Rounding the Bases: Kevin Graber’s Journey From Player to Coach, With Cancer In Between

As a child, Kevin Graber lived across the street from a prison guard training field. Graber never dreamed of becoming one of those prison guards, but he was drawn to the neighboring softball field, the same grounds on which he and his dad used to hit buckets of baseballs after school.

In his sixth season at Andover, Graber, Associate Dean of Admissions and Andover Varsity Baseball Coach, has led his team to two consecutive Central New England Prep Baseball Championships. Years of experience in coaching, backed by a noteworthy career in the Minor Leagues, have helped Graber, or “KG,” turn Andover into the biggest force in the league. His greatest struggle, however, could not be cured on the baseball diamond.

The biggest day of Graber’s life came one month early. In the May of 1992, a month before the June MLB Draft, the promising Senior at the College of Saint Rose received some disheartening news. Instead of spring training, he was to report to immediately to the hospital, specifically: the chemotherapy department.

At the age of 21, Graber was diagnosed with life-threatening lymphoma. Needless to say, his draft stock took quite a hit.

“It was difficult timing, not to mention the fact that I wasn’t feeling well and that I got this really terrible news that you don’t really know how to process when you are 21 years old. [I had] a lot of different emotions. The first question was, ‘Will I ever be able to play baseball again?’” said Graber.

The answer was yes, but not for a long time.

According to Graber, chemotherapy was devastating and exhausting, but he was able to get back on the field after over a year of cancer therapy. A coaching stint at Lassen College in Susanville, California, instilled new life in him. He said the sunshine and elevation rejuvenated him, and he slowly took the steps towards playing again.

That summer, Graber returned home to upstate New York when he heard about an opening in the Australian Baseball League. With no guarantee of making the team, Graber flew over to Australia and was in the starting lineup that same day.

Although it was halfway around the world, Australia was just another field for Graber, and he ended up flourishing there.

“That first game, being on the field, being in a uniform after coming back from cancer [was my greatest baseball memory],” said Graber. “Just being back, hearing the noises, smelling the grass and knowing that I accomplished something that I never knew was going to happen made me a little emotional. I was literally out there at shortstop, and I was tearing up a little bit.”

After playing two seasons with the Pine River Rapids as the starting shortstop, Graber decided to move on, signing his first Minor League contract shortly after a Spring Training camp in Arizona.

“It was a neat story of my little comeback. I clearly wasn’t a Major League Baseball prospect anymore, but I was able to get back on the field for parts of four seasons and play pretty well,” said Graber.

When Graber made his comeback from cancer, he made headlines for his recovery. Graber said he was bothered by the attention. He wanted to be recognized as a good, professional baseball player, not as the man who defeated cancer.

In his best season, Graber batted .311 for the Southern Minnesota Stars, but the next year a recurrence of cancer forced 27-year-old Graber to shut down again.

What ultimately ended his playing career would go on to spur his coaching career. “Someone asked me, ‘What if you managed in professional baseball?’ and I answered, ‘Well, what does it pay?’ They answered not much, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ll do it,’” said Graber.

Graber managed his former team, the Stars, for two seasons before eventually becoming the Assistant Athletic Director and Head Baseball Coach at the University of West Alabama.

He later moved to Amherst College, where he took on multiple roles, including one as Assistant Baseball Coach. While at Amherst College, Graber decided to pursue teaching and quit his coaching job. He was a residence director at UMass Amherst when he met Jane Fried, who at the time was the Director of Admission at Andover.

“The thing that intrigued me about Andover is that we have really smart kids, so we can do some pretty complicated, cool things in terms of teaching techniques and what we run on offense and defense. We actually do some things here that I would never dream about doing in professional baseball,” said Graber.

Graber is quick to direct all praise to his players, to whom he credits the team’s success.

“I just love to coach guys that I would have loved to have as teammates,” said Graber. “I don’t demand respect. I don’t even like to be called coach. I much prefer to be called KG. I’d rather earn respect by showing them that I’m organized, showing them that I know what I’m doing and by earning their trust.”

Needless to say, Graber’s players admire him as more than the man who beat cancer. In him they find a confidant, mentor and, above all, a man coaching the game he loves.

“KG has been a huge part of my time of the past four years. He has been a tremendous coach, a great mentor and just a great guy to be around,” said Co-Captain Mark Sullivan ’14. “He is awesome both on and off the field. We love to spend time at his house, and he obviously knows what he is doing on the field. His baseball IQ is incredible and he knows how to get along with the guys.”

John Simourian ’16 added, “He prepares us better than any other coaches prepare their teams. From a trust standpoint, I can always go to KG for anything I need. He’s more than just a coach. He’s a great mentor, and he is always looking out for us.”