Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
God, protect me and my team. Give Eli strength through me. Give me the qualities that he had. Let me play for him tonight.
Before every game this season, Adena senior Ethan Kunkel has said that prayer.
And, after “Amen,” Ethan proceeds to take his cleats’ spikes — two shoes that read “For you Eli” — and draws the number 18 in the dirt with his brother’s name just beside it. When he trades his glove for his bat, his helmet is inscripted with black marker that reads, “For you brother.”
Ethan’s brother Eli never leaves him on the baseball diamond … he never has and he never will.
“Before every game, I pray by myself and then we do a team prayer, and Eli is on my mind,” Ethan said. “Whether I’m pitching or playing at shortstop, I draw a number eighteen in the dirt and spell out ‘Eli’ right beside it. It’s a way to keep him with me.”
Eli can’t be in attendance in person, so he stays within the confines of his brother’s heart and soul.
He was, of course, once a fine baseball player himself.
But when the 22-year-old was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease — a fatal degenerative brain disorder — Ethan was tasked with carrying on his family’s baseball legacy.
“I think I’ve done a really good job of being a leader for this team,” Ethan said. “With everything I’m going through, I’m trying to do everything for Eli. Those that got to watch him play know that he was a great leader, on and off the field.”
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, the United States sees around 350 cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease every year, which averages out to about one person in one million..
Eli has always been a “one in a million” person. His smile has always been contagious, his laugh is infectious and his sunny disposition has defined him throughout his life.
“It was Christmas Eve I think and we got Eli a Build-a-Bear that had a Reds jersey on it,” Ethan said. “I was sitting on the end of the couch and he was kicking me. Just laughing at me. After every game, I’ll tell him, ‘Eli, we got that dub for you,’ or ‘Eli, we couldn’t get it done tonight.’ He just smiles when I tell him we won. He’s always a goofball. He hasn’t lost his personality.”
Baseball, however, was where Eli thrived the most.
“Baseball is a special game to me,” Ethan said. “I wear number eighteen like Eli did. After this season, nobody is ever going to be able to wear that number again. I’m getting to keep the jerseys for him and I think we’re actually going to send him away with one.”
The jersey number, the love for the game, the passion that Eli had for representing his school and community are all similarities he’s always had with his younger brother.
Adena coach Tom Barr has coached both brothers — he was Eli’s coach with American Legion Post 757 and he coaches Ethan on his current roster.
If anybody has seen those similarities, it’s him.
“They’re baseball kids from a baseball family who both love the game. There are many other similarities there. They’re baseball smart, they’re hard-working, they’re hilarious and they’re super personalities,” Barr said. “Both are such great leaders. Ethan is more of a vocal guy and tries to keep his teammate loose whereas Eli is more of a lead by example, silent assassin type. He’d run through a wall for you to win and would never say a word about it.”
Out of all those likenesses, the love for the game stands above the rest. That started in the Kunkel’s backyard when two young men were just boys.
“He was always trying to help me with baseball. It was always us in the backyard trying to figure out who had the better knuckleball. He had the dirtiest knuckleball,” Ethan said, smiling. “But it could be any time of the day or night, I could ask him to go out and throw or hit with me and he would do it. Baseball brought us closer.”
Baseball has also given Ethan an escape and a sense of peace in times of turmoil.
“The way I cope with everything … if I’m at home and stuff is getting to be too much for me, I like to just go out in the fields and hit,” Ethan said. “That clears my mind. And I pray. My religion has meant a lot to me … more than it’s ever meant in my life before.”
Religion, a sense of reality, quickly making memories that will last a lifetime … there are many things in Ethan’s life that have now taken on a greater meaning.
His priority list, as a high school senior, has underwent a drastic makeover.
“Almost everyday after practice, I go straight home,” Ethan said. “On the weekends and stuff, I’ll make plans with my friends but I’ll tell them to come to my house. I don’t want to be out and about when something ends up happening [to Eli] and I’m not able to be there.”
Ethan can’t remember the last family dinner he missed. Those moments with Eli and his parents have become sacred rituals, and for a simple, yet sobering reason.
“My parents ask me almost everyday how I’m doing and if I need to talk,” Ethan said. “We have family dinner every night and we always sit around the table and try to eat and laugh with Eli. You just never know when that last dinner may be.”
Despite Eli’s prognosis and the everyday worries that run through his mind, Ethan is piecing a successful senior year together with the Warriors.
On the mound, he’s tossed 23 ⅓ innings and sports a 1.52 ERA. At the plate, he’s collected a .333 on-base percentage, scored seven runs and has struck out just four times in 53 plate appearances.
But put the numbers aside. Ethan is hoping that his most memorable night on the diamond comes with Eli there by his side.
“I’m really hoping we get to finish this season before Eli does pass away,” Ethan said. “On Senior Night, I’m really hoping we get to bring him [to Adena] and he gets to see me throw the first pitch to one of my parents. After everything, I’m just going to need time with my parents. We’re going to need to help each other heal. But [Senior Night] is something I’d really like to see happen.”
Ethan Kunkel understands the reality that him and his family are facing.
He knows that in a year, the memories he’s creating with Eli at this very moment are what’s going to be his most prized possessions.
But for now, Ethan is his brother’s keeper while his brother is his hero, his role model, and his reason to keep playing the game he loves.
Rest assured, one day, Eli and Ethan Kunkel will play catch again.
It may not be on this Earth and it may not be anytime soon. But there will be knuckleballs involved and Eli will be sporting that ear-to-ear grin we’ve all become so accustomed to.
“This season really means a lot to me,” Ethan said. “It’s my senior season. I’m doing this all for [Eli] because I know that, someday, he’s going to be up there looking down on me. I know that he wishes he could see me play. I just really wish that I could see him play one more time. He always hustled, he always sprinted. I’m really just trying to be like him.”