ORLANDO, Fla. - There's nothing better than an inspiring comeback story -- both in life and in sports. Seminole High School's head baseball coach checks both boxes.
In his first season as skipper, and his first time coaching high school baseball in two decades, Kenne Brown led the team to its first state championship since 1992, winning 1-0 against Miami-Coral Reef High School last weekend in Fort Myers.
Brown sat down with anchor Justin Warmoth for an episode of "The Weekly on ClickOrlando.com" to reflect on the historic season.
"The last couple of days, I've been trying to process it," Brown said. "But it's still evident that the game hasn't turned off."
When he was hired in the fall, Brown knew he inherited a program that was talented -- ace pitcher Matt Allan was selected in the third round of the MLB draft last week. Brown's biggest challenge, though, was gaining the team's trust, which didn't happen right away.
"When I took the job, guys weren't coming [back] to Seminole, they were leaving," Brown recalled. "One was going to Hagerty, one was going to TNXL Academy and one was going to Lake Mary."
But the first-year head coach didn't chase them. He waited until the first day of school to find out who wanted to play his style of Seminole baseball -- and more importantly become part of his family.
"When I took this job, I told my wife that we're about to adopt 20 to 25 guys," Brown said. "I adopt these kids mentally when I coach. I wear what's wrong with them or what's right with them, and it's very difficult. A lot of coaches don't do that, but that's just me."
The turning point, Brown says, was when the team passed a fall conditioning test called 'The 9s' -- which require players to sprint 3 miles in a certain amount of time.
"When everyone made the time, I remember coming home and telling my wife that they did it," Brown said. "I was in tears because they just gave me the greatest gift they could give me. They told me, 'OK, coach. We believe in you.'"
It was a defining moment in the season, but it was a moment that Brown never thought he’d experience.
In February 2008, while he was the athletic director at Winter Spring High School, Brown was diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma -- a type of throat cancer that was caused by more than 30 years of dipping tobacco.
"The doctors basically gave me a death sentence," Brown said. "They said they were going to try to kill me to save me. I remember them saying that it was going to take that."
Doctors had to cut open part of his neck -- from his ear to his Adam's apple -- to remove his tonsils and 17 lymph nodes.
"It looked like they cut half my head off," Brown said. "What took place after that was even more horrible. I had 37 treatments of radiation, but they quit giving me chemo because my doctors thought the next round would've killed me... all because I was addicted to dipping."
Dipping tobacco is popular among baseball players from Major League Baseball down to the high school level. Brown uses his experience to educate his players about the dangers of not only dipping but vaping as well.
"I carry around a picture of me [with my neck cut open], and tell them it’s where they’re headed," Brown said. "Especially with all of the vaping that's going on, and it's not even FDA approved. It's shocking."
In 2013, a few years after he was deemed cancer-free, Brown hit rock bottom. His mom died, he was fired from his job, he got divorced and lost his kids and all of his money was gone.
"Everything that defined me was gone," Brown said. "I had to start completely over. To be honest with you, I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing."
But there was one passion still there: baseball.
Brown soon got a call from his mentor Mike Powers, the former baseball coach and athletic director at Seminole High School. Powers came up with an idea to get Brown's life turned around: becoming an assistant coach for the DeLand Suns in the Florida Collegiate Summer League.
"[Mike and head coach Rick Hall] took me under their wing and absolutely helped me see what I was supposed to do," Brown explained. "I was derailed and those two put me on a path."
Fast forward a few years -- to last Saturday at CenturyLink Sports Complex in Fort Myers. As Seminoles coaches, players and parents got ready for the school's biggest baseball game in 25 years, Brown couldn't help but think about the people who were there when he needed them most, so he sent them a text message.
"I said: 'I want to tell you this before the game -- win or lose -- that regardless of what happens I'm going to be standing in a dugout and people are going to be looking at me and they're going to have hope. They know where I was and saw the fight I had. Baseball isn't life, but it mirrors life, and my presence there is giving someone hope to fight another day.'"
Two hours and seven innings later, the once overlooked Seminoles celebrated behind the pitcher's mound as Class 9A state champions.
There really is nothing better than an inspiring comeback story.
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