I asked John Brebbia the same question I ask everyone I interview who is associated with the university where I now work as a staff writer: “How did you get to Elon?” Some of the answers are surprising, others not so much. Elon does rate highly in a number of those college rankings released annually, including No. 1 for Most Beautiful Campus. So there are a few obvious reasons.
John Brebbia, now a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who just finished his first round of playoff Major League Baseball, falls somewhere in the middle. “It was through athletics channels. I spent my senior year of high school in Florida. I played in tournaments and summer ball. The Elon staff reached out to me my senior summer and of all the places I talked to Elon was the best fit academically and athletically,” he told me this summer in a telephone interview for a story that appeared in the Magazine of Elon.
But in an interesting exchange of emails, John’s father Chris offers a few more details and observations. Chris Brebbia credits Elon’s longtime associate head coach Robbie Huffstetler with getting John to Elon and along with head coach Mike Kennedy, helping him develop the skills and mindset it would take to enter and succeed in professional baseball. John Brebbia, at the time of his recruitment was 6-feet tall and weighed 165 pounds, wanted to pitch at the college level and Elon gave him that chance.
“Between Huff getting John to Elon and Kennedy putting him into impossible to fail situations the university is responsible for his career. He would have been buried in the programs of the bigger universities that recruited him,” Chris Brebbia says. “Huff and Mike got him where he is today just like the recent spate of guys coming out of Elon. OK, so maybe you don’t win the College World Series every year but the minors are littered with the arms of big school alums. Elon was the perfect school for John. Elon got him a job.”
By the time John was a junior at Elon in 2011 he had grown to 6-feet, 2-inches tall and weighed more than 190 pounds. That season was his best at Elon as he recorded a 7-1 record with a 1.76 ERA in 27 relief appearances. It was enough to be drafted in the 30th round by the New York Yankees. “Elon let him develop and actually showed him how to play baseball, among other things,” Chris Brebbia says.
As I mentioned in previous stories, John still faced an improbable climb to the Major Leagues. He is, after all, the first former Elon player to make the Major Leagues since 2008 — so it’s not easy under any circumstances. Chris Brebbia says the family believes several people played a role in getting John where he is now. Huffstetler tops a list that includes his pitching coach at Wellington High School Bob Bradley, his agent Jay Rosen, former Major League star and John’s manager for the Independent League team in Laredo Pete Incaviglia, pitcher Mike Meyers, Kelly Nichols and “the great Tito Acevedo.”
“All of them believed in him from the moment they met him. The difference is Huff also got him an education,” Chris Brebbia says.
Education is a significant factor for John Brebbia, who returned to Elon in the off-season determined to get his degree. He graduated in 2016 with a major in Political Science. The same kind of determination helped him overcome his release by the Yankees and his climb back from the Independent League to the minor leagues and ultimately a roster spot with the Cardinals where he just finished three playoff appearances in the National League Divisional Series against the Atlanta Braves. He recorded two innings pitched, gave up no runs on three hits and fanned two — including a crucial strikeout of Adam Duvall in the seventh inning of game four after entering with the bases loaded and two out. It was easily the biggest moment of his professional career to date. Kennedy, who attended games three and four in St. Louis was there to see it and visited John before game four began. Snapped a selfie to share on social media.
“John has a never-say-die attitude. Perhaps it was through the many obstacles he had to overcome as a child. Maybe it was instilled in him by my family’s history of perseverance. Who knows? All those mentioned above, however, recognized that his stubborn refusal to give up or take no for an answer was his greatest attribute,” Chris Brebbia says. “In the words of his great-great-grandmother and family matriarch, Gertude Hogan, ‘when you get to the point where you can go no further and you feel you must give up, stop what you are doing and give it another try.’ While she had a plethora of sayings, this appears to be the one John took to heart.”
Starting with game one of the NLDS, John Brebbia became the first former Elon player since Greg Booker in 1984 to appear in the baseball postseason. His three series appearances are the most ever by a former Elon player. With the National League Championship Series starting Friday Oct. 11 against the Washington Nationals, he is almost certain to extend that record.
Chris Brebbia feels sure that whatever lies ahead for John was shaped by his time at Elon. it’s also where he met his wife Amanda. The couple had their first child this summer. John has become a reliable member of the Cardinals bullpen and something of fan favorite in St. Louis, where his prodigious whiskers have many calling him simply “The Beard.”
“Am I proud of his baseball career, perhaps. I do know, however, that I am very proud of the fact that he knew who he was and never let anyone convince him otherwise,” Chris Brebbia says. ” I like to think (and I know I am correct in this) that his time at Elon had a good deal to do with this and provided a far superior foundation for him then the elitist northeast institutions that many of us attended.”