Kentucky baseball player braves 13 eye surgeries to earn Blue Heart Award
Some people trace negative associations with the number 13 to The Last Supper. The belief that 13 is unlucky causes many hotel elevators to go from floor 12 to 14. Some people think Dan Marino’s curse as the greatest NFL quarterback never to win a Super Bowl is because he wore No. 13.
There’s even a word — triskaidekaphobia — for fear of the number.
Kentucky Wildcats catcher Kole Cottam can’t imagine choosing any other to wear on his jersey.
This spring, Cottam, a slugging sophomore (.296 batting average, 31 RBI) from Knoxville, has been a key contributor as first-year coach Nick Mingione’s UK team (31-15 through Friday) has been one of college baseball’s pleasant surprises.
To thrive in baseball, a sport in which eyesight is paramount, Cottam persevered through a childhood in which he underwent 13 surgeries around his right eye.
“The first one was when I was three months old,” Cottam said. “The last one was when I was in seventh grade. It was pretty crazy.”
Had you met the oldest of Jeff and Kori Cottam’s two boys when he was little, chances are good you would have thought Kole had a shiner around his right eye.
The technical term for what he had was congenital melanocytic nevus. In layman’s terms, he had a large mole, a birthmark, surrounding his right eye.
“It went down an inch or so, was kind of a circle that goes around the eyelid over towards my nose and over on the other side,” Kole said. “Nothing was on my eyeball itself, just surrounding my eyelids.”
Eventually, the cosmetic reasons for wanting to have such a mole removed might have proved compelling. But the reason doctors instructed Kole’s parents that the process had to begin only months after his birth was far more pressing.
The potential for large congenital nevi to become malignant is significant.
“I don’t remember a lot of the worst times,” Kole said. “I know it was really scary and hard for my parents.”
A pirate’s life
Jeff Cottam, a Delta Airlines pilot, said doctors presented the family with two approaches to Kole’s mole: an aggressive option that would involve trying to remove the nevi as quickly as possible; or a more conservative approach that would involve cutting out the birthmark with more surgeries spread out over a longer period.
“The aggressive approach seemed to carry more threat to Kole’s eye,” Jeff Cottam said. “We went with the conservative approach, even though it would mean more surgeries.”
For a mother, sending a newborn baby — in Kole’s case, one who had been born eight weeks prematurely at four pounds, eight ounces — into surgery was excruciating. Kori Cottam, an obstetrician and gynecologist, said being a doctor helped her cope.
“I’d still have a mother’s panic, all those feelings,” she said. “But the doctor in me would kick in, and I would be like, ‘OK, this is something we can manage.’”
Jeff and Kori were both athletes at the school now known as the University of Memphis, Jeff in baseball, Kori in basketball. Kole was born in Memphis, but his family moved to Knoxville when he was 2. Each of his 13 surgeries, however, was performed in Memphis, where Dr. James C. Fleming specialized in ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery.
After many of the surgeries, doctors would sew Kole’s right eye shut for recovery. For a little boy, not scratching that eye while sleeping was no easy task. His parents would take turns staying up all night, guarding his arms to make sure a sleeping Kole didn’t scratch the sewn-shut eye.
When they let their guard down, “I woke up one night, all bloody,” Kole says. “I was screaming. I (had been) scratching my eye, rubbing my eye.”
A Canada native, Jeff Cottam had a hockey mask lying around. “My dad was like, ‘Hey, sleep in my hockey helmet,’” Kole says. “So I slept in his hockey helmet so I couldn’t (scratch the eye). That was pretty funny.”
After surgeries, Kole would often have to wear an eye patch. “I would be going places, and someone would ask what happened,” he said. “Sometimes, I would make up a good story. I would tell them I got hit in the face with a ball. (Or) I got attacked by a bear, just something to keep people on their toes.”
When he started school, wearing the eye patch meant standing out in a conspicuous way.
“So third grade, it was right after Halloween, I had my patch on,” Kole said. “This little first-grader came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, man, Halloween’s over. You don’t have to dress like a pirate anymore.’”
Other times, the teasing Kole took felt less humorous.
“It was challenging,” Kole said. “There were days where I was so upset that I was just in my room. I would spend hours with my mom and dad, and they were just like, ‘Listen, this is what makes you you. No matter what happens, this is going to make you tougher in the long run.’”
Baseball as escape
From the time he started in tee-ball at age 5, Kole said, being on a ball diamond was an escape from concerns about his right eye.
“When you are playing the game, there’s nothing you want to think about but the game,” he said. “It’s just for love of the game you play. I really believe I’ve played (that way) since I was younger, not even worrying about my eye.”
Kole was in middle school at the time of the 13th and final surgery. He said that as far as doctors can tell, the nevi have been removed.
With all that behind him, Kole developed into a baseball star at Knoxville Catholic High School. He hit .489 with 54 RBI his senior season and was chosen Tennessee’s Class AA Mr. Baseball.
Brad Bohannon and Brian Green, assistants on the staff of then-UK baseball coach Gary Henderson, made Kentucky the first SEC school to recruit him. “When we took his first visit there, Kole just fell in love with Kentucky,” Jeff Cottam said.
A baby who entered the world at four pounds, eight ounces is now a 6-foot-3, 230-pound college catcher.
Vision in his right eye didn’t always equal that in his left when he was a child, but Kole says now he sees as well from each. “Everything is back to 20-20, if not close to it,” he said.
Still, when he takes the field at Cliff Hagan Stadium, he carries some remnants of what he dealt with as a child.
During games, you might see the Kentucky catcher fleetingly drop his head.
“I don’t have a tear duct,” he said. “Windy days, cold days, (my right eye) will water more. If you see me look down, sometimes it’s me getting a tear out of there.”
Mostly, the No. 13 that Kole chooses to wear on his uniform is designed to remind him — and, he hopes, others — that obstacles can be overcome.
“I’d love people to take away (that) when something is going tough, just stay through it,” Kole Cottam said, “and it will make you tougher in the end.”