NC State making sure Chris Combs is not alone in his fight against ALS

Despite learning he has a life-threatening condition in May, the former baseball player is not ready to give up and neither is the NC State community

Tom Miller—
Chris Combs and his family pose with NC State baseball coach Elliott Avent prior to a game at Doak Field at Dail Park. Combs played baseball under Avent during his senior season.

Twenty years ago, Chris Combs was preparing for his senior season as a standout player for the NC State baseball team. A towering 6-foot-7 slugger and pitcher, Combs was known for battling on both the mound and at the plate.Now the 41-year-old father of three faces a different battle: in May he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS. Decades removed from his playing days, Combs still refuses to surrender.”For my family, I know I can’t quit,” Combs said. “My hands are the worst, but my whole body is weaker. Little things like buttoning buttons are tougher.”For someone of Combs’ athletic ability, the loss of basic day-to-day functionality is as difficult emotionally as it is physically. Combs did have superior skills in college, stacking up as one of the best to ever swing the bat for the Pack.”He had the most power of any player I’ve ever coached,” NC State baseball coach Elliott Avent said. “But he was so much more than that. He hit an [opposite field] grand slam against Clemson then threw 94 mph in the ninth. That doesn’t happen.””He did everything imaginable to win, so I wouldn’t count him out in anything.”Fortunately for Combs, he has the support of an entire university behind him.Outpouring of supportCombs’ life is entwined with NC State. One of his earliest memories is walking on the baseball field with his father, Francis Combs, a former baseball and football player in his own right. Chris eventually emerged as a star on the diamond before eventually becoming the Associate Director of the Wolfpack Club.It’s hard to find a more charismatic individual beloved in the Wolfpack community — Avent calls him a “special person that people love being around.” The tight-knit nature made it a natural fit when Mark Gottfried and his staff decided to grow out their beards during a no-shave November designed to raise awareness for ALS and Team Chris Combs.”I was really excited, to be honest,” Gottfried said. “There were a lot of people around town and in the Wolfpack Nation who started growing beards in honor of Chris Combs and his fight against ALS.”Chris and I went and got our beards shaved off together and that was fun. I appreciate everybody that jumped in and participated with us. It was a really meaningful thing.”The basketball beards were just the start for the Raleigh community. The H Street Kitchen, Ridgewood Wine & Beer Company and the Umstead in Cary — where the Hope Gala to Defeat ALS was held — all helped Team Chris Combs get the message out and raise more than $1 million to date.”Growing up here, NC State’s always been like my family,” Combs said. “The support the coaches have shown me has helped when I needed it the most. It’s been amazing to know I have them in my corner.”‘Chris was my favorite player’Avent and Combs only spent one season together, but it’s a friendship that has only grown stronger. NC State finished 43-20 in Avent’s rookie year, primarily because of Chris.The senior hit 17 of his 42 career homers that season, stole 14 bases and finished with a 2-2 record and 3.45 ERA. Oh, and he saved three games to boot. Avent admitted having Combs his first season made the transition back to Raleigh seamless.”As a coach, you’re supposed to stay away from words like ‘favorites,’ but Chris was my favorite player,” Avent said. “I only got to coach him for one year, but he made my first season special. The love that he has for NC State has helped us keep a special relationship ever since.”Combs echoed that sentiment nearly two decades after wrapping up his baseball career under Avent’s tutelage.”My senior year was the most fun year I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Chris said. “He means so much to me. Just having him calling and checking in along with raising awareness proves how much he respects his former players.”Avent hasn’t just supported the Combs family from afar. He’s visited with Chris at home and work office and the hospital and offered to relieve Chris wife, Gena, when it comes to driving Chris to appointments.So what makes this even more special? Avent truly never stops. The NC State skipper is usually meeting with recruits on the road, speaking at events or — as he was when we spoke — making time for players graduating in the winter or spring.But one person Avent always has time for is Chris. No exceptions.”I’ve always been a friend to him since he graduated,” Avent said. “Now I’m just trying to be there for him however he needs me and whenever he needs me.”Combs’ accomplishments on the field were one thing, but what he did later in life truly impressed those around him. When Combs became a husband to Gena and father to his daughters Anne Marie, 10, and Ava, 5, and his son, Christopher, 3, he became a brand new man.Always known for his athletic prowess and friendly nature, Combs took on a completely different demeanor as the leader of his own Pack.”The greatest asset he has was never achieved on the diamond,” Avent said. “He’s an unbelievable son. He’s a terrific father. He’s a wonderful husband. And he is a true friend to everyone that has ever come into contact with him.”He might have thought about himself initially [when he was diagnosed], but his attention immediately turned to Gena and his three beautiful kids. That’s just the man he is.”Family fighting for more tomorrows togetherFrancis has been through the ups and downs of NC State as a baseball player and now a member of the Wolfpack football radio broadcast crew for 50 years. He’s always found a way to turn negatives into positives, but nothing could have prepared him for the news in May.”At first it was kind of a shocker, just like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to my son,'” Francis said. “But the way people have responded let’s me know just how important he is to this community. The outpouring of support has just been overwhelming.”The reality is slowly sinking in.Chris outstretches his hand to everyone he speaks to despite his grip slowly fading. He still speaks at events and uses his voice for Project ALS and the ALS Foundation despite it slipping away.For Francis, it’s a delicate balance of helping to find a cure in time and making sure not to miss out on the tomorrows he has left with his son.”It’s really hard when I think about it,” Francis said. “Just hoping something comes along to save my son. But I can’t dwell on that because he’s still here.”It’s hard on Chris’ son, too. What does young Christopher think of his father? Simply, “He’s strong.”That strength is a constant theme throughout Chris’ life, but it’s never more evident than right now. And he’s only made stronger by those around him. Whether it’s Francis, Gena, his brother Ryan or the whole NC State community, Chris always has someone in his corner.”I would hope that my brother would understand that it didn’t take ALS for him to understand how much we love him,” Ryan Combs said, fighting back tears. “We’re a very close, small family. We’ve been in this together. We’re going to be in this together.”There’s never a day he’ll be on his own in this fight.”