When junior Jared King stroked his first career home run to beat Florida State March 19, his high school coach viewed it as more than just a walk-off hit.
“You saw his teammates’ eyes when he crossed home plate; that wasn’t just about beating Florida State,” said Mark Hanks, athletic director at Pulaski County High School. “That was about a kid overcoming a lot of adversity to have that one special moment.”
It was a moment that stood in stark contrast to the last time King played against the Seminoles. During that series nearly two years ago, the first baseman had just lost his mother.
After fighting cervical cancer for nearly half a year, Brenda King passed away March 10, 2009, at age 45. Virginia coach Brian O’Connor started the then-freshman three days later, giving him a momentary escape from one of the worst weeks of his life.
“That was one of those times that you don’t really know what’s going on, and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be,” King said. “For the things that I went through at that time, that was the most positive thing that could have happened.”
King again found a positive in baseball a weekend ago, and the team’s consensus was that it could not have happened to a more deserving player.
“I’m extremely happy for Jared King — what a wonderful kid,” O’Connor said. “The kid’s been punched in the gut a few times in his life.”
His mother’s death was the second time King had been “punched in the gut.” Just three years earlier, his dad, Danny King, also died of cancer.
Rather than withdraw, however, King stepped up. As his freshman peers spent their weekends trying to figure out which fraternities to pledge, the then-19-year-old King spent his time serving as a surrogate father for his 14-year-old sister, Kelly.
When Danny King passed away, “Kelly took it really hard, so when Brenda died, [Jared] knew that he had to kind of come in for Kelly and be a bigger part of her life,” Hanks said. “So he was coming back to Roanoke every weekend, and it made his freshman year tough, because he was up and down [Highway] 81 quite a bit.”
Instead of pitying himself for losing his parents, though, King emphasized the relationship he gained with his sister.
“We were kind of always at each other’s throats when we were little, but I would be hard pressed to say you could find anyone closer than we are now,” King said. “We’ve grown so much closer together just because we’re kind of all each other has.”
His former basketball coach would expect nothing less.
Hanks was more than just a coach to King. Right before his death, Danny King decided to transfer Jared to play for Pulaski, knowing his son would be in good hands with Hanks.
But after Brenda King died, it was Jared who consoled Hanks.
“I was lucky enough to be one of the people who spoke at her memorial service, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get through it when Brenda passed away,” Hanks said. “It was almost like Jared was helping me out there through the speech and everything. That’s just the way he is.”
Once his father passed away, King understandably could have quit baseball. Danny King had been Jared’s coach for his whole life, so every aspect of the sport was tied to a memory of his father. But that is not the way King is.
“It was obviously different because you come in the dugout and your coach and your father isn’t there,” King said. “But my dad taught me so many things about baseball and life, those things are instilled so deep in my core, that whether he’s here or not, I’m still going to do them. Just to be out on the baseball field, it was an escape, because that’s how I got to not think about things.”
Last year, however, King could no longer turn to the baseball field as his sanctuary. His final “punch in the gut” was a tear in the shoulder, and he had to miss the entire 2010 season while recovering from surgery.
After two major tragedies, it is hard to imagine the impact of this latest setback. His roommate, Scott Silverstein, came the closest to understanding King’s trials. The junior pitcher spent his first two seasons sidelined with injuries, so when King found out he needed surgery, Silverstein offered him a shoulder to lean on.
“He’s had a lot of tough things happen to him in the past three or four years,” Silverstein said. “Just knowing his past, [the injury] was crushing.”
As with his other two gut punches, however, King refused to collapse. The first baseman worked tirelessly to recuperate, becoming “one of the first people [to the field] and the last people to leave,” sophomore pitcher Branden Kline said.
King said he works so hard because his parents taught him to do so.
“Both of my parents were always my coaches in every sport until high school, so I was brought up that way,” King said. “In basketball, I tried to be the kid that was the gym rat … With baseball, I always tried to be the kid that was hitting more than anybody else.” King said.
King uses the memory of his parents as fuel. He said he believes they are not missing out on his games but instead now they can always watch him.
“They don’t miss any more games because they’re stuck in the hospital,” King said. “They see every at-bat, and to me that gives me closure. When I am down some days, I think they’re watching all the time, so I’m not going to let myself take reps off, just sit and sulk about things.”
So King never missed a practice, never let himself feel down and fought his way back to the lineup this season. He has fought his way to hitting .393 in 14 games this season, highlighted by his walk-off home run against Florida State.
That home run was a special moment, and not just because of its relevance to Virginia’s baseball season. After losing two loved ones and spending a year away from the game, King sees a larger picture than that. When he looks back on that game, he said he may not remember the home run, or even the game it helped win. Instead, he’ll remember the people that greeted him at the plate.
“This team, this coaching staff, really embraced me at by far the toughest moments of my life,” King said. “They really took me under their wing that first year, and I think if anybody needed the team at that time, it was me. The bonds that we have here, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I will carry that on much longer than whether we go to the College World Series or whether I got a hit.”
By Ashley Robertson
This article originally appeared in the March 29, 2011, issue of The Cavalier Daily. Reprinted with permission.
Photo by Grant Mathews