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Princeton men’s team deals with tragedy: An extraordinary act of courage with help of 43 brothers

Wednesday, 22nd February 2012

Categories Boy's/Men's, College, Posted 2/22/12
Courtesy of Princeton University Sports Information

The boy at the center of this story is 10-year-old Nick Bates.

His father, Chris Bates, is the head men’s lacrosse coach at Princeton University, and right now, Nick is sitting in a locker room in the Caldwell Fieldhouse.

The Princeton men's team has helped take care of coach Chris Bates' son, Nick Bates, before and after his mother passed away

He is taking bites out of an apple, a textbook open across his lap. Princeton lacrosse practice is just about to start, and Nick will go out to the field once he is finished with his homework.

Nick wears a green hooded sweatshirt, across the front of which are the words “William & Mary” and a “W&M” logo.

The College of William & Mary is where Nick’s mother Ann went to school, before she graduated and headed off to Virginia medical school and then to residency at the University of North Carolina. It was during that time of her life that she met Chris Bates in the Raleigh-Durham airport during a hurricane.

Ann Bates died last Nov. 30, died after three valiant fights against cancer, died at the young age of 43 years old.

You are here now to write a story, write about Nick, write about how the men’s lacrosse players have rallied around the boy, before and since his mother’s passing.

It seemed like a simple story at first – a group of college kids take their coach’s son to Great Adventure or to one of his soccer games. Nice, heartfelt, simple.

Except it’s not working out that way. Each of the four players you’ve already spoken to has basically said the exact same thing in the exact same way, with a mix of helplessness over what they could do, concern for Nick and ultimately awe at the heroic way their head coach has handled himself through this process.

It reaches each of them every day, every minute they are part of Princeton lacrosse. They continue to be a touched by the spirit of a woman they all knew, even as they deal with the sadness of not having gotten to know her well.

And at all times, they have her son’s back.

Nick Bates

Now it’s just you and Nick in the otherwise empty locker room.

When Nick uses words, they’re spoken softly, and each time he speaks, it’s as if you’ve never actually heard his voice before.

Instead, he speaks in smiles. A few minutes earlier, when he first walked in, you asked him how he was, and he smiled. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to.

And now you’re thinking about everything he’s been through and everything he continues to go through. You want to hear his side, get an understanding for how this 10-year-old boy feels, but what would he say? What would you even ask him?

You long ago went through the checklist of questions in your mind, the ones that you might normally ask, and none of them are remotely relevant.

Now, as you sit here with him in an otherwise empty locker room, you realize that there are only two questions you’d even consider asking him. You are about to ask the first, when you realize that there is only one answer and that the answer is only a single word.

So instead you ask the only other question you have.

“How’s your apple?” you ask.

Nick Bates just smiles back.

Ann Bates passed away a little less than three months ago. The following night, the Princeton women’s basketball team hosted Delaware in the next athletic event at the University.

You’ve written a moment of silence in her memory, and you know how it begins: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Princeton Athletics family suffered a tragic loss yesterday with the death of Ann Bates.”

What you didn’t count on was the Nick Bates was going to be at the game, along with his father. And so as he walks over to the scorer’s table, you immediately begin to have a panicked feeling.

Nick stands in between Chad Wiedmaier and Tyler Fiorito. They are All-Americas, Chad on defense, Tyler in goal. They are team captains. They are big, strong, seemingly invincible college seniors.

And they have the same thought going through their minds.

One seat to Chad’s left sits Bill Bromberg, the public address announcer. He starts reading your words, and he can barely get them out without choking up.

“He had no idea that Nick was next to him,” Wiedmaier says. “As soon as he said there was going to be a moment of silence, I thought that here was Nick, a kid who is so little, who has been through so much. He doesn’t need to deal with this. He’s clearly a tough kid, and all I was thinking was what can I do to help him. I just put my hand on his shoulder and gave him a nod and a smile.”

On Nick’s far side was Fiorito, fearless when it comes to having the best shooters in college lacrosse rocket balls at him, worried now about what was coming next.

“I didn’t know how he’d take it,” Fiorito said. “Chad and I made eye contact and wondered if we’d have to do something. Nick was very composed. He probably handled it better than we did. He’s very composed for a 10-year-old. He’s tough.”

He has no choice.

Ann Bates first became sick with a malignant brain tumor in the spring of 2003, when Chris Bates was the head coach at Drexel and Nick was a toddler. She beat it that time, and she stayed healthy until the summer of 2009.

This time, just three days after Chris was named the head coach at Princeton, the disease returned, likely due to the chemotherapy and radiation treatments she received the first time. This time, there was a bone marrow transplant and three months in the hospital, but again she came through it.

Bates took Princeton to an 11-5 record, a share of the Ivy League title, the championship of the first-ever Ivy League tournament and the NCAA tournament in 2010, his first season.

His second season didn’t go as well. Princeton would go 4-8 in 2011, a year that saw player after player go down with injuries and game after game get away at the end. And then, on the season’s final day, it went from bad to worse to tragic.

“It was the day of the Cornell game,” Chris Bates says. “She had started to get the headaches again and was going in. I knew it wasn’t going to be good. It was that day that I had the realization that we were going down a pretty significant path.”

A daily regimen of chemo followed, except that the disease was too strong to beat a third time. Eventually, late in the fall, Ann Bates entered hospice care.

Through it all, Chris Bates soldiered on. He recruited. He coached. He ran fall practices. He did media interviews. He oversaw every aspect of his program, insisted that it be business as usual.

And then when he left the school at night, he’d go to his wife’s bedside.

It was an extraordinary act of courage, of inspiration. Any request to provide even the smallest of assistance was returned with a “thanks,” rarely to be taken up – and when it was, it was grudgingly.

“If you ask anyone in the lacrosse community, they tell you Coach Bates as a player was tough, a hustler,” says senior John Cunningham, a captain along with Wiedmaier and Fiorito. “He loved the game. As a coach, he’s a warrior. There is nothing that can phase him. He is as strong as they come, and it’s inspiring for his players.”

As bad as it was getting, and how clear the ultimate outcome was, Chris Bates still did not let on the severity of the situation and what he was going through.

“He never talked about what was going on,” says Peter Smyth, another Princeton senior. “Nobody knew anything about how bad it was and what he was going through. When he said that his wife was going to the hospice, that was the first time he really opened up to us. On the day she passed away, he came in and told us face-to-face.”

While Coach Bates was holding everything together, Nick was left with the realities that were settling in, a situation that is unfathomable for an adult, let alone a child who actually has to go through it.

“Try to put yourself in his shoes,” Cunningham says. “It’s impossible. Basically, the whole time he knew his mother, she was sick. We made it our business to integrate him as much as we could into the team. He’s happy when he’s here. He’s happy when he’s with his dad and seeing him coach and hanging out with the guys.”

And so in a huge and comforting way, the Princeton players started to do just that.

“It began last year when Tyler Moni, Zach Drexler and Tim Palmer [players from last year’s team] took him to a Phillies game,” Smyth says. “We started to think about how it would be nice to take Nick somewhere, to get to know him. I think it might have been something we wanted to do anyway, but there was an extra emphasis on it with what Coach Bates was going through.”

As such, a group of players took Nick and his friend to Six Flags Great Adventure over the summer.

“We spent the day there,” Smyth says. “I think some of the guys got sick on the roller-coasters.”

Then there was this past fall, when Nick was playing in a local youth soccer league and his team had reached the semifinals. This time, Chris Bates needed someone to go with Nick.

What he got was a group of 12 players, who brought Nick to the game and stood on the sidelines, wildly cheering. In somewhat storybook fashion, Nick responded with two goals and an assist in his team’s 3-2 win.

“He was the best player out there,” Smyth says. “I think the opposing parents were confused. They had to be wondering what all these college kids were doing there, going nuts in the stands.”

In addition, Nick has served as a ballboy for Princeton basketball. Even when his father couldn’t be there with him in the final days of his mother’s life, Nick would be there, brought by Lindsey Bates, his grandfather, who would sit in the stands and watch his grandson, all at once welcoming the relief from the situation while coming to grips with the inevitable.

Wiedmaier and Fiorito have worked with the athletic marketing staff, and as such have been around Nick during games. It was in that role that they were next to him at the women’s game, during the moment of silence.

“It’s great seeing him at the basketball games,” Fiorito says. “All the guys come up to him, say hi. I thought it was great for him that he could be here the day after his mom passed away and still live his life. I have him throw t-shirts into the crowd with me. He loves it.

“To be honest, that’s the easy part. Going to Nick’s game. Seeing him score two goals. Taking him to Six Flags. Besides, going with your parents is one thing. Going with a bunch of college kids? He was nervous about going on one ride, the Green Lantern. It ended up being his favorite ride. For most of his life, his mother was sick. Moments like we had with him, that’s where he could be just a kid.”

The hard part, of course, was coming back from the game or the amusement park to the reality. And then, the end came.

The entire Princeton team attended Ann’s funeral, held in a packed church in Media, outside of Philadelphia. It was there that Chris and Nick sat together in the front row, surrounded by people who were there to celebrate Ann’s life and to show their support for the father and son.

Ann Bates wasn’t just a doctor, wife and mother. She was a deeply spiritual person. She was funny. Like her son, she was always smiling. She was always upbeat.

During one church trip to the South, she held a funeral for a diseased pet bird. After Drexel beat No. 1 Virginia, she stormed right past a startled security guard to join in the celebration on the field.

Sadly, it was only at her own funeral that most of the Princeton players learned all this.

“I never really got to know her,” Fiorito says, echoing almost word-for-word what the other three players said as well. “My sophomore year, she was sick. The first time I really got to talk to her was at an end-of-year party that year. It’s a shame that not too many of us got to know her well. We heard so many amazing things about her at the funeral. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see her passion every day. We didn’t really get to meet her. I talked to her two or three times, but it wasn’t enough. It’s a shame, a huge shame.”

“Sitting in the church,” Wiedmaier says, “it was clear that she was a very, very special person. I would have loved to have gotten to know her better.”

Now, on the verge of the 2012 season, a new reality has set in for the Bates family.

On most days, Nick comes home from school to a babysitter. Twice a week, he comes to Princeton with a neighbor, who drops him off on the way to a different activity in town. On those days, he sits in the locker room and does his homework before going out to practice.

“I’m sure it has to be an awesome thing for a kid growing up around Division I lacrosse players, first at Drexel and now here,” Wiedmaier says. “He’s a really mature kid for how young he is. He’s tough. To be honest, obviously he’s affected by not having his mom anymore. For a kid that age, though, I’m blown away by how tough he is.”

The relationship between the players and Nick is one of mutual affection, to be sure.

“Part of the beauty of raising a kid as a college coach on a college campus is the ability for someone like Nick to interact with your team,” Chris Bates says. “The kids at Princeton lacrosse are wonderfully high character young men who are exceptional student-athletes. I say all the time that if my son can grow up like the guys in the locker room here, I’ll be content. When you go through something like we went through, that becomes heightened. That need becomes heightened. The need to be around people who care. People who put their arm around him. What these guys have done and shown him is pretty genuine and pretty special.”

At a time when he needs it most.

“The players had a sense that Nick needed immediate support, and what they did was self-initiated, which is much more impressive,” Bates says. “He’s a sports nut. I ask him at breakfast what his goal for that day is, and he says it’s to make two three-pointers. He loves Princeton hoops. T.J. Bray [of the men’s basketball team] came up to him after they beat Harvard and said thank you to him. Someone like that interacts with a 10-year-old kid, that’s impactful. He loves [men’s basketball player] Doug Davis. He loves our guys He’s impressed that they’re high-level athletes and that they’re driven, bright students. He wants to come to Princeton. That’s a cool thing, and that’s a credit to our guys. The play catch with him. They talk to him. They are all role models.”

It’s clear that the coach is speaking from the heart about what his players have done for his son.

It’s just as clear that when the players speak about their coach, they have been rocked to their core by his strength and character.

“We knew that it was going to be coming to an end,” Wiedmaier says. “We knew what he was going through. And yet, when he showed up for work, he never made an excuse. I don’t know how he did it. I was like, ‘I don’t know how you’re here. I don’t know how you’re balancing all of this.’ He’s been a great coach through all of this. His perspective on all of this, through his life, he values every day we get to go out and practice and get better and enjoy playing a sport for fun at one of the best schools in the world. I think he lives his life to fullest, every moment.”

Maybe for Chris Bates, the opportunity to coach his team gave him the ability to step away, even if only for an hour or two during the fall.

“I felt like I owed it to them,” he says. “I told them that they came here for a reason. What was going on in my personal life was having a dramatic impact on me and my family, but I couldn’t allow myself to have that get in the way of their college careers. I think I was able to create, not a switch, but being able to focus here. I think I owed that to them. They knew. They knew what was going on. At the end of the day, we had two hours together. We had to get better. We’re coming off a lousy year. All the while, I’m competitive. I know the job at hand, and we have to do it.”

The start of the 2012 season wipes away everything that happened on the field in 2011, when Princeton had a bunch of close losses, big leads that got away and of course injuries.

With a defense led by Fiorito, Wiedmaier and Cunningham and an offense built around the limitless talent of sophomore Tom Schreiber, Princeton is cautiously optimistic. The goals are a repeat of 2010, with a better finish to May.

And if improving on a 4-8 record isn’t enough motivation, there has grown a sense of obligation to live up to the standards set by their coach.

“Everyone on this team has bonded with Nick and with Coach Bates,” Fiorito says. “If Coach Bates can do this for us, then there’s so much more we can give for him.”

“As far as adversity goes, they’ve had it about as tough as it gets,” Smyth says. “It gives us a reason to rally around Nick, around Coach Bates.”

Cunningham puts it even more succinctly.

“To see your coach go through everything he went through and stay committed to you, how could you not be committed to him,” he says. “We want to turn it around for Coach Bates. For him. For nobody else.”

A few minutes before Nick first bites into his apple, he walks down the hallway from the training room past the men’s lacrosse locker room towards the door to the coaches’ room. His dad and his assistants are inside readying for practice, but you see Nick first and intercept him, telling him that you’re going to take his picture.

This time, he gives you a puzzled look more than a smile. “Why me?” he asks softly.

You try to explain to him what you’re doing, that you need his picture for this story, that you’re going to take his picture surrounded by the lacrosse players. Once he hears that, the smile returns.

The Princeton men’s lacrosse locker room is split into two rooms, one for the offense, the other for the defense, connected by a doorway much like adjoining hotel rooms. The 43 players are crowded into the defensive side.

They’ve been told to wait there, but they haven’t been told why. Now Nick comes into the room, and the emotion is immediately noticeable.

It’s hard to put your finger exactly on what it is you sense, but it’s distinctive.

It’s not one of sadness. It’s not one of obligation. It’s not superficial in any way. These are not college students going through the motions.

Then it hits you, smacks you in the face.

It’s responsibility.

Nick Bates and his dad are part of their family, and as such they have a no-questions-asked responsibility to be there for him, for them, for each other. They are going through a tough time, the father and son, and when does family matter more than that?

There are no answers as to why it had to happen to Ann Bates. The unfairness of it is incalculable. The sadness of it is also unable to be overstated.

Her sickness and death brought out the very best in Chris Bates, and there isn’t a player in his locker room who doesn’t feel the way that Cunningham does.

As you look at Nick, you wonder how it will be for him in the years to come, growing up without his mother. What will his memories of her be? Will he be able to completely grasp just how special she was?

And will he understand how strong his father has been for him?

At the same time, you look at him and his father, and you know they’ll be okay, the two of them, with their extended family close by.

And that’s why you didn’t need to ask Nick the other question, because the answer is so obvious.

So you kept it inside.

“Hey Nick,” you say yourself. “What do your 43 brothers mean to you?”

And you know already know the answer.




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