As soon as Jon Lester walked through the doors into Names Gymnasium at Bellarmine Prep on Wednesday morning, the buzz began.
Students stared from the grandstands as the mountain of a man — Lester is 6-foot-4 —slowly strolled past them, and toward a VIP row of chairs in front of a podium.
Lester stopped to hug a few staff members, and shake hands with longtime Lions baseball coach Rick Barnhart, for whom he played from 1999-2002.
It was a day to honor the former two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox, who is now pitching for his third major-league team — the Chicago Cubs.
Lester, 32, was inducted into the Bellarmine Prep booster hall of fame for the class of 2015.
Normally that ceremony takes place in the fall around homecoming — and it did involving the other inductees, Ron Medved and Pat Galbraith.
At that time, Lester was pitching in the National League playoffs with the Cubs, who were eliminated in the NLCS by the New York Mets.
The school held a special ceremony for Lester on Wednesday — the same day the 10-year major leaguer was headed to Arizona to report for spring training.
“It is good to come home,” said Lester, a Tacoma native who makes his home in Atlanta with his wife, Farrah, and two sons, Walker and Hudson.
“I do not get to see my grandpa very often. I don’t get to see the extended family. I did not see my parents until they moved down to where we are at. … I am glad to come up here and do this.”
Officials at Bellarmine Prep gave Lester the floor and he had a prepared seven-minute speech ready. The topics ranged from how much family support he has received, to his days at Bellarmine Prep and how they have prepared him for the big stage of life, including professional baseball.
And he retold his story about beating anaplastic large-cell lymphoma at age 22 — and how it inspired him to found his Never Quit foundation, a charity dedicated to finding a cure for pediatric cancer.
After he was declared cancer-free in 2007, Lester said he was approached by many charities hoping to cast him as their spokesman.
“It took me a while to accept being the poster boy for cancer,” Lester said. “It is a hard thing when you come back, and all people want to talk about is cancer instead of baseball.”
Lester waited five years before he and his wife — a former pediatric nurse — invested their efforts into children fighting cancer.
Lester is known to carry around all-white “Never Quit” baseballs, which are supposed to stand for the purity and strength in children to fight cancer.
In 2013, Lester extended his charity to other major-league cities as part of his “Road Rally” movement.
Not only would he invite kids to spend a day with him at the ballpark, he often asked superstars in those cities to accompany him.
“It is how me and C.C. (Sabathia) became buddies,” Lester said. “He has helped me out a lot.”
In his first season with the Cubs last year, teammates Anthony Rizzo and Jason Motte also had their own pediatric cancer charities.
The three often helped one another out.
Lester said he expects his charity to eclipse the $1 million mark for money raised toward pediatric cancer.
“There are so many great kids who came through here … but with him you see what he’s done (because of television),” Barnhart said. “It is emotional for me to see how cool it is that things have worked out.
“He is just a good man, it is that simple.”
As far as the offseason, Lester said he usually takes up to three weeks off after the season. Not this one — he said he took just one week off to go on a couple of family vacations before getting back to training.
“At (the start of 2015), I felt like I never got caught up,” Lester said. “I was a little behind the eight ball, especially with all that free agency.”
After logging 219 innings total last season, Lester said his pitching arm “felt good.”
“I felt my innings were at the end of the year … and I built to those innings,” Lester said. “You get to a certain point where it is just another year.”
Lester said the excitement in Chicago is building quickly — much like it was in Boston before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007.
“I imagine what this year is going to bring,” Lester said. “(Chicago) is a fun city to play for.”