Jack Teeter was well on his way to another standout baseball season for Academy at the Lakes (AATL), up until the COVID-19 pandemic canceled virtually all sporting events.
The All-State athlete was leading the team with a .500 batting average through nine games. He hadn’t allowed an earned run in 14 innings pitched.
In the de facto final game of the season on March 12, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior left-hander had a no-hitter through four innings in a mercy-rule victory against Lakeside Christian — a contest not officially documented in online stats.
But, before he was racking up extra-base hits and striking out batters this season, Teeter was up against tougher opponent — cancer.
The athlete was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in late September, at 16 years old.
In the months preceding, he had been having ongoing breathing and coughing issues. He had trouble completing routine baseball workouts. Doctors presumed it was a case of allergies and sports-induced asthma.
The full scope of the health issue wasn’t realized until Teeter caught a parasite while volunteering at a church farm in Clearwater during the summer.
His parents initially thought it was a bout of food poisoning, until weight loss and stomach issues persisted for days.
Eventually, his family suspected something more was going on.
Teeter first was taken to urgent care, then St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital for a series of CAT scans and medical tests.
They showed lesions on his spleen and stage III lymphoma — meaning enlarged lymph nodes had spread on both sides of his diaphragm.
The teen immediately started treatment. After five rounds of chemotherapy and 14 targeted doses of radiation, he was pronounced cancer-free in January. He requires checkups every three months.
The initial shock of cancer didn’t fully hit Teeter until he awoke in a hospital bed about a week in.
“It’s surreal, if I had to describe it,” he said. “It was crazy to think that I was only 16 years old, being taken into a hospital because of cancer. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’”
Motivation through baseball
As the Teeter family found out from doctors and nurses, Hodgkin lymphoma has a high treatable and survival rate in children.
It’s also something several pro athletes have overcome, including a pair of Chicago Cubs All-Stars in Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo. Reading those stories helped fuel Teeter’s drive to get back on the field again: “I realized, ‘Oh, I can make it, I can get past this, and it’s something that I can overcome and still make it regardless of what I have.’”
While undergoing treatment, Teeter discovered just how much he cherished the game he began playing when he was just 4 years old.
Before the diagnosis, Teeter enjoyed a sophomore campaign that garnered him Class 2A Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-State honors after leading the Wildcats in hitting (.367 average, 18 hits, 11 RBIs) and pitching (1.48 ERA, 60 strikeouts in 42.2 innings).
He acknowledged that baseball is something he may have taken for granted previously, but now, he said he is “enjoying every moment” that he can.
He observed, “I didn’t realize how much I did miss it, how important it was to me because I kept getting calls from teammates and friends telling me that they miss me and hope I get through it OK. It just made me realize, ‘This is a real passion for me, I am important to the team, and I got to get through it all somehow.’”
In a way, baseball “brought him back to health,” said Renee Teeter, his mother.
“It’s given him motivation, excitement, something for him to look forward to and work toward,” she said.
Cancer also has given the teen a fresh perspective on life.
He makes a point to tell anyone who’ll listen to not take what they have for granted, particularly when it comes to health.
Teeter put it like this: “You never know how bad it can be until you’ve had something like I’ve have. It’s like sometimes when people complain about stupid stuff I just remind them, like, ‘C’mon, you have health, you have something that some people just don’t have and you just kind of need to appreciate it a bit more.’”
That newfound outlook is something his parents have picked up on, too.
“I think he got faced with his mortality a lot younger than most people do, and I think he appreciates what he has a lot more now,” said Brian Teeter, his father.
The experience also made Teeter’s parents even more aware of how capable their son is — in both fighting cancer and playing baseball at a high level again.
“I don’t know if he surprised me, because I always knew he was a very strong kid, but I’ve been impressed by him,” Renee said. “He’s handled this very well and dealt with a lot of things, but he doesn’t know any different.”
She added, “He’s done as best as he could be. He’s a trooper, not a complainer. He does what he has to do.”
Getting healthy, inning by inning
Since the diagnosis, Teeter’s first baseball outing came in mid-November, in a high school tournament at Saint Leo University.
The effects of ongoing treatment were evident. He was bald, thinner and noticeably weaker. His chemo port was still implanted, too.
Still, he mustered up the power to pitch one full inning, getting three outs on 25 or so pitches.
“I wasn’t 100% there,” Teeter said, “but, I was able to throw one inning and it was great to get back out there.”
His parents were emotional, as they watched their son back on the mound.
“I basically cried the entire time,” Teeter’s mother said.
After barely having the strength to walk, Teeter has progressed to running, weightlifting and taking part in regular baseball activities and drills.
He’s happy to report that he can get through a 30-minute workout without feeling sick.
His hair, beard and strength are back, also.
Now cancer-free, he is focused on becoming a better ballplayer, with aspirations to pitch in college.
He’s leaned on the help and support of coaches like his father, as well as Academy at the Lakes’ pitching coach Tony Saccamanno, and Anthony Telford and Ruben Garcia, of the Florida Baseball Institute, in Tampa.
He’s working to perfect his pitch timing and mechanics, and notch his fastball up to 80 mph, adding to a repertoire that also includes a slider, curveball and changeup.
Teeter’s recovery brings a smile to the face of Academy at the Lakes’ head baseball coach Ken Akins.
“It’s just good to see him healthy — that’s the key,” said Akins. “I don’t think that I’ve ever seen him 100% healthy in the (two seasons) that I’ve been at the Academy, and that’s the part that I’m happy about, that’s the part I’m excited about, is to see him not have to battle anything, and really say, ‘OK, now’s the time to get at it.’”
When Akins first heard of Teeter’s Hodgkin lymphoma last fall, it brought back memories of another former player who had cancer.
“As a head coach, as a parent, as a person, you never want to hear that, especially that a young man at the age of 16 has to deal with something like that,” Akins said. “I think it opened up some eyes on some of the other boys.”
This summer, Teeter will be pitching from time to time for the Carrollwood Gators travel ball team. He’s also looking forward to his senior season because he believes he’ll finally be able to showcase his true skills and best self.
“I just a want a shot to have people see what I can be like when I’m actually healthy,” Teeter said.
He also hopes to inspire other youths battling cancer.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Teeter said. “You’re going to come back, and you’re going to come back better than you ever were before.”
Published June 03, 2020