Kevin Ticen, 33, treats his rectal cancer like another baseball injury and has not let the disease ruin his life.
So much joy.
You envy the way Kevin Ticen loves his life. He talks about it as if every day he cashes in a lottery ticket. He sounds like he sees rainbows that other eyes cannot detect. He cherishes everything about living — even the noise his three little children can make, even the struggles of financially supporting a family while following his dream of coaching baseball at the University of Washington.
Even his cancer.
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“I’ve basically lived every dream I’ve ever had,” the 33-year-old Ticen said.
He played college baseball at Washington despite being cut his freshman year. He traveled the world after college. He married the woman of his dreams. He became a father times three. Now he’s a volunteer assistant coach at his alma mater.
“I have nothing to complain about,” Ticen said. “That part makes you feel good.”
So much joy.
It’s a joy that overrides his current plight. He won’t complain about fighting rectal cancer. He won’t complain about having a colostomy bag. He won’t complain about lacking his trademark energy because treatment has pounded his body.
He won’t complain because he loves his life. And for a former baseball player who grinded his way to prominence, that love has always included struggle.
So don’t feel sorry for Ticen. Please don’t. He grew up in a game that demands you endure failure in order to enjoy success. He can remember playing so many games at 80 percent, 70 percent, 60 percent healthy. He thrived under those conditions, rising from a walk-on castoff to a member of the 1998 Pac-10 champion Huskies team to a co-captain as a senior. He’s using those experiences during this battle.
“Thank God it’s me who has cancer and not my wife, kids, mom or one of the guys on the team who has cancer,” Ticen said. “I know how to get through. You have good and bad days with this disease. In baseball, you have plenty of bad days. But you still have to know how to get a hit.
“So, can your 60 percent be better than that guy’s 100 percent? A lot of times, that’s baseball. I’m not running at full steam, but is my 60 percent better than that coach’s 100?”
In 1994, Ticen came to Washington to walk on the baseball team. He was a 160-pound catcher. He hadn’t really lifted weights before. He was overmatched, the “kid that can really hit but can’t compete at that level,” he said. Ken Knutson, who was the Huskies baseball coach then, cut him.
Ticen was heartbroken, but even worse, he felt defeated. His mother, Rita Ticen Burns, tried to comfort him.
“Kevin, the Huskies aren’t done with you yet,” she declared.
“Mom, they don’t need me,” Kevin replied.
“Well, we’ll see about that,” Mom shot back.
She inspired her son to continue. Ticen became the hardest worker on the team. He made the squad as a bullpen catcher, and by the end of his career, he had made a tough transition to third base and hit .322 with 15 homers and 51 runs batted in as a senior in 1999.
After a stint in professional baseball that included living in Austria, he returned to Washington state with a new dream: coaching. He was an assistant at Edmonds Community College. He coached the Chaffey Baseball youth team. He took a gig as the Washington director of baseball operations and served in that role for five years. Then last year, UW skipper Lindsay Meggs asked him to be the team’s volunteer assistant, a job in which he serves as the first-base coach, mentors catchers and gets paid by running team camps.
But then last fall came the cancer scare. It started with an upset stomach. Ticen thought he had an ulcer. Later, he learned the disturbing truth.
Ticen was horrified, at first. He had two young girls, Annika and Anja, and his wife, Michaela, was pregnant with their first boy, whom they would name Lukas.
“You hear the word cancer, and it’s such a shock,” Michaela said. “I didn’t even know what to say.”
Ticen sought the advice of a good friend, former Huskies standout Nick Stefonick, who led the Pac-10 in hitting in 1998. Stefonick is a leukemia survivor.
“Don’t ever say, ‘Why me?’ ” Stefonick told him.
“You know that’s not my style,” Ticen said. “Basically, this is mat drills all over again.”
So, Ticen grinded. Chemotherapy. Radiation. He didn’t even lose a pound through all the medical turmoil. Then, on Feb. 24, the opening week of this baseball season, he had surgery.
The worst part was not being on the baseball field. Several months earlier, Ticen, a gifted gabber, had become too emotional to tell his players that he had cancer. He loves the kids too much. He loves the program too much. Meggs sent him home and relayed the message to the team.
So, after surgery, his goal was to get back on the field as soon as possible.
“After his surgery, I drove up to see him,” Burns said. “His goal was to walk six laps around the hospital that first day. By the time I got there, he’d already done eight.”
Despite the cancer, Ticen has enjoyed a rewarding first season as a UW coach. On bad days, his 60 percent is as good as other coaches’ 100. Because of his fun-loving nature, the team can make jokes about even his colostomy bag, which they’ve never seen. It has helped remove the stigma that wearing it ruins your life. The vibe around the club has helped Ticen remain what he’s always wanted to be: a serious baseball man.
“I just treat the cancer like an injury,” Ticen said. “I’ve fought through so many injuries in my career. This is just another one. I feel like I have a responsibility to handle this in the best possible way. I have the responsibility to keep my head up and practice what I preach.
“Guys get hurt all the time. It hasn’t been a distraction for the players. It hasn’t been some fake inspirational thing for them. I’m happy about that. It’s not some made-for-Disney inspirational story.”
Why doesn’t he want to be an inspiration? His buddy Stefonick gave some insight.
“He doesn’t want the cancer to make it feel like he’s playing a victim,” Stefonick said. “As a baseball player, you fail seven times out of 10 at the plate and you’re a success. Sports are a great avenue for life. It brings a competitive fire. You don’t ever want to be considered a victim. Kevin doesn’t want to be considered an inspiration because sometimes there’s a weakness to that kind of talk. And what do athletes not want to show? Weakness.”
But there can be inspiration without weakness. Ticen has turned his cancer fight into a mere chore. This is like stretching to him. Or rehabbing an injured knee.
The disease is much more severe than that, but that’s how he acts. He’s expected to survive. And when he does, he won’t have to learn to live again.
Ticen has already mastered good living, even with cancer.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org