When Justin Lloyd stepped to the plate against the University of Chicago in Union’s third game of the 2014 season, it was clear to everyone there this was no normal early season at-bat.
“I could barely breathe, it was such a rush,” Lloyd said.
Teammates cheered wildly — seemingly out of place — as No. 26 approached the batter’s box.
“The team went absolutely nuts,” said teammate and roommate Eric Egan. “We’ve never been more excited as long as I’ve been here.”
College baseball games down in Florida tend to be laconic, at least early on. Not this day. It didn’t even sound like baseball.
“It sounded like a girl’s softball game,” Lloyd’s father Ken remembered. “The whole crowd went nuts. Everybody went nuts.”
The scene in Auburndale, Florida, was so chaotic, so raucous, that the umpire felt compelled to warn the Dutchmen. He thought they were taunting the Maroons.
When Union head coach Paul Mound explained the situation, the ump felt so bad he personally apologized to Lloyd. As an added act of penance, the umpires who worked Union’s game two days later against Wisconsin-Oshkosh arranged to have both teams give the player a standing ovation that lasted nearly five minutes.
“I think that moment was a little awkward for Justin,” his father said.
“I promised him from that day forward he would just be Justin Lloyd, baseball player,” Mound said.
“He never wanted to be treated differently,” Egan noted.
But he was different. That at-bat against Chicago was Lloyd’s first for Union — and his first since being diagnosed with cancer just months into his freshman year.
Lloyd, whose 22nd birthday is Thursday, is back in Milton, Mass., now undergoing his fourth round of chemotherapy for the cancer that continues to ravage him. As for a prognosis, his father says, “We continue to battle every day.” But even though he is nearly two years removed from Union, he remains embraced by his past teammates, and even Dutchmen who have come afterward.
When Lloyd stepped onto campus for the first time as a freshman in the fall of 2012, he made an immediate impression on both his teammates and the coaching staff. A right-handed hitter who could play all three outfield positions and first base, Lloyd brought the rare combination of contact and gap-to-gap power, along with good speed and an arm. He was in line to compete for the starting job in left field as a freshman after co-captaining his senior year at Thayer Academy, winning team MVP while leading the Tigers in hitting.
“He was hitting so well that fall that we were considering hitting him fifth or sixth in our lineup,” Mound said. “We really thought he was going to be a factor as a freshman.”
Lloyd also connected with his new teammates.
“He was one of funniest kids you’ll ever meet — intense too, but in the right way,” Egan said. Lloyd stood out not only for his play but his attire, too; his high school colors were orange, and so was much of what he wore to practice his freshman season. Coach tagged him with the nickname that stuck: Pumpkin. (He was called “Beefy” back home, a nickname tagged on him by his brothers.)
“Justin had a real infectious personality, and a desire to get better, a lot of attributes that you are always looking for in a person or a player,” Mound said.
Lloyd is less gushing about himself: “I would describe myself as coachable.” His father translated that into “easily the most resilient, hardest-working and toughest kid I have ever met.”
As the spring of 2013 and his first college season neared, Lloyd started feeling ill. Egan saw that his teammate wasn’t his normal vivacious self. Mound first became alerted something could be wrong when Lloyd called him the morning of Jan. 25, 2013 — the first day of winter workouts for the team.
“He told me he thought he had a stomach bug, but he was still coming to practice,” Mound said. “That’s just the way he operated.”
Two days later and not feeling any better, doctors admitted Lloyd to Ellis Hospital to undergo a series of tests. Crohn’s disease was suspected. A colonoscopy revealed the worst: a tumor had been found in his small intestine. Adenocarcinoma, a form of cancer. At the time, he was 19 years old.
The first surgery quickly got scheduled. Pain racked the teen.
“You’re only going to look at this one way,” his father told him in the hours leading up to his operation. “You’re going to envision yourself getting your outfield spot back, because you’re pissed off because someone else is in it.”
“Focus on the little victories.”
The father told him to envision other life goals: Getting his diploma. Starting a family. Living.
The surgery put Lloyd on the DL for the 2013 season, but did not keep him away from the team. He traveled to Florida in the midst of a New England blizzard for the Dutchmen’s spring games there just a month after surgery. The trip was taxing, but Lloyd needed the mental boost, what with 12 rounds of chemotherapy ahead of him.
“Justin just wanted to be on the bench with his teammates,” the dad said. “We weren’t supposed to do that.”
He arrived mid-inning to cheers during an early-season game against St. John Fisher.
“That kind of put me over the hump after surgery,” Lloyd said. “After that week, everything made a turn for the better.
“It was a special moment for me.”
Mound called Lloyd “a galvanizing force.” The Dutchmen rallied around the freshman, winning a program-record 26 games, going 20-6 in Liberty League play, and making it all the way to the conference championship game before falling to RPI.
“He was always in the back of our minds that year,” Egan said.
’DAILY MARATHON OF HELL’
Lloyd celebrated with teammates after clinching the regular-season title that year. But he couldn’t attend the postseason after undergoing two surgeries and enduring the start of chemotherapy. Lloyd’s cancer was aggressive, and could only be stagnated by chemo. “I can’t even begin count the number of surgeries he has had,” Mound said.
Ken Lloyd was even more succinct: “It became a daily marathon of hell.”
Justin Lloyd remembered his father’s pre-operation instruction: Envision getting your outfield spot back. And that worked, for a time: After yet another major surgery in the fall of 2013, doctors deemed Lloyd cancer-free and healthy enough to return to the team the following spring. By the beginning of the 2014 season, Justin Lloyd returned to the field.
“It had been a goal my entire life to play college baseball,” he said.
Ken Lloyd took a more wry outlook: “We would’ve wasted a lot of summers had he not been able to play.”
Including Lloyd’s ovation at-bats in Florida, he would appear in 10 games that season, starting two. He went 3-for-16 (.188), scoring twice, including in that game against Chicago. Union would go on to win the Liberty League and earn entry into the NCAAs. Lloyd made the most of his time with the Dutchmen.
“He was giving me everything he had,” Mound said.
Lloyd’s time, unfortunately, was short.
CANCER RETURNS, LLOYD LEAVES UNION
Lloyd’s statistics were skewed: Unknowingly, his cancer had returned in the midst of that spring season. After returning home from school that June, a scan revealed that Lloyd was once again sick, forcing him to make a tough decision as he went back on another 12 rounds of chemotherapy:
Justin Lloyd would leave Union and go to school closer to home. In January 2015, the Milton, Mass., native transferred to Boston College to not only continue his fight closer to home, but also be closer to some of the best medical treatment in the world.
“It became too difficult to manage three hours away,” Ken Lloyd said, “Now he’s 20 minutes from home and 20 minutes from the hospital.”
Lloyd’s condition got so bad at one point that his mother, Jeanne — a nurse — had to tend to his dressings and clean out his stomach wound daily. His support network includes his brothers, Jonathan and Jared, who reside in the Boston area and remain very close with their sibling.
Now a junior at BC, unable to play baseball, Justin Lloyd still finds outlets for his competitiveness, playing intramural ice hockey and taking up golf. The competitive spirit remains. Last month, he spent four days and nights in a hospital due to an infection. On Day 5, he hit the golf course.
Lloyd remains in the midst of battling cancer, Through it all, he still follows the Dutchmen from afar, and remains in close contact with members of the team past and present, even though he has been gone almost two seasons from Union. Some current Dutchmen never knew him.
But the ties between the former player, his one-time teammates and the program lives on.
“The way he bonds people together is amazing,” his father said.
Each year, Union College hosts a home run derby to raise money for those affected by cancer within the Union community, Lloyd included. T-shirts have been made and sold in honor of the former outfielder. Earlier this year, money was raised for his ongoing treatment through Union’s annual Dutchmen Dip.
Lloyd should be a senior leader on the Union team this year, and will be honored on Senior Day at noon Saturday at Shuttleworth Park in Amsterdam by being presented with his framed uniform. An award will also be bestowed in his honor, the Rise Above It Award — named after Lloyd’s catchphrase throughout this ordeal. The award will be presented annually to the Dutchman who exemplifies Lloyd’s character and determination both on and off the field.
Instead of fighting off curves and sliders, Justin Lloyd battles for his life. A player who got 16 at-bats in college continues to impact the team he fought so hard to play for, if for ever-so briefly. Yes, that includes teammates he never met.
“I think they understand the significance of what Justin Lloyd has meant to our program,” Egan said. “We’re playing for him this year as much as we are for ourselves.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: To learn more about Justin Lloyd and donate to help defray his medical expenses, go to gofundme.com/riseaboveit26.