Caleb Holcomb has never served a tennis ball over a net. He has never returned a volley.
The 11-year-old, a fourth-grade student at Englewood Elementary, is not a prodigy, but he became a member of the University of Alabama men’s team Wednesday.
He signed a national letter of intent with the Crimson Tide at a ceremony at Coleman Coliseum at 5:04 p.m., and UA coach George Husack added his signature to make it official.
Caleb watches football, tennis, any sport you can name, on television. He hasn’t been able to participate because he has a rare immune deficiency condition that prevents his body from producing enough antibodies to fight bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Ronnie Holcomb, his father, had never heard of hypogammaglobulinemia until six years ago, when Caleb was diagnosed. He still can’t pronounce it. He just knew his son suffered from constant ear and sinus infections and couldn’t seem to shake them.
“He was sick all the time,” the father said.
Starting at age 5, Caleb has been driven an hour each way by his father and mother, Patty, to Children’s of Alabama hospital in Birmingham every four weeks for intravenous infusions of medication.
“Bad sometimes,” he said of the trips. “It hurts.”
Sometimes it’s worse: “More hurt.”
Caleb took an interest in tennis because his older brother Aaron played. About six weeks ago, the nonprofit organization Team IMPACT approached the Alabama tennis team about having him join.
“It was a no-brainer for us,” Husack said.
Caleb came out to a practice on a cold, blustery day. He came to matches. He became a fan. The team embraced him.
“I didn’t know his story,” said Edson Ortiz, a sophomore UA tennis player from Chihuahua, Mexico. “I didn’t know who he was. Then I heard his story and all he’s been through, it’s humbling to have him around and see how lucky we are.
“This makes an impact on us and at the same time we’re having an impact on him.”
Said teammate Alexey Nesterov, who is from Moscow, Russia, “It’s a special moment for all of us. It feels great to do something for kids, especially for someone in a situation like his.”
The signing puts things in perspective for a team that will be playing next week in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s about tennis, but it’s not about tennis. It’s about life,” Husack said. “We don’t have to go to a hospital every four weeks for a ton of shots just to stay alive. A missed shot, a sore ankle, a lost match or a missed recruit, it’s not that big in the scheme of things.”
Caleb was presented with a racquet, balls, an Alabama T-shirt and cap upon his signing. He joined the team for a pizza party.
“It’s exciting,” his father said. “Overwhelming.”
Six years ago, when he was diagnosed, Ronnie Holcomb wasn’t sure his son would be around. Now Caleb has been off his every-four-weeks treatment for a year. There’s hope he may be done with them for good.
Summers are better for Caleb’s condition. Winters bring on the dangers of colds and flu. He already has plans for the coming months.
“Practice tennis,” he said.
Click HERE to see more photos from the signing ceremony.