Local legend says that he was born into a baseball mitt and that his first words were “take me out to the ballgame.” Some say he could hit the ball 300 feet before he could walk. The truth is that David Hopkins is a baseball phenom. In 2009, David led Cole Middle School to a state championship, being selected two-time MVP of the team. By the close of his sophomore year at EGHS, David was two-time MVP of the Avengers varsity baseball team and a 2011 First Team All-State selection. He spent this past summer playing Post Two Legion baseball as well as playing for the elite New England Prospects team which accumulates the finest players from all over New England. David was selected as one of the top 120 underclassmen baseball players in the country and participated in the Prospect Wire National All-American Underclassmen Tournament in Florida in August. He was also selected to be part of the Summer Rivalry Classic, a wooden bat tournament founded by former Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski, where high school students from the eastern United States are chosen for participation by college coaches and MLB scouts.
David will be one of the captains of the EGHS baseball team for the upcoming season and he has high expectations for the Avengers, hoping to best last season’s impressive final four finish. Under the leadership of Head Coach Bob Downey and Pitching Coach Scott “Woody” Woodward, the Avengers have been shaking things up in the RI Interscholastic League’s Division 1 baseball pecking order and David Hopkins is one huge reason why. He is admired by teammates, coaches, fans, and even by his opponents. Yes, he’s that good. Most of us already know all this about "Hop", but what you might not know is that David Hopkins is the courageous survivor of a childhood cancer, leukemia to be exact.
Hop was an EG Little League mega-star. Jim Whittaker, David’s T-ball coach, said he was “amazed” the first time he saw David catch and throw the ball. “You knew right away that David was something special,” Whittaker remembers. His middle school coach, Mark Streich, called him “the best player in the state” after David’s impressive pitching performances and overall play in the middle school playoffs and championship game. Yet when it came time to make a choice about high school, David was one local boy who wasn’t charmed by private school offers. David wanted to play for Coach Downey. David remembers falling in love with baseball while “playing on the 9-10 year old tournament team for EG" where he and his teammates developed “a chemistry on the field” and strong friendships off it. Mostly David was determined to play for his hometown because his hometown had done so much for him when he was sick.
David’s mom, Beth Hopkins, a nurse, remembers seeing David, then age 8, struggle to catch his breath after running the bases in a Little League game played in Chariho. She worried that David might be developing exercise induced asthma. The next Monday she noticed he looked “very, very pale.” Kevin Hopkins, David's father, remembers the game as well. “That was the last game David played before his diagnosis.” That diagnosis would come on September 9, 2002. David Hopkins was suffering from leukemia, a cancer of the blood. David would need 2 ½ years of chemotherapy given intravenously through a port placed in his left chest. That port, feeding into the large vessels around David’s heart, needed to be protected if David wanted to continue to play baseball during his treatment. During that time David Hopkins never missed a baseball season. Even as David began to lose his hair and his body began to swell from chemotherapy, he played baseball. Beth Hopkins knew he would. David always loved baseball and he was made for it. “No matter what you put in his hands, he swung it like a baseball bat. That’s why he had to give up violin. He was winging the instrument around like a bat all the time,” she recalls chuckling.
But playing through treatment would pose some difficult problems. For instance, in the Little League Championship game that season, David scored the winning run by stealing home and as he slid across the plate, his teammates swarmed on top of him. Coach Bill Gordon and Kevin Hopkins ran out to retrieve David from the bottom of the scrum knowing his chemotherapy port could not withstand that kind of pressure. Yet, his parents agreed that David was always happiest amongst his teammates and friends so David continued to play baseball. Many of his teammates from those early days like Scott Cullinane, Kevin Mason, Jeremy Streich, Alex Cleary, and Kyle Palmer are still his teammates today. As fate would have it, David’s last at bat in his Little League career would come at age 12 on the same field in Chariho where he had struggled to catch his breath nearly four years before. Hop hit a homerun.
David Hopkins has been the starting shortstop and a top pitcher for the varsity team since his freshman year, hitting over .600 last season as a sophomore. Coach Downey says, “David plays with no fear. He wants the ball in pressure situations and is not afraid to fail. That is so big in the game of baseball.” Downey has created a D-1 program that keeps talented players in EG and gives them a chance to compete against the best of the best in the state. Known for developing strong bonds with his players and being committed to helping young players reach their goals, Coach Downey believes that EG has the talent and the ability to compete with anyone. He calls David “a fierce competitor and a top 5 player in the state as only a sophomore.” People with David’s kind of talent often have an ego to match. Yet David is a leader who believes in team first. Downey describes all four captains for this year that way. “Dave, Scott Cullinane, Derek Messier, and Kevin Mason, you can’t find a group of captains that are more team-oriented.” This kind of leadership and team play has quickly moved EG up the ranks in D-1 ball. The Avengers impressively knocked off a heavily-favored Lincoln team en route to the final four last season before falling to Cranston West in the semifinals. As Downey looks to next season he believes the Avengers have a great core of returning player who got vital playoff experience in pressure situations last year. “I want to build off last year’s run. The goal is to get to McCoy.” Coach Downey and his players know this will take hard work but hard work is no stranger to David Hopkins.
David is always working on some part of his game and he is at the gym every day in the off-season. It is rare for such a natural talent to work as hard as David does and many of his coaches and teammates believe this is what sets David apart. Scott Cullinane, the team’s catcher, simply calls him, “a winner.” Cullinane adds, “Hop will do everything he can to make sure we get the ‘W’ at the end of the day.” Downey says Hopkins is as committed and focused a ball player as he has ever seen, emphasizing that Hop “never complains and is the first guy to practice every day.” His coach goes on to describe Hopkins as “an unbelievable player who elevates the play of everyone around him and who listens to everything you have to say.” Teammates say David lives by a “respect the game above all else” credo. No one works harder, plays harder, or respects the game more. David is a rare talent by any measure, but what makes David such a force to be reckoned with on the field has as much to do with the intangible factors. David has an innate sense of the game. No one outhustles him or has the uncanny ability to crank it up to another gear when the game is on the line like Hop. There is no “quit” in his vocabulary. Yet if you were to go to David’s room, you would find no evidence of his extraordinary baseball career to this point. No trophies, ribbons, medals, certificates, or glass encased baseballs. Hop plays for the love of the game and because he believes baseball helped save his life.
President John F. Kennedy’s 1956 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, sought to bring to light the kind of political courage men can exhibit when they follow their conscience. Courage comes in many forms and for most of us courage means facing life’s storms as bravely as possible, oftentimes being unsure of the outcome or even where the strength to face such storms will come from. Yet President Kennedy believed that stories about courage inform us, teach us, and inspire us. But, he warned, “they do not supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul. Yet when we rise to meet the challenge of courage, it is a magnificent moment.” David Hopkins knows this to be true. For Hop, a chance to play for the state baseball championship at McCoy Stadium is only icing on the cake.
This article first appeared in the winter edition of the EGHS newspaper, The Spectrum. The long list of David’s accomplishments was generously recounted to me by David’s coaches, teammates, fans, and friends. In my interview with David he focused on praising his teammates and coaches and on what he needs to do to prepare for the upcoming season. While this will not surprise anyone who knows Hop, it remains remarkable and inspiring.