Living in his honor
Kevin Hughes overcomes death of dad and season-ending surgery to take the mound
Senior pitcher Kevin Hughes overcame the death of his father in 2010 and a torn ulner collateral ligament in his elbow in 2012 to make it back to the mound this season. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum
Senior pitcher Kevin Hughes was very close with his father, Kevin J. Hughes. Hughes’ father passed away in the fall of 2010. “I just live in his honor,” Hughes said. Courtesy of Kevin Hughes
Kevin Hughes knows what it means to heal.
As a 4-year-old boy, he was once too scared to come out from underneath a table - unwilling to be separated from his mother or father so he could attend an interview for a gifted kindergarten program.
But the scared boy Hughes once was isn't the man who steps onto the pitcher's mound today as a senior on the baseball team.
He has grown up and endured things he couldn't hide from. Time served as his healing aid.
When he was a junior transfer during his first semester at UB, Hughes' father died. A year and a half later, he had a season-ending elbow injury that kept him on the bench for part of one season and the entirety of another.
He needed Tommy John surgery, an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction procedure. Following the surgery, a patient generally reaches full strength in his or her arm after 18 months. It has been nearly 24 months since Hughes' elbow was repaired on.
But losing a parent comes with no reparative procedure - no promise of when life will ever feel "normal" again, because it likely won't. But Hughes never let himself get angry about the death of his father.
"I just live in his honor," he said. "We got him cremated because I just don't think one spot in the ground [was appropriate]. He had a bigger impact. So we got little hearts filled with his ashes and gave them to 15 or 20 people who were closest to him."
His father was a sheet metal worker - he was dedicated to his craft. And he instilled the same kind of devotion in Hughes.
When Hughes throws, it is apparent his elbow is fully healed. He doesn't hold anything back. He puts his entire bodyweight behind the ball. Despite his charismatic nature, the idea of approaching him when he is standing on the mound seems horrifying. He takes the game seriously.
Now, Hughes gets one last season to show the world what he can do on the mound - and he gets to do it for his dad.
On a November morning in 2010 - just three months into Hughes' first semester at UB - he left his family's home to go to class and noticed his father's lunch box on the table.
Hughes' father never missed a day of work. Later in the day, Hughes' older sister, Ashley, called him and asked if she could see him. They met outside UB Stadium and Ashley delivered the news.
Hughes' father had passed away.
He had driven a friend home the night before and on the way to his home he crashed through a barrier and into a body of water. Officials aren't sure if it was a medical issue or if he just lost control of the car - there were no skid marks. When they arrived on the scene, Hughes' father was in still in the car - seatbelt fastened. He drowned.
"That was a big blow," Hughes said. "I was numb to the fact that day and I tried to be strong. But at his wake, my uncles - grown men - were coming up to me crying and I was trying to cheer them up, keep things positive because that's the way he was. You have to get the most out of life, you have to celebrate what he did do and what he was."
Hughes said he is exactly like his father. The two often argued because they were so similar but had an understanding that it was all to help make Hughes better. Hughes looked up to his father in every way.
He said his dad had a paper route from when he was 10 and that his grandmother still tells stories about all the money he had.
"When he wanted something, he did it on his own," Hughes said. "He would save up money - he would do this and that - and he would find a way."
From age 14 on, Hughes did things his father did. He worked at Niagara County Produce, getting to work at 7:30 a.m. on the weekends so he could work 20 hours a week. It taught Hughes about work ethic.
When his father passed away, Hughes' way of mourning was doing the things his father loved to do. His father was always upbeat and charismatic, so Hughes didn't let his dad's death keep him down.
He played baseball because his dad loved watching him play and never missed a game. Hughes - who refused to take a leave from school to grieve - played in his memory.
Hughes' father was such a constant presence at games that people knew how important he was to Hughes. And Hughes meant a lot to his friends. At his father's wake two full baseball teams - his teammates at UB and a group of players from a summer team he had played with - came to pay their respects.
Hughes went to his father for all kinds of advice. When he began weighing transferring from Erie Community College to Genesee Community College for his final semester of junior college, Hughes went to his dad. When he was choosing a four-year school to spend his final two seasons, Hughes went to his dad.
In the end, one of the most attractive parts about going to school at UB was that his family would be able to go to his games because they live nearby in Lockport.
Hughes' dad would never get the chance to watch his son play Division I baseball.
After his father's death, baseball was Hughes' refuge. It gave him a place to be away from the pain and still commemorate his father. Mary, Hughes' mother, said he realized he had to move forward because playing Division I baseball was his father's dream for him.
His dad had been a swimmer and wanted Hughes to swim, but when his son chose baseball, he was still supportive. He would come home from work and catch bullpens in the backyard for Hughes.
"The one thing that I tried to instill in my children was we were blessed to have Dad in our lives because, without him, we wouldn't be where we are today," Mary said. "We all have a special gift that we got from Dad, and there is nothing on this earth that will replace him, but we have wonderful memories."
For Hughes, those are memories of his dad trying - without success - to get him to work in the garage. The two often played basketball in the backyard together because Ashley wasn't as athletic. Hughes' favorite picture is of his father in a Buffalo Bills T-shirt with an animated facial expression. Hughes says it illustrates his outgoing personality and his love of sports - something the loving son carries on.
Hughes hates losing. His twitter handle is @cantlosehughes.
His senior year of high school, he wanted to win so badly he pushed his arm to its limit, pitching whenever his coach was willing to give him the ball.
Hughes won class perfectionist in high school - the trait is something he sometimes doesn't even notice about himself. What he does notice is that he won't do something just for the sake of doing it. Every sport he plays, everything he does, he makes sure he's the best at it. His competitive nature never dies.
"He wanted the ball, and he wanted to compete," said head coach Ron Torgalski, regarding his first impression of Hughes. "He wanted to be put in tough situations. You saw early in his career that he wanted to be in the toughest situations he could be in."
Even away from the diamond, Hughes is competitive. One of his roommates, senior shortstop Mike Scarcello, says he's ultra competitive about video games when they play in the house.
Hughes jokes that "Can't Lose" is his alter ego, the person he becomes between the lines.
It's visible just watching Hughes warm up. In an instant, the inviting smile and friendly greetings fade into an intense, insatiable work ethic. He's scary.
"I liked his approach to the game," Torgalski said. "He played hard, his intensity was there and you have to have that if you are going to be a player, you have to be focused. You have to want to succeed and play with that intensity and I really like that with him."
Hughes leads with his actions, Torgalski said, even though he may not be the loudest player on the team.
But just as quickly as his focus can take over, it can also take a backseat when he's joking with a teammate.
Hughes was pitching the best game of his life.
The Bulls were playing St. Joe's outside Philadelphia on March 17, 2012.
Through five innings, he had struck out eight players and allowed just three hits. He hadn't walked anyone. He felt like he couldn't get any better.
With a 1-1 count on the first batter in the bottom of the sixth, Hughes threw a 2-seam fastball. Something popped. His arm recoiled.
"I didn't really feel it in my arm," Hughes said. "I felt it in my stomach, like the wind got knocked out of me."
The training staff came out to take a look at Hughes' arm, but when he tried to throw a warm-up pitch, the ball "went 30 miles per hour," far slower than his usual pitch speed.
He left the game disappointed; he didn't want his feeling of dominance to end.
Mary was listening to the game on the radio. The announcers, who were from the opposing school, were commenting on how well Hughes was pitching. When he left the game, she texted him to make sure he was OK.
Hughes reassured her he was fine, and that it was just a precaution to make sure he didn't injure himself further.
The first doctor he went to confirmed Hughes' initial thought of minor injury. In practice, he tried to throw but it was painful and he would be forced to stop. He went to get a second opinion.
"My doctor came in and he said, 'Oh yeah, you tore your UCL,'" Hughes said. "And he said it so matter-of-fact, and I was like, 'No way - that's a year - that's the one.'"
Hughes' doctor gave him the option to not get the surgery because the UCL isn't necessary for everyday life, but he wasn't ready to give up baseball yet. He was going to have his UCL repaired. And he accepted the 12-month recovery time.
Two months following the March 2012 injury, Hughes underwent the surgery.
He called the time he couldn't play "awkward." In 2013, he had convinced himself he was going to come back and play after nine months. At times, it looked like he might. Some days, he appeared to be months ahead of schedule; others, he couldn't throw without pain.
In the end, Hughes and the coaching staff decided he would sit out the 2013 season and come back in 2014. He could only contribute by supporting his teammates as the Bulls had the best season in school history.
When Hughes last left the mound during a game for the Bulls, Buffalo had never been to a Mid-American Conference tournament. Now, they've been to two. Three players who were underclassmen then are now the meat of the Bulls' rotation.
This is a different Buffalo team than it was in March 2012, and Hughes is going to have to earn his way back into a starting spot.
Torgalski sees him taking on a long relief or set-up role, but if any of the starters falter, they know a veteran player with starting experience is there and waiting to take their spot.
As Hughes steps onto the mound in 2014, he'll bring the same work ethic with which he attacked rehab.
He's a different person than he was in 2012, but he continues to play for his No. 1 fan. His dad.
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