Commentary

Majam experiences roller-coaster year

Originally Published: February 10, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

When the ball in Times Square dropped to welcome in 2010, followed five hours later by similar festivities in Hawaii, Kelly Majam had yet to play an official college softball game. When revelers again gathered together to usher in a new year 12 months later, she was by herself, prohibited from contact with family and friends and alone with thoughts of a close call with cancer.

[+] EnlargeKelly Majam
Jay Metzger, Hawai'i AthleticsAfter a stellar freshman season, Kelly Majam is back for more.

In the lines connecting those two points in time is a year in which Majam lived a lifetime.

If any person earned the right to let a little success go to her head in 2010, it was Majam. The University of Hawaii outfielder led the NCAA in home runs last season as a redshirt freshman. In so doing, she led her team to a conference title, an NCAA single-season home run record and an NCAA tournament upset against top-seeded Alabama, a result that earned the Rainbow Wahine the program's first trip to the Women's College World Series. That effort, in turn, earned Majam an invite to mingle with stars and celebrities at the ESPYS Awards.

But a matter of weeks later, she got an invitation of another sort, one that filled her with dread, not delight. It came by way of a call from the doctor's office, asking if she could come in to talk about the results of what had seemed to her like little more than a precautionary biopsy.

"At that point, when they call you and tell you to come back in, you usually know that something is the matter if they don't want to tell you over the phone," Majam said.

Accompanied by her mom and older sister, she sat and listened to the doctors tell her she had thyroid cancer. The good news was it was a highly treatable form of cancer with an excellent prognosis for recovery, but for a 20-year-old athlete in the prime of life, the best-case scenario for the worst day of your life remains, at its core, the worst day of your life.

And so it starts to become clear why, as she prepares to play in Hawaii's opener, success isn't likely to go to Majam's head. Other parts of her body won't let her forget her place.

Last season's stellar debut actually marked the culmination of Majam's first comeback. A prized recruit for a program that rose to national significance under Bob Coolen's watch largely on the strength of local kids overlooked by the mainland, occasional Australian imports and diamonds in the rough delivered from California, Majam was set to lead the lineup as a true freshman. But with only a few outs remaining in the team's final fall exhibition game that first year, she tore her ACL and was forced to spend the spring of 2009 watching and rehabbing.

"I've had many trying times, but that definitely helps me appreciate softball," Majam said. "I think growing up, a lot of girls take it for granted, just because we play so many games throughout the summer, we play high school softball -- I think that you take the game you love for granted. When it got taken away from me [by the ACL injury], I definitely appreciated it more. I appreciated fly balls and just getting to run around on the grass and hitting off a tee, just all the little things that I definitely was taking for granted."

She looked like a player enjoying herself when she finally got on the field last season, no matter how much misery she doled out to pitchers. Majam hit 30 home runs in 66 games, adding a .519 on-base percentage as the Rainbow Wahine's primary leadoff hitter. Just for good measure, lest anyone think her one-dimensional, she played flawless defense in center field, going the entire season without an error. When she went down with the knee injury as a true freshman, Coolen admitted he was devastated and told his coaches it changed the team's entire makeup. For proof, consider that the lineup she returned to last season shattered the NCAA record with 158 home runs.

[+] EnlargeKelly Majam
Nanci CoolenMajam and the Rainbow Wahine were honored at the ESPYs.

"Kelly was one of those impact players where, once you get her into your program, everyone elevates their games to her standards," Coolen said. "Just by what she does, not by what she says, not by anything else. It's just her work ethic."

From those new heights, Hawaii looked out over a vista of the most successful season in program history. The Rainbow Wahine cruised through the Western Athletic Conference with a 19-1 record, including a perfect 11-0 mark away from home. After closing the regular season at home in Honolulu, they began a month-long postseason trek by winning the conference tournament in New Mexico and earning the final of 16 national seeds in the NCAA tournament.

The following week sent them to Stanford for an NCAA tournament regional (seed or no seed, the geographical concerns in play for the regional round of the NCAA tournament make it almost impossible for Hawaii to ever host). They swept through UC Davis, Stanford and Texas Tech by a combined 23-6 margin. Then came the magic in Tuscaloosa. After dropping the opening game of a best-of-three series against a Crimson Tide team that was, at that point in time, 126-12 at home over the past four seasons, Hawaii rallied for back-to-back wins, the last coming on Jenna Rodriguez's two-out, walk-off home run -- with Majam on first base after a leadoff walk.

The run ended the next week in the World Series, but not before Hawaii won its opening game against Missouri and solidified its newfound place as many fans' second-favorite team in good fights against UCLA and Arizona, legendary programs on their way to a championship clash.

"It was one of the most exciting things in my life," Majam said of the postseason run. "I had been growing up watching the World Series since I was about 5 and seeing really awesome teams go the World Series and play amazing games. I'd always wanted to be in Oklahoma City and playing on that field. I told Coach Bob, when I was being recruited, one of my goals was to go the World Series. I told him that I thought that this program could do it."

Early in that run, however, Majam woke up one morning at the WAC tournament and noticed a lump in her throat that made things like taking a big gulp of water painful. She mentioned it to a trainer, but the adrenaline of the games on the field kept it largely out of her mind. And by the time the team arrived in Stanford for the regional, it had become less noticeable to her, certainly nothing that seemed like it needed special attention before the end of the season. But in the afterglow of the World Series trip and the ESPYS experience, she did go to the family doctor, who referred her to a specialist. Days after the biopsy, she got the call to come into the office.

[+] EnlargeKelly Majam
Tony AvelarAfter an offseason spent fighting thyroid cancer, Majam is happy to be back among teammates.

Majam's cancer didn't require chemotherapy, but less than a week after she was diagnosed, she underwent surgery to remove her thyroid. She was able to return to school and participate in the fall softball season, but the final element of threatment was radiation therapy over winter break. It was that treatment that necessitated four days of isolation at home over Near Year's and the slightly surreal scenes in which she would wait on one side of the room while her mom delivered her food, maintaing the necessary distance and picking up her meal only when the room was once again empty.

Much as the phsycial ordeal of coming back from the knee injury reinforced the joy of something as simple as chasing a fly ball, cancer offered a mental test and its own new perspective.

"Going through this cancer treatment, I think that it definitely does the same exact thing, and more on a life scale, as well," Majam said. "Just not taking my family for granted, my friends for granted and my boyfriend for granted and stuff like that. Just not taking those things for granted anymore and really appreciating what I've been given, including softball."

In preparation for the radiation therapy, Majam had to temporarily stop the hormone treament that will continue for the rest of her life and help regulate that which her thyroid used to. As a result of that and a newly stringent diet for someone who liked to tell Coolen how much she loved eating, preseason was a battle against fatigue, a person well deserving of the adjective "bubbly" now pacing herself in drills and napping frequently. Coolen said she is now operating at about 75 percent; Majam offered a more optimisic, if perhaps biased guess of 95 percent.

"She works very hard in the weight room," Coolen said. "Her stature is very small; her heart is very big. And her mind overcomes, at times, her pain or her inability to do the things that she did last year. So right now, it's just a matter of what is it she's going to have to do to recapture what she did last year."

Last year began with uncertainty and concluded in much the same manner, interrupted somewhere in the middle by the best and worst days of her young life. All of which served to remind Majam that whether the future holds still better days, or even still worse ones, the only thing she can do is make the most of the day in front of her when the alarm clock goes off.

"2010 was definitely a roller coaster, going to the World Series and then going to the ESPYS and then getting cancer and going through all that," Majam said. "It was definitely an interesting year. But I'm excited for this season, I'm ready for it to start and for a new chapter to start. I'm ready to close that door and start a new one. I want to repeat what we did last year with the World Series and with the awesome season. That part of the year I want to repeat."

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.