Garrick Whittle had everything going for him…until he found the lump in his back.
The Morehead State sophomore pitcher from Danville was penciled in as one of the Eagle baseball team’s three weekend starters in 2011. He had put together a solid freshmen season in 2010 out of the bullpen and he had aspirations of being the Eagles’ ace in 2011.
In the 2010 Fall season Whittle pitched a magnificent five-inning, eight-strikeout game in the Eagles’ Blood Bowl series. And then, after the series was over and he was home in Boyle County for the Thanksgiving weekend, he noticed it.
Whittle found a small lump on the side of his back. Initially, the 6-foot-5 lefthander did not think much about it. But, the lump got larger. By the Christmas holiday, Whittle and his doctors were concerned.
“Over Thanksgiving break I noticed a lump in the side of my back and over Christmas break it got larger and we checked it out. The doctors thought it was a fatty buildup and we got it removed to be safe.”
Ok, so he had a muscle buildup or something under his skin, right? Just get it removed and go on with life. That would have been simple. In Whittle’s case, it wasn’t that simple. And what transpired next threw his life into disarray.
“The test results diagnosed me with a high-grade sarcoma. At first we thought we might have to go through chemo and radiation. We had a second surgery to remove around where the mass had been and they did not find any other traces of cancer.”
Cancer…it affects millions of people in so many ways, but it probably had never crossed the mind of a healthy college student-athlete.
A sarcoma is a type of cancer that arises from transformed cells. Unlike a carcinoma, which commonly causes cancer of the colon, liver, breast and other organs from epithelial cells, a sarcoma can lead to cancers of bone, cartilage, fat and muscle.
In Whittle’s case, he was lucky. Most high grade sarcomas do require chemotherapy and surgery to rid the body of the cancerous cells. High grade sarcomas are also more likely to metastasize to other areas of the body. Even though Whittle avoided chemotherapy, survival rates for patients with high grade sarcomas have increased 40 to 50 percent since the advent of chemotherapy in the 20th century. Before, survival rates were in the low to mid 20-percent range.
Fast-forward to January.
Whittle came back to school, but while his Eagle teammates were on the field preparing for the 2011 season, Whittle had to watch from the dugout, He missed four weeks of preseason workouts, but the thought of not being on the mound for Jay Sorg’s ballclub this spring never crossed his mind. He was determined to show the world that he would not let cancer beat him.
“Missing the four weeks (following surgery) got my arm a little out of shape. I have been battling shoulder soreness the whole year, but since I have come back I have felt no discomfort from where I had the operation.”
The Eagles’ were playing the final game of their season-opening series at Western Carolina on Feb. 20. Whittle started on the mound for MSU, pitched 5.2 innings and struck out seven Catamount batters. For a guy whose world went haywire just a few months before, being back on the mound and doing what he loves to do, it was truly the moment he knew had beaten the odds.
“I realize now more than ever that being able to pitch is a gift from God. Every time I go out there I do my throwing and before I throw the first pitch I just take a knee and thank God for giving the ability to pitch. I am just thankful for the opportunity he has given me.”
And a gift from God wasn’t the only charity Whittle has been bestowed. The MSU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee put together a continuing fundraiser to help offset Whittle’s medical costs. At many of the events in 2011, SAAC had representatives collecting.
By the time April 22 rolled around, Whittle found himself facing one of the Ohio Valley Conference’s best teams and best offenses in Tennessee Tech. He only tossed the lone complete game an Eagle pitcher recorded in 2011 and allowed only three earned runs and struck out a career-high 12 batters.
Whittle went on to lead the Eagles in victories this season. He also ranked second on the team in ERA and strikeouts.
“I realize how privileged I am to be play baseball and whether I go out and throw a seven-inning shutout or not make it out of the second inning, I am happy to be playing baseball again. I just go out and try to be as successful as I can be.”
He’ll be back for his junior season in 2012.
Successful…That’s the quintessential adjective for Garrick Whittle. He’s successful on the field, he’s successful in the classroom, he’s successful in the game of life, and he’s successful in beating perhaps the world’s most feared ailment.