KC’s ‘Virtual pitch’ kid isn’t just back to normal at Christmas — he’s ‘better than ever’
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was so quiet they could hear their hearts sink. At 3 a.m. on a frosted March morning, Nick LeGrande had been urinating blood, staining the toilet bowl with a stream of red paint. The next hour was a car ride and a cold blur.
The boy with the steel nerves and the failing blood seemed to take it as he took every other garbage roll of the dice over the previous 10 weeks. Same quiet reserve, same detached, almost aloof, strength.
So Mike LeGrande was nowhere near prepared in the emergency room when his son took a deep breath and broke the silence with this:
"Dad, am I gonna die?"
And Dad looked over. The teenager who never cracked was on the cusp of tears now, his eyes becoming pink and swollen; the gravity of the situation, the reality of it, had turned those concrete walls into tiny egg shells. Mike LeGrande’s young man was a little boy again, and it scared the hell out of them both.
"Not tonight Nick," Dad said, softly. "It’s not going to happen tonight."
Jamaal Charles ran for 106 yards Sunday at Arrowhead. Nick walked for about 3,600, which was far more impressive.
"(I’m) better than ever," the younger LeGrande says. "I’m back to the old me now. Kind of getting on my parents’ nerves."
He laughs. It’s good to be a teenager again, all rebellious and precocious, always testing, always pushing to see how far and how fast you can spread your wings, forever curious about what lies beneath and beyond the nest. The best damn feeling in the world.
"I feel like I’m in Heaven compared to where I was (a year ago)," Nick’s dad, Mike, tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "And the whole family feels that way. This actually is going to be an awesome Christmas, because we don’t have as much fear as we had (before)."
Before we curl up with the eggnog and put the cookies out for Santa, a postscript to one of our favorite stories of 2013.
You remember Nick, right? America’s "Virtual First Pitch Kid?" He’s better. No. Scratch that. Better than ever.
LeGrande, the 14-year-old from the Kansas City suburb of Lake Lotawana, Mo., became a national sensation this summer after — with the help of Google Fiber and Children’s Mercy Hospital — he tossed a ‘virtual’ first pitch from Kansas City via telerobotic link at O.co Coliseum, home of the Oakland Athletics, before a Yankees-A’s game.
But the story started — really, really started — back in Christmas 2012. Nick wasn’t just lacking his usual holiday spirit; he was lacking any kind of spirit at all. Earlier and earlier to bed, later and later to rise. At first, his father thought, it was just a phase. A growth spurt. Puberty is a crapshoot, after all.
"I was feeling very tired coming home," Nick says now. "And just not the normal me."
In January, the teen had been diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder which halts the production of bone marrow. As a result, his body had stopped making red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets — sapping his energy, his resistance to disease, and, more importantly, his ability to clot.
In March, his urine was red and stained with blood.
In June, he "threw" a pitch from the Plaza to the East Bay.
In July, they found a bone marrow match. A 24-year-old European male. An angel from abroad.
In October, Nick was subjected to days of heavy chemotherapy — forcing a thick head of hair to start coming out in clumps — in advance of a marrow transplant on the 16th.
In early November, he was released. And then a funny, awesome thing happened: The old energy, the old, bouncing Nick, started trickling back, like a toy with fresh batteries.
The little things that had become big things were little again. When Nick went up the stairs, he didn’t need to pause when he was done, didn’t need to hunch over, like a man six times his age, to catch his breath.
"Usually, when I’d bring the groceries up, I was tired," Nick says, triumphantly. "And now I’m never tired."
On Monday, doctors told him his platelet count was up to 150,000 — the very, very low end of normal. Nine months earlier, Nick’s numbers were in the 2,000s — the very, very low end of survival.
"I know whoever that kid is who gave him the bone marrow, it’s like he gave him Superman stuff," Mike says, chuckling. "It’s just crazy."
Nick’s inner circle keeps getting crazier, too. A’s pitcher Ryan Cook, the cat who caught his first "pitch" out in Oakland, ribbed young LeGrande when word of a marrow match came out, joking "why wasn’t I the first to know?"
It gets better. While Nick was recovering at Mercy in October, Kansas City Chiefs receiver Dexter McCluster popped in one day, just to say hello.
"He had been lying flat (in the hospital bed)," Mike recalls. "When he saw it was Dexter McCluster, he was looking quickly for any button that would raise him up. You should’ve seen it."
This one is for Dex. For Cook. For the lady who baked a dozen of the greatest chocolate-chip cookies in the world to try and ease Nick’s pain. Then baked six dozen more.
This is for the strangers who filled a piggy bank with loose bills and change, enough vending-machine money to feed a small movie crew.
This is for the Athletics and for Google, and every big dog who threw a bone at the little guy standing at the foot of a mighty hill.
Mostly, this is for the hundreds of people, sight unseen, who wrote letter after letter, sent card after card. The ones Nick’s mother Shari hung up on a wall, like a giant mural, so her son would have something to remind him of why we live. Why we fight. Why we hope.
"I can honestly say," Mike notes, "I’ve got (some) of the best support people a person can have."
One of those support people even got a call in to the Chiefs, and a team liaison wrangled up some seats for Nick and Mike and some pals for last Sunday’s home finale against the Colts.
Before the contest, father and son went down to field level to meet up with McCluster again and take a few pictures. But that wasn’t the highlight.
"We walked probably two or three miles in that stadium," Mike says, proudly. "And he never huffed and puffed at all."
The old Nick was back. Better than ever.
"Now, when I look back on it, I wouldn’t trade this year for anything," Mike says. "I wouldn’t want to go through that again, the chance of Nick not making it, but it was the best year of my life, and that’s with (having) 100 nights this year (when) I could hardly sleep. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody else. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything."
Charles is going to the Pro Bowl. Nick is going to 2014. Even if you don’t believe Santa Claus is coming down that chimney tonight, you never, ever, ever, ever stop believing in miracles.
"It felt like an 11-month roller-coaster ride (where) you didn’t even know if there was a bottom to the track," Mike says. "You didn’t know where it was going to end up before it was over."
They still don’t. There may be side effects, long-term side effects, from all that radiation, all those drugs. Mike isn’t sure. Nobody is. But after what he’s been through, Nick will take those odds.
In fact, he’ll run with them.
For more information on the National Marrow Donor Program or to become a donor yourself, visit www.bethematch.org.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.