Making up for lost time
February 1 2002 by Gregory P. Rogers , Special to the Biblical Recorder

Making up for lost time | Friday, Feb. 1, 2002

Friday, Feb. 1, 2002

Making up for lost time

By Gregory P. Rogers Special to the Biblical Recorder

GREENVILLE - Last spring everything was going Keith LeClair's way. The 35-year-old East Carolina University baseball coach was on top of the world, completing his fourth season at the helm of the Pirate program. His team had been the number one regional seed in the NCAA tournament for three years running. Easily winning the four-team regional tournament in May in Wilson, LeClair's team then hosted the super regional in Kinston, losing the double-elimination tournament to Tennessee.

Twice in his career, LeClair had come within a whisker's length of taking a team to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series held each June. It was a dream, perhaps an obsession, that gripped LeClair as he pounded it into his players' minds, who would break team huddles saying "Omaha" in unison.

No wonder he ignored the mid-season symptoms. Being tired and fatigued goes with the territory. Maybe he needed to lose a little weight. So the adrenaline kicked in, the drive of a national championship run masking the signs.

Then numbness in his left arm and a slur in his speech led LeClair and his wife, Lynn, to doctors in Greenville, then to the N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem and to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

Although doctors suspect that LeClair has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, the final determination hasn't been made. The disease runs through LeClair's family history.

The wasting and typically fatal condition, according to the ALS Association, generally offers the typical ALS patient a two- to five- year life expectancy.

But LeClair's not buying it. His faith in God simply will not allow it, even though he freely acknowledges that his life crisis has been the catalyst for a refocus on his Christian faith.

"Don't make the same mistake I did," LeClair said. "I took God for granted and didn't know Him the way He wanted me to know Him. I had tremendous guilt at first because I was asking for a miracle, and I hadn't given my life fully to Him prior to that. But then the forgiveness came. Once I released it, I was able to have that relationship with God."

In some ways LeClair views the last 12 years with regret - regret that, as the writer of James suggests, his faith was a dead faith without action. Now he can look back and see the hand of God on his life since his growing up days in Walpole, N.H.

He knew he wanted to extend his high school baseball career into college, but not many schools came calling. But in 1984 Western Carolina University coach Jack Leggett, a Vermont native, gave him a chance to walk on and earn a scholarship. As a left-handed first baseman and outfielder, LeClair set the school record for most hits in a season.

Prior to graduation from Western Carolina, a quarterback at the school shared Christ with LeClair for the first time.

"Something was missing in my life, and we got connected. He took me to meet his family, and I started going to church. I had been living a fairly reckless life, and no one had ever witnessed to me before. In North Carolina a church is on every street, and you start questioning what this is all about." At age 23 LeClair accepted Christ and was baptized at the Cullowhee Baptist Church under the ministry of Joe Yelton.

After graduation in 1988, it was on to the San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves for a year of professional baseball.

Then the opportunity came for LeClair to join Leggett's staff at Western Carolina. When Leggett resigned as head coach in 1992, athletic director Bob Setzer gave LeClair the chance of a lifetime to become the youngest Division I head coach in the nation at age 25.

"He (Setzer) was a good Southern Baptist man who stepped out on a limb and gave me a chance," LeClair said, remembering that he and Lynn had just married with her part-time teacher's salary and his modest assistant coach's income. "If I didn't get hired, I'd be done. Looking back on it, God was right from the get-go looking after me."

LeClair started off the season 1-10, but ended with a 44-21 first-season record, only one pitch away from Omaha. The obsession had begun.

Following a six-year stint at his alma mater, East Carolina came calling in 1997. LeClair became one of the nation's up-and-coming young coaches, and the Omaha priority remained. That is, until last spring.

Now fighting the battle of his life, his priorities have changed. And with it some regrets. Regrets that he and Lynn made too many weekend trips to her home in Pickens, S. C., and not being in church when he first became a Christian in Cullowhee. Regrets that he neglected Lynn, daughter Audrey, 7, and son J.D., 4, and the people who love him. Regrets that even though his life had changed, he didn't "take the time to learn God's word, pray, grow and receive Him in the way I have now."

But now the regrets and the guilt have subsided. What before was an obsession with Omaha has become an obsession with Jesus. Like a sponge, he is trying to soak it all in spiritually, making up for lost time.

Sitting in his family room recently wearing a T-shirt labeled "ECU Baseball," LeClair has become more reflective: "I view things a lot differently now. The money we have, the house we live in, if you don't have your health, it doesn't mean anything. The things we worship or idolize, it's not worth it. My job, at times, I have put ahead of Him. I've learned He wants a commitment from us."

LeClair believes that the same God who brought him from New Hampshire to Cullowhee and on to Greenville, is a God that he finally is seeing at work. Because of his illness, LeClair, who has two older sisters and a brother, is seeing a growing openness in his family toward Christ.

"In the last seven months for the first time in my life I've experienced God at work. I've been through what Blackaby (Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God study) is describing. When you get to a doctor and they say there's nothing you can do, you cry out to God unlike when things are going good."

LeClair is trying to make amends for the past. He has spoken at churches in Greenville and near his wife's home in Clemson. He recently gave his testimony at the Raleigh Sports Club. On Jan. 29 he spoke at the 52nd annual Raleigh Hot Stove League banquet and received the Will Wynne Award along with Boston Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon.

He's spending more time with the children. He and Lynn pray together daily. LeClair now has raised the bar for his spiritual priorities.

Baseball will continue to be a part of his life. The first game of the spring season is Feb. 15 in a three- game home series with Delaware. And LeClair, with the support of his three assistants, will be there.

He doesn't want any sympathy, accepting the trials and tribulations of which James 1 speaks with a peace that he has never experienced before in his life.

He just wants others to know that his obsession has changed - for the better.

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2/1/2002 12:00:00 AM by Gregory P. Rogers , Special to the Biblical Recorder | with 0 comments
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