For the second time in less than six months, VCU Athletics has lost one of its own far too soon. In June, it was men’s soccer player Yoram Mwila. Saturday, it was longtime baseball coach Paul Keyes.
Although we knew Keyes was facing long odds – the last couple of status reports hadn’t sounded encouraging – we clung to hope. We prayed for one final ninth-inning comeback. It was not to be. Paul Keyes was an all-too-young 50 years old when he passed away. Damn cancer.
Keyes took a leave of absence in April to concentrate on fighting the disease. But after baseball season, he returned to the office a few days a week. He was noticeably thinner, and he talked a little softer, but overall, he seemed healthy and refreshed. There was a positive energy I hadn’t seen in him before. He seemed to appreciate the little stuff more.
I ran into “Keydog” early in the summer in the mailroom. He had been gone for a few months, fighting the damn cancer. I had been out of the office as well. My son was born three months premature and had spent more than 100 days in the hospital. I wanted to ask Keyes how he was doing and tell him that I was happy to see him in the office. But the only thing he wanted to talk about was my son. I appreciated that.
“How’s the little one?” he wanted to know. It wasn’t a long conversation, but after a few minutes, he offered simple, but undeniably true, words of encouragement. “Just love, man.” He delivered them with a warm smile. The good ones always seem to know the right thing to say.
We will miss him greatly, and I cannot begin to imagine the loss his wife, Trisha, and their three children, Paul Jr., MacKenzie and Kyle, are feeling right now. I hope they find peace in knowing Paul’s impact on others. He was a good man, and I hope someday it makes them smile.
Coaches, administrators, sports information guys, we don’t always choose to work in college athletics to help others. Sometimes we just want to find a way to pay the bills. But I can tell you this, helping others, impacting the lives of young people, it’s why everybody stays in college athletics.
Paul Keyes was the baseball coach at VCU for 18 years, not including his time as an assistant. He won a ton of games (603) and lifted VCU Baseball to unprecedented heights. But for all the trophies he won, for all the games he managed, none of it carried the weight of the lives he impacted.
We like to point out that 36 Paul Keyes’ players signed professional baseball contracts. That’s 36 guys living their boyhood dream, including major leaguers Sean Marshall, Brandon Inge, Scott Sizemore, Cla Meredith, Cody Eppley and Jason DuBois. But for every kid that Keyes helped become a pro baseball player, there were 20 more who became teachers, bankers, businessmen, firemen, you name it. Lives changed. Hundreds of 18-year-old high school kids walked out onto the field at The Diamond with wide eyes, but left four years later as men. That’s one hell of a legacy.
There’s a school of thought that the best way to preserve the legacy of loved ones lost, to keep them alive in our hearts, is to talk about them frequently and share their wisdom. A man only lives so long. An idea lives forever. With that in mind, I offer my memory of Keyes that I hope endures: Just love, man.