Despite disease, former NC State ballplayer refuses to surrender
Hug your kids before they go to bed.
Kiss your wife when she gets home from work.
Call your mom.
Check in on your pops.
Show your family and friends you love them, don’t just say the words.
This is what Chris Combs has tried to do since he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, in May and he realized he was running out of tomorrows.
Combs, 41, a baseball standout for N.C. State in the 1990s and now an associate director with the Wolfpack Club, does have today and his goal is to make the most of it.
“You take your health for granted when you have it,” Combs said. “With this, you realize what’s important and worrying about what tomorrow brings is not going to do me any good. I just want to enjoy each day and do what I can with my family and create as many memories as possible.”
The toughest thing to do is to continue to fight, even when you know the outcome. ALS patients typically have a life expectancy of two to five years after diagnosis. Combs’ symptoms have been slowly progressing.
Over time, the disease will atrophy his muscles and ultimately make breathing difficult. But right now, he can still work, walk and go about his everyday life.
Combs understands the odds, but it only takes one look at his daughters Anne Marie, 10, and Ava, 5, and his son, Christopher, 3, to realize he’s not willing to give up.
He, and his wife, Gena, are off to a productive start in his fight. In support of Project ALS, Combs and his wife have helped put together a benefit, the Hope Gala to defeat ALS, at The Umstead in Cary, N.C. that happeend Friday night.
Combs’ group has raised more than $530,000 through sponsorships for the gala.
“With the people I know, I can use this to have a positive effect on others and hopefully create awareness about the disease,” Combs said. “We’ve raised a lot of money but we will keep pushing and do what we can to help one day, hopefully, find a cure for this.”
Chris Combs has always has been a helper. He was popular in high school and then in college, but not just because he was a jock or from a famous N.C. State family. There is a kind streak in Combs longer than his looping left-handed home-run swing.
“Chris has always tried to do good for other people,” said his father, Francis, a former N.C. State baseball player and member of the Wolfpack football radio broadcast crew for 50 years.
The disease hasn’t done anything to change Combs’ agreeable, laid-back personality.
“It’s rare when you can find a person that no one can say a bad word about,” N.C. State baseball coach Elliott Avent said. “Chris Combs is that guy.”
Combs is a real-life version of Paul Bunyan, without the beard or the blue ox. At 6-foot-7, he had otherworldly strength on a baseball diamond.
He could hit glorious, moon-shot home runs — his 42 career homers rank tied for fifth on the school’s all-time list — and the first baseman could throw smoke in the mid-90s on the mound.
“He could do anything,” said Tom Sergio, an All-American second baseman for the Wolfpack and one of Combs’ best friends on the team.
Almost 20 years have passed since Combs’ last game for N.C. State, in 1997, and his teammates and Avent still can’t believe some of the things he did.
Batting practice was an event. There was the time he beat Florida State’s J.D. Drew in a home-run derby contest at the ACC tournament. There was the time he hit a home run so far, Avent swears it’s the longest ever hit at Doak Field, in a comeback win over North Carolina.
After one power display, Billy Best, one of Avent’s former assistants, called Combs the “third-best” athlete he’d ever seen. Former MLB stars Bo Jackson (he also played football) and Frank Thomas, whom Best had worked with at Auburn, were the other two.
Scott Lawler, the catcher on the ‘97 team, had become somewhat numb to Combs’ talent. But when Combs hit a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth against Clemson and then pitched the ninth for a 9-7 win and sweep of the Tigers, he was in awe.
“He would do stuff like that and it was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ “ Lawler said.
But as talented as Combs was, there is a different reason why everyone likes him.
“He is the dictionary version of Southern hospitality,” Sergio said. “You see him and he is the big, intimidating figure but when you talk to him, it only takes 5 minutes and it’s like you’re best friends already.”
That’s what made Combs’ transition after baseball to the Wolfpack Club so natural.
“It’s the perfect job for him,” Sergio said. “He loves meeting people and he loves N.C. State.”
After elbow injuries derailed Combs’ minor-league career — he was a fifth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1997 as a pitcher — he had an internship with the Wolfpack Club and got a full-time job with the fundraising arm for the athletic department in 2005.
“He has done a great job for us,” said Bobby Purcell, the executive director of the Wolfpack Club. “He has always been so nice and humble and he respects our fans. You couldn’t ask for a nicer person.”
That’s what has made Combs’ diagnosis so difficult to handle, Purcell said.
Combs first noticed something was wrong with his hands in October when he couldn’t button the top button of his dress shirt.
In January, he noticed more dexterity and strength issues with his hands when he was duck hunting. At the ACC basketball tournament in March in Washington, he started to feel muscle twitches in his arms while he was trying to sleep.
Combs’ father was close friends with Jim Hunter, the hall-of-fame baseball pitcher from Hertford who died from ALS in 1999.
He was “Catfish” to those who only knew of his baseball exploits with the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees, but to Combs and his family, he was “Jimmy.”
When Combs started to have the problems with his hands and arms, he thought of Hunter. Combs went to two doctors and originally was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), an autoimmune disease.
He started drug treatment for CIDP and went to a specialist in Phoenix on March 24. After no more than 10 minutes in the examination room, the doctor told Combs it was ALS.
After another round of tests and evaluations with a different doctor in Charlotte, N.C., Combs was given a conflicting diagnosis. Finally, he connected with Hunter’s doctor, Jeffrey Rothstein, and the ALS clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in early May, and the ALS diagnosis was confirmed.
Combs has since started a clinical trial with Project ALS at Columbia University in New York. The goal of the trial is to repurpose an already approved FDA drug in an effort to treat the disease. There’s only one known drug that helps with ALS and it was approved in 1995.
“That’s just unacceptable in 2016,” Gena Combs said.
Gena Combs’ younger brother, David Fajgenbaum, has had some success in repurposing FDA drugs in his own fight against a rare form of cancer. Through the trial at Columbia, Combs hopes to find one that will help combat ALS.
Combs has drawn strength from his wife and her family. There were tough moments after he was initially diagnosed, but he has been able to recalibrate his focus.
Combs has been able to comfort his family and friends. Purcell described Combs, and his wife, like a “lighthouse in a storm” for his Wolfpack Club family.
Combs’ father is prone to bouts of sadness. He’ll drive around Raleigh, N.C., and start to tear up thinking about it. But then he talks to his son.
“He’s amazing,” Francis Combs said. “He’s so strong. He has been able to deal with it like there’s nothing wrong with him.”
None of which surprises Sergio, who lives in Philadelphia and at first was hesitant to call and talk to Combs.
“He could easily crawl in a hole and say, ‘Woe is me,’ but he wants to fight it the best he can,” Sergio said.
Lawler cried when first heard the news. The only thing that made him feel better was talking to Combs.
“I would have been a mess, but he told me he has a plan to fight this,” Lawler said.
There’s only one way Lawler can describe Combs’ resolve.
“He has been Chris,” Lawler said.
Sergio doesn’t see Combs relenting, no matter the odds.
“As long as he can fight this disease, he’ll have people helping him,” Sergio said.
At 41, you’re not supposed to be thinking about the end, but there are moments when Combs catches himself.
“I won’t get to see my kids grow up,” he said. “That gets to you. If there’s anything that gets to you, it’s that.”
But Combs won’t let thoughts or anger consume him. His faith has helped comfort him.
“I feel like I’ve been very fortunate and experienced so many awesome things in my life,” Combs said. “So I never say, why me?
“God has a plan, I believe that. With this disease, there’s a lot of variation to it. Some people pass away within a year and some people live with it for 10 years. You don’t know.
“Hopefully, I have a number of years left and in that time, I can make a difference.”