I play for him: Childhood loss of his brother drives Demon closer Kyle Froehlich

Whenever Kyle Froehlich runs in from the bullpen – at home or away, with his team leading or trailing – he never comes in alone.

Northwestern State’s junior closer doesn’t say he has a guardian angel. Instead, it is a feeling of calm that surrounds him on the mound, even in the most pressure-filled situations.

That serenity comes from a place of loss – the death of his older brother Clark, who died Jan. 5, 2013, after a year-plus-long battle with Burkitt’s Leukemia. Clark’s death gave Kyle, then 11 years old, a premature maturity that he has carried with him on his journey to Division I baseball.

“It’s more of a calming or a guiding feeling,” said Kyle, who his 3-1 with four saves for Northwestern State, which hosts Incarnate Word at 6:30 p.m. Friday in the opener of a three-game Southland Conference series.

“It helps put my struggles or whatever I’m going through in perspective. A bad day at the baseball field isn’t really a bad day. That’s helped shape my world view. I had to grow up a little faster emotionally. I didn’t let those hard times or struggles get to me in those situations. I knew (this year) wasn’t going to be great the whole time, but knowing I can play for him definitely has a calming effect on the outcome.”

Whether it was shaped by Clark’s death or by being raised in small-town Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Canada (population 4,401), Kyle’s presence at the back end of the NSU bullpen has had a calming effect on the Demons (19-15, 5-4), who play their next six Southland Conference games at home.

A Colby Community College transfer, Kyle burst from the gate, allowing just two runs in his first 15 2-3 innings while going 2-0 with four saves in those 10 appearances. Froehlich’s emergence as the NSU closer came organically, which fits head coach Bobby Barbier’s preferred method of building a bullpen.

“Fro’s the guy you want your pitching staff to learn from,” Barbier said. “He goes about his work every day like he’s supposed to. He works really hard in the weight room. I see him in the training room doing his recovery all the time with (athletic trainer) Ms. Brittany (Goldberg). He’s the guy who has a good attitude all the time. He’s the guy you want your young guys to learn from.”

Kyle’s leadership style is a direct reflection of the lessons learned from his family’s loss.

Kyle was less than two years younger than Clark, who was the oldest of the three Froehlich children – someone Kyle “looked up to the whole way.” Different in personalities as children – Clark was “calculated” in Kyle’s words while Kyle said his younger self was more “rambunctious” – Kyle Froehlich understood what the loss of his oldest sibling meant for the family dynamic.

“I was the middle child – outgoing, getting into trouble, doing crazy things,” Kyle said. “When it happened, I took on the persona of ‘I have to be more responsible. I have to be the older brother to my younger sister.’ I think that’s how I coped – taking on that new role within the family.”

A multi-sport athlete throughout high school at L.P. Miller Comprehensive School, Kyle’s athletic career helped keep life somewhat normal for his family in the wake of Clark’s death.

The Froehlich brothers grew up playing virtually every sport together with their father, Cory, coaching them in baseball and making an outdoor rink for them to play hockey together in the winter. Though they were in Canada, it was baseball – America’s pastime – that linked the pair both then and now.

“From a young age, my dad has us playing sports,” Kyle said. “We were at that age gap where, in sports, he would be a second year in his age division, and I would be one year younger. My dad would coach. Thank goodness they could drag me along – because we had only so many kids – that I got to play sports with him. One of the things that sticks out for me is baseball was one of the last sports we played together. For some reason – I don’t know why – in our last game I remember (Clark) playing, put me in to catch for him. That’s definitely a big moment that sticks out for me.”

Young Clark pitching to young Kyle. Could it have been already written that the younger Froehlich’s future was on the mound, taking over for his brother?

“About a year after it happened is when I really got into baseball,” Kyle said. “I think I used it as a bit of an escape or a coping mechanism. That was my connection – to play baseball for him. From there, it really accelerated to where I trained and wanted to be better at the sport for him. That’s when I started to excel and the sport became more fun.”

Baseball is not always fun. It is a game that emphasizes the ability to handle failure.

That extra dose of maturity – as well as his Canadian calm demeanor – has served Kyle well, especially in the closer’s role.

“He’s just done a really good job of being in the moment – even when he hasn’t been as sharp to hang in there,” Barbier said. “Think of Louisiana Tech. It was the first time he really gave up anything. He gave up the lead, but he came back and got us three strikeouts in the next inning to get us into extra innings. You just trust him.”

Earning the trust of his teammates and coaches has been a focus of Kyle’s collegiate journey.

“When he was at Colby, he was the centerpiece of everything we were doing,” said former Colby pitching coach and Northwestern State pitcher Josh Oller, now the head coach at Ottawa University in Kansas. “It wasn’t just because he was a two-way (player), and he got to spend time with both sides of the team. When you were around him, baseball was so small. If we weren’t playing well or not doing well, it seemed like an insignificant thing to him. Guys really enjoyed that about him. When you were around him, it felt like, ‘What do you have to be stressed about?’

“Part of dealing with those things comes from what he went through with his brother. He just doesn’t get phased by what we consider big stuff. Bases loaded, no outs is a big situation. But in comparison to what he’s had to go through, is it really? He translates that into his life.”

Watch Kyle pitch and there is nothing he does outwardly to honor the memory of his brother, Clark.

Instead, Kyle starts his day with Clark on his mind.

“I have a little morning ritual,” Kyle said. “I call it a priming session. I go over some grateful things. I make sure I’m grateful for the time we had together, the things I learned from him and how I can take his memory and make my life better moving forward.”

Those memories include the fun-loving moments brothers share where there are no-holds barred and good-natured ribbing rules, even if it came more than a decade ago.

“I was always a big dreamer when I was little,” Kyle said. “I always said I was going to play in the NHL and he would say, ‘Kyle, you’re not even the best player in Nipawin. What do you think you’re doing?’”

Fighting back tears, Kyle continued, “Now, to see me at this level – especially coming out of Nipawin, I think it would mean a lot to him. I think he’d be really proud.”