COLUMBIA, S.C. — Driving in the car a few days after Christmas, South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook noticed his wife, Jennifer, crying as she read something on her phone.
He asked what was wrong, and she began to share the story published by The State newspaper on Blaire Epting, the Hammond School senior who received the thrill of a lifetime when he scored a touchdown on Senior Night.
A team manager for the Skyhawks through four seasons, Epting wasn’t physically able to handle the contact of the game because of his dwarfism. But he harbored a dream of wearing the uniform one time, and Hammond and Augusta Christian arranged for that to happen in their late October game.
Holbrook read the story and came away just as touched as his wife.
“It was easy to see what the players and the coaching staff and his peers thought of him,” Holbrook said. “Obviously, the gesture of allowing him to participate in the game by Hammond and the opponent that night showed this kid is special and deserved something special to happen to him.”
Holbrook quickly moved to do something special as well. After getting Epting’s phone number through a mutual friend, he sent a text message asking the teen to visit the baseball office. Epting, who was serving as the Hammond basketball team’s manager at a tournament in Greenville at that time, wasn’t sure what the USC coach had in store for him.
“I was excited,” he said. “I did want to meet him.”
Holbrook had read in the story that although Epting was already accepted by South Carolina, he was planning on attending Clemson as an engineering major. So Holbrook put on his recruiting cap and prepared to make Epting an offer to be one of the baseball team’s managers in the next school year, one he made in their January meeting.
“Managers play a very important part in our program, and I couldn’t think of a better situation not only for South Carolina baseball but also to provide an opportunity for Blaire to continue to be part of a program,” Holbrook said. “There’s a lot of joy involved in being part of a team that’s all striving for the same goal.”
Epting’s family had no idea that Holbrook was going to make such an offer. His mother, Lanie, said they thought he was simply being nice and their son might come away with some tickets or a cap.
“I had no clue, and neither did my parents,” Epting said.
Holbrook, however, was on a mission.
“I went at it just like he was a recruit who played shortstop,” Holbrook said. “I wanted to recruit him as hard as I could. And I had to convince him. That made it a lot of fun.”
Holbrook, whose son Reece has overcome cancer, appreciated how Epting has battled medical issues throughout his life. In eighth grade, Epting suffered seizures and double vision when the shunt inserted in his head as a three-month-old baby malfunctioned.
He needed multiple brain surgeries over a three-week period and missed more than 50 days of school. He also lost the ability to walk. He had to relearn through physical therapy. Although he still lives with a dual-shunt system in his head, his health is now stable.
Holbrook enjoyed getting to meet Epting for the first time.
“He walked in with a big smile on his face and told me that he’d always been a big South Carolina baseball fan,” Holbrook said. “Then he told me his story and, obviously, he has to deal with so much. You can obviously tell the kid is a high-character individual. He has overcome some obstacles in his life and has flourished both academically and as part of a team. I was as moved meeting him in person as I was reading the article.”
With some scholarship money available to the team’s four student managers, Holbrook made his pitch. But Epting still took his time to weigh his options before deciding. Accepted at South Carolina, Clemson and NC State, he was strongly leaning toward attending Clemson before Holbrook’s offer. His father, Randy, a merger and acquisitions lawyer, attended Clemson; his mom, Lanie, attended USC; and his sister, Elaine, currently attends Furman.
But last week Epting let Holbrook know that he was definitely coming to USC.
“He flipped me,” Epting said with a smile.
Holbrook greeted the news with real excitement.
“I do not feel any different than I feel when one of the best high school prospects tells us he wants to play at South Carolina,” he said. “That’s a testament to what I think that young man is all about and what he’ll bring to our baseball program.”
Epting is ready to jump into the hard work that comes with being a manager. He likes how the program allows the managers to fit their duties around their academic schedules. And he was impressed that Holbrook told him that a manager hasn’t left since the coach joined the program.
“To me that said something. I can see why. He’s a great guy,” Epting said. “It’s a great school that has a great engineering program. I looked at it a couple of times and talked to students who said good things. [And] the baseball program is just amazing. I’ve met a couple of the managers, and they all seem like great guys.”
Lanie Epting still can’t believe the opportunity that she said came out of left field.
“It’s such a true blessing that you just sit back and think, ‘This is so amazing,’ ” she said.
From his touchdown on Senior Night to Hammond’s state championship in football, to his success in finding a college to this unique opportunity, Epting can’t believe what has happened his senior year.
“It was definitely all unexpected,” he said. “I’m thankful to everyone who helped make it happen. I just feel blessed that all this has happened to me.”