LAWRENCEVILLE – Standing just outside the home dugout at Gwinnett Stadium on Tuesday, Brian Ernst waited, casually flipping a baseball back and forth from hand to hand.
With mother Donna and father Steve in tow, Ernst chatted with G-Braves infielder Brooks Conrad.
"I asked him why (the Atlanta Braves) sent him back down (to Triple-A)," Ernst said with a sly smile.
As the public address announcer introduced him, Ernst walked out to the mound with his brother Brett to throw out the first pitch of the G-Braves game against International League South division rival Durham.
Whether the throw lobbed a bit, or even bounced, before reaching home plate mattered not, only because of the events between May 23, 2008 and Tuesday.
It was in that year and a few months time that the 17-year-old Ernst went from being diagnosed with cancer to bed ridden because of it, unable to walk without a cane or crutches.
It was in that time that Ernst went from saying he wouldn’t live to see his 18th birthday, to being told by his oncologist Tuesday that he was one of his success stories, he was a cancer survivor.
As he settled just below the pitching rubber preparing to throw, however, only one thing was going through his mind, "I wasn’t going to lob it," he said. "I felt (out there on the mound) like I was at home and I didn’t want to bounce it."
When Ernst was diagnosed with cancer as a result of a tumor in his leg on May 23, 2008, he was a junior at West Hall High and a standout pitcher for the Spartans.
A year that should have been spent relishing the last days of school with friends he’d grown up with, turned into a year spent in hospital rooms enduring heavy chemotherapy and radiation treatments and over 40 units of blood.
He went from an athletic 202 pounds to a decimated 119 pounds and not only lost the ability to walk, but lost the ability to participate in his passion: baseball.
"I was (angry)," Ernst said. "I would tell people that came over that I felt good when I didn’t, but that was because I didn’t want pity.
"I just wanted people to be positive and to reinforce what I was already thinking – that I was going to beat this disease."
The same fuel that fed Ernst’s recovery fire burned inside him one morning in May, a year after his diagnosis. He had gone from being wheelchair bound to using a cane to using crutches; his armpits were raw and his body was weak, but his mind wasn’t. Ernst woke up, threw his crutches against the wall, got out of bed, took his first step with the help of no one and nothing and began to cry.
He walked into his next week-long chemotherapy session – it was his 14th and final treatment and the first time he’d been able to stand on two feet to meet the six-day treatment head on.
"He's amazing," Donna said of her son. "He went through over a year of grueling chemo and radiation treatment and just said the whole time that the disease wasn’t going to beat him.
"When he woke up that morning and walked by himself – there are no words that can describe it," she added.
Ernst doesn’t have to stay in the hospital anymore to receive chemotherapy treatments. The cancer that once took six days to aggressively attack now simply needs hour-long preventative treatments.
He returned to school Monday and will hopefully return to the pitching mound for the Spartans in the spring. In the meantime, Ernst’s chemo treatments end completely on Oct. 2.
"I never thought I’d be happy to go to school," Ernst said. "I never thought I’d actually appreciate sitting down and doing homework – I have homework.
"I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like not going to the hospital," he added. "Living a normal life again is the best thing I can ask for."
Tuesday’s pitch at Gwinnett Stadium was the culmination of a year of work for the now 190-pound Ernst, who had practiced with his brother in the family’s backyard.
"To see them throwing like they used to," Steve said. "It was relieving and exciting all at the same time.
The ball didn’t bounce or lob, it was a straight-shot to home plate followed by a fist pump from Ernst, who wears a small, black leg brace on his left leg to help with the re-strengthening.
"If I had two good legs, it would have been harder," Ernst said with a laugh.
"There are hardly words that can describe this experience," Donna said. "This time last year he couldn’t stand up by himself.
"Words aren’t strong enough to describe this," she said as tears filled her eyes.
The experience, however, doesn’t end there as Ernst will get an opportunity to meet his hero Mark Texeira in the spring thanks to the Make a Wish Foundation.
"I’d like to give him some hitting tips," Ernst said with a laugh. "I might only be 18, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know things.
"Life, it’s God’s greatest gift," he added.