Will Privette doesn’t claim to be the biggest Marlins fan. Or the oldest. Or even the loudest.
But Privette, who said he “joined forces” with the Marlins in 2003 while growing up in North Carolina, is the only one who can say he made national news eight months ago in a chaotic scene that was replayed over and over on ESPN and elsewhere.
Privette was the student in the wheelchair who was thrown to the basketball court after fellow classmates at North Carolina State stormed the floor following the Wolfpack’s upset victory over Duke — the same student who was rescued in the nick of time by N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie, who saw him lying on the court, about to be trampled in the melee.
“That was him?” asked Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre.
“That was Will?” asked former Marlins manager Jack McKeon.
Pierre and McKeon had seen the replay endless times, but until it was brought to their attention earlier this week, they never knew it was the same diehard fan they had practically adopted during spring training in 2005.
“Yep, that was me,” Privette said.
Privette, 23, became a Marlins fan during the ’03 season when he watched the team’s Double A affiliate, the Carolina Mudcats, in his hometown of Zebulon, N.C. His family owned the land where the minor-league team built its ballpark and received 10 season tickets for life as part of the deal.
That ’03 Mudcats team spawned two huge pieces on the Marlins’ World Series team: Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. Both players were called up — Willis in early May and Cabrera in late June — and helped spark the Marlins to the wild card.
“I don’t remember Dontrelle being there that much,” said Privette, who attended most of the Mudcats’ games. “But I remember Miggy. I remember his walk-up swing, which was really weird — 50 Cents’ In Da Club.’ ”
Despite losing Willis and Cabrera to the big-league club, the Mudcats still won the Southern League title. Privette wheeled himself onto the field and had his photo taken with the players and the championship trophy. It would not be the last time he put himself in the middle of a victory celebration.
Over the coming years, Privette made his way down to Jupiter for spring training. He wrote a story for his local newspaper in which he interviewed McKeon, and when he finally met the manager in person, they struck up a friendship.
McKeon invited Privette to sit with the players in the dugout during one spring-training game in 2005 and had him take out the lineup card. Marlins players — and Pierre, in particular — became buddies with Privette.
Pierre was nursing a calf injury that spring, but said that Privette, who was born without a tibia in his right leg, gave him inspiration.
“I was sulking over a calf injury and this guy was upbeat everyday in a wheelchair,” Pierre said. “We would always talk. Because of him, I decided I had no reason to be complaining with a little calf injury.”
Privette ended up going to North Carolina State, where he became involved in the Wolfpack sports program. He performed statistical analysis for the baseball team and attended State sporting events.
Privette was at the N.C. State-Duke game in January when the Wolfpack sprung the upset.
“I just was just another college student,” Privette said. “And what do you do after a big game? You storm the court. There was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to storm the court.”
Student body president Andy Walsh wheeled Privette to the center of the court the moment the final horn sounded. In no time, they were swallowed up in a sea of other students. Privette was knocked out of his chair and onto the court in the pandemonium.
“I don’t know how many pairs of feet were around me,” Privette said.
Leslie’s fast actions very likely saved Privette from serious injury. The 6-9 Leslie, the star of the game for N.C. State, scooped Privette up in his arms and held him in the air, above the throng and out of harm’s way. Before long, Privette’s cellphone began ringing and vibrating with requests to appear on all the morning TV talk shows and afternoon call-in radio shows.
“My phone was vibrating so much — it was bad — I had to turn off the notifications,” Privette said. “I think my battery still hasn’t recovered.”
Privette graduated with a degree in communications, and his ambition is to work in a major-league front office, “hopefully become a farm director or assistant GM or something.”
Privette hasn’t started looking for work in earnest yet, though he has feelers out with some teams, including the Marlins.
First he must undergo open-heart surgery to replace a conduit in his pulmonary valve, a condition he has had since the age of 3. Surgery is scheduled for September.
And this weekend, he’ll be in South Florida enjoying his graduation gift: tickets to a Justin Timberlake concert Friday at Sun Life Stadium and the Marlins’ games on Saturday and Sunday at Marlins Park. It’ll be his first visit to the Marlins’ new ballpark.
“I’m excited about being in the new stadium,” Privette said. “I’m excited to see [Christian] Yelich in person.
“Hopefully, [Giancarlo] Stanton will get out of his slump and light up that [Home Run Sculpture] in center field.”
• Friday: Marlins RHP Nathan Eovaldi (2-2, 2.82 ERA) vs. San Francisco Giants RHP Chad Gaudin (5-2, 2.42), 7:10 p.m., Marlins Park.
• Saturday: Marlins RHP Henderson Alvarez (2-1, 3.18) vs. Giants RHP Matt Cain (7-8, 4.44),7:10 p.m., Marlins Park.
• Scouting report: The Marlins are expected to call up right-handed reliever Arquimedes Caminero on Friday, in time for the start of the three-game series against the Giants. Caminero, 26, has gone 5-2 with a 3.61 ERA and struck out 68 batters in 52 1/3 innings for Double A Jacksonville this season.
Caminero will replace right-handed reliever Steve Ames on the Marlins’ roster. Ames was optioned to Triple A New Orleans on Wednesday.