Remembering Alex Wilcox and a life spent loving softball

Teammates of Alex Wilcox marveled at how Wilcox refused to back down to any opposition. Courtesy Blake Williams

The words are difficult to read. Difficult to read in the stories about the life Alex Wilcox lived. Difficult to read in the stories about a death she held at arm's length as long as she could.

Diagnosed with ovarian cancer over the Christmas break of her junior year in high school, Wilcox died Monday night after a two and a half year battle with the disease. And two and a half months after the final at-bat of her freshman softball season at Mississippi State.

But most of all, it is difficult to read her own words. The words that, in my head, I can't help but hear in her voice, the way she spoke them before they were transcribed on a computer screen.

The voice that saunters through sentences in that distinctive Alabama cadence is polite. It sounds cautious, almost embarrassed, in all but the few moments when the subject turns to softball. When chemotherapy, academic scheduling, parental relationships and such are no longer the topic, the words then pick up pace and come more confidently.

That voice belongs to an 18-year-old who is full of life. Yet the same words on the screen are now also the record of a young woman who didn't get to celebrate her 19th birthday.

It is difficult to make sense of that. It is difficult to know whether to try and use words now to celebrate the life she lived or use them to curse the circumstances that took that life away from her.

Except that her own words made clear the choice she made two and a half years ago and lived every day thereafter, no matter the dark clouds that were always gathering, roiling on the horizon.

"I knew it was something that I just didn't have a choice," Wilcox said of being diagnosed with cancer. "It was something I was going to have to deal with, for a little bit anyways, and I was just looking forward to dominating, dominating it in every sense that I could. So it was just trying to figure out how I could do that every day and still do what I love to do."

That was what allowed so many people to connect to her story, players and coaches from across the country sending messages of support or wearing teal to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. Destined to become a name everyone in softball knew because of how well she played the game, a once-in-a-decade recruit for a program like Mississippi State as a pitcher and hitter, she instead became known because of how much she wanted to play.

She played through chemotherapy and won championships in high school. She played through setbacks and surgeries, enrolling in online classes in college so she could stay eligible this spring while balancing medical treatments in Starkville, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama. She would be away getting treatment one day, Mississippi State assistant Samantha Ricketts recalled this spring, and the next day show up in full uniform for practice -- or as much of it as she could physically handle.

Wilcox was willing to be a spokesperson for fighting the disease, even if she didn't think she was particularly good with words. She took on that burden with grace. But she just wanted to play.

I wanted to understand where that motivation came from when we spoke on the phone. What was it about softball that so got into her bones that it was seemingly almost as effective a vanguard as radiation against the ultimately unstoppable invading disease? I came away still unsure. Perhaps I didn't ask the right questions. Perhaps I missed cues to follow up, dig deeper. But maybe even she didn't know the reasons. It was the camaraderie of a team. It was the thrill of competition, the rush of success. It was the challenge of controlling a game from the pitching circle or beating the odds always stacked against you in the batter's box.

It was all of it -- it was just softball. It was, as she put it, what she had always done.

It was as if she was in control as long as she had that.

That she played at all this spring was remarkable. A good fall practice season to begin her time at Mississippi State was undone by another tumor and another surgery over the winter. As hesitant as anyone was to say so out loud, there was an urgency to get her on the field this spring while it was still possible. The more times the cancer returned, the less likely the story ended well.

So it is difficult to know what to make of those 15 at-bats and three hits she accumulated. They shouldn't be the sum total of a softball career, nor should a softball career be the sum total a life. But in a world in which we too often try to ascribe honor and valor to home runs and strikeouts, those numbers do reveal something about character and dignity.

I never saw Wilcox play in person, never got a chance to speak to her face to face. But I will always hear that voice.

"At the softball field I forget everything else going on," Wilcox said this spring. "It's something that I can go to and get away from everything else that is actually going on."

Those are haunting words now. But there is a sentiment to live by in them. A sentiment she did live by.