COLLEGE HILL – He walked less than 20 feet from the on-deck circle to the plate, his bat ready in both hands, and Kale Franklin dug in for the first at-bat of his high school baseball career. The importance of this at-bat reached beyond baseball.
It was Kale’s final victory in a seven-month bout with cancer. Both ended the same way, with a smile.
“When he gets up to bat, you’re at West High and they announce the names, you just want everyone to know that’s that guy who came back after going through all this … he gets up there, hits the ball down the first-base line, runs down and he had that smile. You want to turn around and tell everyone. It’s unforgettable,” Aiken assistant coach Brady Metz said.
Kale, a 15-year-old Aiken High School sophomore, was in a hospital, a place he’d come to know well over the last half year of his life, when his doctor told him the cancer was gone from his body.
Those present were, again, privy to a smile they’ll take with them.
That smile is a messenger of hope. When his doctor gave Kale the green light he immediately thought, “it’s baseball time. This is my time.” And, on April 23 against Western Hills, nearly seven months to the day since his battle began, Kale took the field with his teammates.
Kale was diagnosed on Sept. 24, 2014, with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare cancer in the United States, according to the Mayo Clinic, that occurs in the nasopharynx located behind the nose in the back of the throat.
“I started crying. My heart just stopped,” recalled Kale, when his doctor informed him the swollen lymph nodes on the sides of his neck, which initially sent him to the doctor, were malignant. “Once they took my height and weight, I knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t want to go into the negative stage. I wanted to stay positive.”
Kale’s doctors told him he would need chemotherapy and radiation. All-in-all, Kale received three rounds of chemo, a seven-week stint of daily radiation and three surgeries for a G-tube in his stomach and port in his chest, said his mom, Shanell Williams.
“Before I started (the treatment) I thought I was actually going to be able to take it. But, once I started getting the chemo and radiation, and getting sick for no apparent reason, I couldn’t take it,” recalled Kale, who spent countless time in the hospital.
His treatment took his hair in patches. He struggled to swallow or eat, his taste buds were decimated and his mouth was always dry. Kale said he missed nearly five months of school.
“There was times I wished it could have been me instead of him because he was in so much pain,” Williams said. “I hated to see him like that.”
He lost weight rapidly. He was nauseous and lacked an appetite. “If I didn’t eat anything in the hospital, I couldn’t go home,” Kale said, adding he forced himself to eat hot metts, strawberry yogurt and drink mocha coffee — it was all he had a taste for.
Metz said it was devastating how quickly he lost the weight and how quickly that landed him in the hospital
“You’re used to seeing Kale popping around, happy-go-lucky and then in the hospital, he didn’t want to do anything, just lay there. The highs and lows were definitely there but he tried to mask them for people who didn’t know what was going on,” Metz said.
When he was first diagnosed, Kale didn’t advertise his troubles. He only told the people who needed to know. Eventually, people noticed his absence. Shanell, a single mother, had to take time away from work to care for her son. The bills didn’t stop, so Aiken and the community stepped up. Aiken organized fundraisers, pep rallies and donations all to help out Kale and his mom, Metz said.
“When I was off (work), I didn’t have any income. It was rough. I was struggling,” Williams said. “I’m so thankful for his school. They helped me tremendously with my bills. It was a rough road.”
Even the roughest roads end. Kale leaned on his mom, his older brother and sister, his friends and his Aiken family. At times, his hope dwindled, but it never left.
“All he ever talked about was wanting to play baseball … now he’s playing baseball,” his mom said.
Aiken head coach Al Shumar was amazed at Kale’s first at-bat.
“You see this kid fighting for his life. To see him get to first base … here’s a kid who’s gone through everything he’s gone through, he gets an opportunity and his first time at the plate he’s up there hacking, and gets a hit. I just stood there in amazement,” Shumar said. “You think back, I probably would have felt sorry for myself, gotten myself down. I don’t know I could have gone through everything he’s been through and be in as good of spirits.”
Kale’s favorite position is the outfield.
“That’s where the action is,” he said, adding, “I love when the ball goes in the air and if it’s too far back I can try and make an amazing, diving catch.”
Kale’s success was surviving, returning to school, swinging a bat, running to first base, sliding head first into second, wearing his uniform, running and jumping. He was a kid again.
“I’m taking it one step at a time, just being a kid and hoping it doesn’t come back,” said Kale.
For now, he returns to the outfield, desperate for a little action. Just one diving catch.