All it takes is one photograph of Kobe Huynh with the Bates baseball team to know this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The picture is from Kobe’s first and only meeting with the Bobcats. In the foreground is the beaming face of Huynh, a vivacious 14-year-old boy from Auburn. In the background, looking at Huynh, is someone else wearing a huge grin, Bates junior infielder and former St. Dom’s star Alex Parker.

Bates baseball uploaded the photo to the team page on the college’s web site, with the headling “Baseball gets a new teammate.”

Less than three weeks later, the Sun Journal ran the same photo alongside a story memorializing Huynh, who was killed in a Feb. 21 car accident in New Hampshire.

News of Huynh’s death was a gut punch to a group of young men that was already reeling after learning of another death, that of their classmate, John Durkin, only a day earlier.

Knowing his players were already distressed by word of Durkin’s disappearance and death in Italy, head coach Mike Leonard waited until the Bobcats returned to campus from their annual season-opening tour of the South to deliver the news of their “teammate’s” tragic passing.

The Bobcats were just getting to know Huynh, an Auburn Middle School student who had been battling cancer. They had been introduced to each other by Team IMPACT, a non-profit organization that tries to improve the quality of life for children with life-threatening illnesses by matching them with college sports teams.

“As a coach here, I’m responsible for educating my players as students, as young men and also baseball players,” Leonard said. “So when we can find programs like Team IMPACT that kind of hit on all of those elements, you know, the bigger-picture stuff, and connect it to what they do in baseball…”

Kobe Huynh was the team’s first match through Team IMPACT.

The Bobcats invited Huynh to their team “draft party” and dinner. They welcomed him to the team by presenting him with his own Bates hat and jersey. They invited him to participate in team activities this season and not only consider them his teammates, but 33 big brothers who would show him what it was like to be a college baseball player.

“We wanted that to be the first of many opportunities to be around the team, and we really wanted him to know that he was welcome to attend as much or as little as he liked,” Leonard said. “He was grinning ear-to-ear for the entire two-and-a-half hours we had him here and he had a really good light to him. And he was giving more to our team than I think he ever would have realized.”

“Although I only got to meet Kobe once, his presence certainly had an impact on myself and my teammates,” Parker told the Sun Journal’s Douglas McIntire earlier this week.

“Kobe had so much heart and determination; seeing him battle so much adversity and always wear a smile on his face brought positive energy to every room he entered.”

The loss hit the players hard on two fronts, Leonard said.

As 18-to-22-year-olds, it is hard to conceive of someone younger losing their life. It is especially hard to conceive when someone who battled his disease so bravely and with so much optimism is taken away in a tragic accident.

Huynh’s father, Nghia, has been charged with negligent homicide and felony drunken driving for allegedly causing the three-vehicle crash that killed his son.

The emotional toll on the Bobcats is minuscule compared to the Huynh family’s grief, Leonard said. But he doesn’t hesitate when asked if he and his players are willing to stay involved with Team IMPACT.

“We’re very much continuing with the program,” he vowed.

The Bobcats will give another warm welcome to their next match in due time. But when they resume their season at Endicott next Saturday, Kobe Huynh will still be their teammate.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. His email is [email protected]

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