Dad became the assistant head coach at South Carolina, where he was elevated to head coach from 2013 through 2017. Reece’s memory of Chapel Hill is spotty, at best.
He recalls playing catch with future major-leaguers Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager when they played at UNC. He remembers riding the bus in 2008 to College World Series games in Omaha, Neb., with UNC player Garrett Gore, who earlier had babysat Reece, seated next to him. He also remembers hitting the opening tee shot at the charity golf tournaments in Chapel Hill.
Beyond that, he vividly remembers his love affair with UNC baseball.
“That’s always been the dream school for me,” Reece says.
That dream will be realized in 2021-22.