Building Legos and beating cancer: The Liam Hendriks comeback

June 15th, 2023

The kitchen was mostly empty. It was almost quiet.

But if you listened closely enough, there was a tiny *click-clack, click-clack* sound coming from a table in the middle of the room.

A man known for his raucous celebrations on the pitcher's mound was doing something with a little less noise and a lot less fanfare. He was in deep concentration, partaking in one of his favorite pastimes.

He was building Legos.

It's something White Sox closer had done most of his life, but it had a much different meaning these days. He was doing it in between cancer treatments for Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

Side effects from chemotherapy had made it hard for him to read books, but he could still use his hands. His body was tired, but his mind was desperate for something to quiet its racing thoughts. It was a welcome distraction from the madness that had overtaken his and his wife, Kristi's, lives.

"It's something I could somewhat focus on, but not necessarily give all my emotion to," Hendriks told me.

"Legos might not be very normal for a couple, but it's very normal for us," Kristi said. "It created this normalcy again."

Photo via The Hendrikses

Kristi remembered feeling terrified when she heard of her husband's December 2022 diagnosis. Why was this happening to him? To them? Cancer?

"My life flashed before my eyes," she said. "You get married and the last you think is that something like this is going to happen. It just made me very fearful of the future."

But Hendriks, who had battled his way to the Majors, was ready to battle again.

He had already started reading about the disease when he noticed the enlarged lymph nodes around his neck. (He says he may have unknowingly pitched the entire 2022 season with Lymphoma.) He knew it was beatable, but admitted he was a bit shaken when he heard it was Stage 4. His oncologist, Dr. Allison Rosenthal, reassured her patient.

"My doctor at the time said, 'OK, it's Stage 4 but I'm not worried,' all in the same breath, the same sentence," Hendriks recalled. "You went from 'Ooohh' to, 'If she says that, then I'm not worried.' That calmed us down a heck of a lot."

The Hendrikses announced the diagnosis via Instagram on Jan. 8, and Liam began rounds of chemotherapy and immunotherapy the very next day. He vowed to be back on the mound as soon as possible.

"I'm a very positive guy," Hendriks told me.

"Yeah, it's weird," Kristi responded, smiling at her husband.

Even with all this positivity and mental strength, the days and weeks were long. Chemo can crush the strongest of spirits, and it made Hendriks -- a world-class athlete who grew up playing Australian Rules Football in his hometown of Perth -- incredibly sick.

"During his first infusion his first day, we didn't know what to expect at all," Kristi said. "You hear the stories of how, 'Oh, you'll probably get sick or you might not feel great.' Well, he was fine for the first half an hour and then when they sped up the infusion flow, he got violently ill and was withering in pain."

The pain and anguish was so bad that Kristi thought she might pass out from just watching him.

"When you go through something like this, you feel alone," Hendriks said. "It's just the two of us on an island kind of thing."

"I had moments where I would just go into my walk-in closet and cry," Kristi told me. "I didn't want to bring that energy around him, but I was full of emotion."

Photo via Liam Hendriks' Instagram

But the Hendrikses were buoyed by a platform that's not always known for being entirely positive: Social media.

Making their initial announcement on Twitter and Instagram and giving updates throughout the five-month battle allowed others who had the disease, or just wanted to wish them well, the opportunity to reach out. They got direct messages from fans and reinforcement in comment sections. The White Sox set up a program where Liam would receive letters from fans. There were signals of support in the stadium and all over the city of Chicago.

Photo via White Sox
Photo via White Sox

It helped bring light and hope to those dark nights.

"Getting all of that, all of that support, was huge," Hendriks said. "You realized you're not going through this alone and that there are lots of people around supporting you and praying for you and hoping for the best."

"[People] in the comments, in the emails or any of those things saying, 'We're fighting with this, too,' or 'I've overcome this,' or 'I've lost someone to this,' saying, 'We're in the fight with you,'" Kristi said. "It meant a lot."

And, of course, Liam always had his strongest pillar of support for the toughest moments. His lifeboat. His wife Kristi.

"I don't know what would have happened without her," Hendriks said. "Being at every single doctor's appointment, being at every single treatment, every single anything -- she was always there right by my side. Picking me up when I needed to be picked up. I don't think I'll ever be able to repay her or thank her enough for everything she went through."

All of that support got Hendriks to his bell-ringing moment five months later. He was in remission.

And about a month after that, he was back on the mound pitching a rehab assignment for Triple-A Charlotte. He was perfect in his first appearance, receiving an emotional standing ovation as he stepped onto the mound.

Cancer couldn't slow that high-90s fastball or devastating slider.

A few weeks later, he was back in the big leagues. Back where he felt most comfortable. Back on the mound for the Chicago White Sox.

Hendriks said it was emotional for him, but also, after being reminded by Kristi, realized it was an appearance and comeback much bigger than him.

"She said, 'You need to embrace what you've done, what you've overcome,'" he told me. "So that someone going through it right now can get a sense of hope."

Although he recently went on the 15-day injured list with elbow inflammation, Hendriks put up a save and two wins during his return (including a memorable victory on National Cancer Survivors Day).

The Hendrikses' clash with cancer has obviously changed both of them.

Kristi has vowed to enjoy every moment and do things differently, or do things she wants to do in the present moment. Life is, as they both now know, fleeting.

"The other day, I went to the game and I sat all the way out under the JumboTron and had an eagle-eye view of the field," Kristi said. "I've never done that and why? Why not? Why not go spend an inning doing something different. Doing something just because you want to do it."

Liam has learned not to waste time on things that don't matter, to erase any and all negativity. To embrace the positive, fun and silly things in life, like, say, wearing a giant bunny outfit in public.

And what of the All-Star closer's Lego work during his treatments? The activity that kept his mind occupied, from being crushed by the weight of the horrible disease he was dealing with. Did he build anything amazing?

"The Titanic!" Liam and Kristi shouted at the same time.

"It was incredible," Kristi said. "Insane."

A 9,500-piece masterpiece fitting for the titanic-sized challenge the two spent months fighting. A symbol for the life-or-death battle the Hendrikses had just gone through and, quite spectacularly, won.

Photo via The Hendrikses