2012 All-Rowan County Baseball: Sport keeps Fulbright family positive in battle against cancer
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Nathan Fulbright was on top of the world after making the 2008 Rowan County Junior Legion team in 2008, but then his father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma — an often fatal form of cancer that begins in the plasma cells and goes on to attack bones and organs.
Glenn and Michelle Fulbright had to sit their son down and tell him there was a tough road ahead — more treatments and hospitals, than sports.
“Nathan had just turned 14 when Glenn was diagnosed,” Michelle said. “We explained there was going to be a lot going on and that it was up to him if he wanted to walk away from baseball or stay with it. He wanted to play. He said baseball gave him focus, that it would keep his life as normal as possible.”
When Glenn was diagnosed in 2008, doctors told him he had a 50 percent chance to live five years, and he’s still plugging along. His son’s baseball career has been one of the reasons he stays optimistic.
“I know he’s mine, but I’ve watched that kid face every challenge,” Glenn said. “I don’t inspire him — he inspires me.”
A highlight of every baseball season is the presentation of the Mark Norris Memorial Award that is given in memory of Mark Norris, a Salisbury baseball standout who was killed in a car wreck. From 1978-82, the award was given to Salisbury’s MVP but since 1983 the award has been presented to the Rowan County Player of the year.
The latest Norris Award winner, as you’ve figured out by now, is East Rowan catcher Nathan Fulbright, and Post sports editor Ronnie Gallagher invited his parents out to Newman Park for the all-county photo shoot, because this time, it’s truly a family award.
“We’ve had so many close calls,” Michelle said. “So for Glenn to get to see this day, it’s just a blessing.”
Fulbright has played baseball 44 weeks a year, at least 80 games a year, since he was 9 years old. As much as he loves to hunt and fish, most of his life is baseball.
“Nathan was never the biggest or the fastest and he was never picked first when they chose up sides,” Glenn said. “But no one has ever outworked him. That he’s receiving this award surprises me, but he deserves it. I know how dedicated he is to baseball.”
From the day his father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, Nathan threw himself even harder into baseball.
The best way to relieve stress and frustration when his father was having a difficult day was to swing away at a 5-gallon bucket of balls.
“Baseball was always my escape,” Nathan said.
Baseball was also the outlet for his parents.
“When we went out to the ballpark at 5 o’clock to watch Nathan, that’s when cancer shut down,” Glenn said.
The dedicated player was in the right program. There’s no questioning East coach Brian Hightower’s dedication and love of the game.
Even with all his parents were dealing with, Fulbright didn’t miss a single one of Hightower’s “voluntary workouts” for four years. Before he could drive, teammates Alex Litaker and Matt Miller made sure he always got there.
“Hightower is a dedicated coach and this part of the county is dedicated,” Glenn said. “Whether it’s 105 degrees in July or 5 degrees in January, if you drive through Granite Quarry, Rockwell or Faith, and you’ll see a father and son throwing a baseball.”
Fulbright was a year younger than Luke Thomas, another fine East catcher, so his first opportunities as a varsity Mustang came as a sophomore DH on the 2010 3A state championship team.
As a junior, he started in left field, a position he’d manned in Junior Legion.
As a senior, with Thomas graduated, he moved to his natural spot behind the plate and shined. He batted a team-high .368 against the county’s most challenging schedule and led the Mustangs with 21 RBIs.
“I had a blast catching,” Fulbright said. “You’re kind of the quarterback of the team, running the show.”
Glenn declared quietly that “money isn’t growing on trees” around the house, so if Nathan was going to college, he needed help. He was at Guilford’s baseball camp when someone didn’t show up and a sub was needed to catch a bullpen.
“Hey, kid,” a coach said, “Would you mind?”
Fulbright grabbed his gear, hustled over and said, “Where do you want me?”
His attitude impressed Guilford coaches as much as his bat and catching skills, and they started recruiting him.
That’s where he’s headed in the fall. It’s Division III, so there’s no athletic scholarship per se, but his 3.8 GPA and baseball skills led to a lot of academic money. Through all the emotional ups and downs, he’s never let his grades slide.
“You tell a 14-year-old kid his dad’s got cancer, and there’s about a 101 ways he could go,” Glenn said. “No one could’ve blamed him if he’d gone wrong, but he’s always done it right.”
There were a lot of Fulbright moments this season.
In the NPC tournament, with the Mustangs down to their last out and last strike against West Iredell standout Sean Grant, the 5-foot-8 Fulbright hammered a line drive off the fence in left field.
He had a great season, but he was genuinely amazed to join the distinguished list of Norris Award winners.
“I think he’s always stayed humble and stayed true,” Michelle said. “He’s given us a lot of happiness, and baseball has kept everything together for him in a positive way.”