Birdball: Nick Modico's Story

A few days ago, we reported that Nick Modico, a former Boston College student manager, was diagnosed and battling Ewing's Sarcoma. I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Nick about his story and how he ended up at BC, where he got where he is, and what the plan is from here on out

One thing you learn about Nick Modico is that, within a few emails, he's true to his word when he says he's completely, 100% honest. He doesn't hold anything back, doesn't pull punches, and is, as he puts it, "simultaneously charming and offensive." It makes asking the tough question relatively easier, knowing that an honest, open answer is almost assuredly on the way back.

"Baseball's always been a part of my life," said Nick, "even though I didn't start playing competitively until I was nine years old. I'm a northeast guy, born and raised in Putnam Valley, New York (about an hour or so north of New York City), and I landed at Boston College more by destiny than anything else."

Growing up in Westchester county, Modico was a Catholic school guy from start to finish; as a result, he applied to Catholic colleges out of high school, where he gained All-State honors and his school's all-time wins record. But he wasn't a power pitcher with a scouting report of a right-handed pitcher with a fastball in the low to mid-80s. "I relied on calling my own game and a power breaking ball," he said. "(That's) something a radar gun won't show you and therefore college recruiters weren't really interested in. Even though that was the case, I thought I could still be of service to some low-end D1 or D3 schools with great academics, but those never panned out. When I fell through, BC was there to catch me."

Modico tore his labrum in the summer before attending Boston College, something well-known as the death knell for a pitcher. Rather than make a poor first impression, Nick went to then-head coach Mik Aoki and asked if he could be of service to the team in any capacity with the possibility of trying out during his sophomore year. Aoki suggested that Nick become a team manager and described the job duties. Senior manager Dave Hasebroock helped acclimate the freshman from New York, and he was with the team as they followed up an NCAA tournament berth with a trip to the ACC Tournament. After the season, Coach Aoki left for Notre Dame with most of the staff.

Nick's career wouldn't quite go the way he planned it. He hung up his cleats prior to the 2011 season. In February of the next year (2012), he broke his tailbone playing in a game of intramural basketball. "There was no specific incident," said Nick. "I just couldn't sleep due to unbearable pain. I somehow ended up breaking it again in May while slipping on wet grass playing with a frisbee. 21 year olds don't just break tailbones."

A CT scan in July showed nothing according to the doctor Nick saw, but the pain grew increasingly worse. "As we look back now," he said, "the radiologist that day must've had something else going on because there were legitimately holes on my spine that he or she happened to miss."

This continued until November as Nick continued nights of sleepless pain. "I had a return trip home, and a few CT scans later, I found myself at Sloan Kettering's Pediatric Department," he said. That's where he received his diagnosis of Ewing's Sarcoma. "When the diagnosis came, it was very strange. I wasn't depressed, despite the disease having spread up and down my spine, into my shoulders, into my femurs, and one randomly on my kidney. If only one of these things had occurred, it would've been awful news. The fact that all of them occurred meant grave news.

"Despite its questionable accuracy, even a Wikipedia search will tell you localized Ewing's Sarcoma, one spot like Mark Herzlich, can be beat 85% of the time," he continued. "But once it has spread to anywhere else, that number drops to 15% and continues with dropping with each spot that shows up. Still, for some reason, I was and am content. I finally knew what was wrong with me, what all the aches and pains were, why I never felt well, and why I couldn't compete at the high level I used to be able to achieve."

After diagnosis, Nick underwent surgeries and treatment. He received a mediport, which allows for easier treatments of chemotherapy and other IV-related therapies by placing a catheter directly under the skin, under the collarbone in the chest wall. "The caveat? I get 3/4 inch needles to the chest just about weekly, and they stay there for the week," he said, then continued by joking, "Walking around with a needle in your chest is all the rage."

Starting in November, Nick received seven rounds of high dose chemotherapy. Due to his size and the pediatric nature of his disease, he received the maximum doses of each drug used. After seven cycles, the disease was dead, and the doctors at Sloan Kettering recommended a maintenance regimen of chemo to try and keep it away. But Nick's diagnosis was so advanced that, he says, "there was just about now way it was going to be gone for long. In early October, 2013, the scans came back with one vertebra showing activity - the cancer was back. At this point, anything Sloan Kettering could offer came in the form of clinical trials. Of these trials, the chance of my obtaining a second remission, according to the doctor, was 0%.

"The cold, honest truth is that living on chemo is not really living at all. As a result, I've sought out alternative therapies, which as led me south of the border."

These days, Nick is pursuing this alternative form of treatment in Tijuana, Mexico. His latest scans in December show the disease is advancing, but his hope is to get a consistent treatment schedule together, a difficult task given the damage to his bone marrow's production of white blood cells and platelets caused by his chemotherapy dosage in New York.

"The largest task I currently have," said Nick, "besides trying to beat a recurrent metastatic disease, is explaining to people how or why I'm not depressed or crushed about my condition or prognosis. Sloan gave me the death sentence in October (or November, realistically, of 2012) but hope does funny things to alter words and outlooks, and that's never phased me. I almost understand exactly what Lou Gehrig meant when he said he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. To know you've had an effect on others, advanced their lives, or affected them on a personal level is to be better or do better - that's more fulfulling than any full lifetime doing anything else on God's green Earth could ever be."

Nick remarks that his Birdball family members still keep in touch despite an overall negative experience had with current head coach Mike Gambino and his staff (or, as we would say, another story that will be told on another day). "The thing about fellow Eagles, Birdballers included, is that they become family, sometimes even closer than family," said Nick. "I always get texts or notes from the friends I made in Chestnut Hill, my roommates, and guys on the team checking in to see how things are going. I get a ton of love and support from them and could not be more thankful for it."

Despite his sickness, Nick returned home to watch his number become retired in New York. "When I went to my high school for the retirement ceremony for my beloved number 37, I was lucky enough to have a captive audience. And I made sure to get my point across - life is about living. Be aware that one day, one way or another, it will be over. Don't get lost in the little things in between - do your part to make a better tomorrow. Enjoy yourself every day. Live."

You can check in on Nick's blog at Modico37.blogspot.com.

(ed. note - Nick has since returned to New York to seek pain management treatment, per his latest blog entries)
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