I was approached last summer by Highland High School head football coach Mike Gutierrez with the idea of purchasing specially designed football jerseys to help raise awareness for breast cancer. The team wanted to wear the jerseys in a game during October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The game was played Oct. 21, 2016, at Highland. And they're going to do it again this Friday against Mira Monte.
Any additional money they raised beyond what was needed to purchase the jerseys would be donated to the Kern County Cancer Fund. The team met its goal, purchased the breast cancer awareness jerseys and donated $1,000 to the Kern County Cancer Fund.
The Kern County Cancer Fund provides financial support to help fill the gap with medical expenses for residents affected by cancer. It matters not where you receive your cancer treatment or services. Kern County residency of the cancer patient is the only requirement to be considered for financial support. All monies raised for the Kern County Cancer Fund remain in Kern County.
Raising the money was just the beginning for the team. They asked if I could help locate breast cancer survivors or family members who had lost someone to breast cancer and invite them to the game. A team of local resources assisted with identifying survivors.
That Friday night about 20 survivors and family members affected by breast cancer met before the start of the game in the end zone at the Highland’s Scotland Yard football field. Although VIP seating was arranged near the end zone, no one could sit down. There was excitement and a welcoming spirit of joy and commonality amongst these beautiful women. All received a commemorative shirt honoring their participation.
Then, over a grassy knoll, Highland’s varsity team appeared and marched silently towards the women. With military efficiency and solemn demeanor the team formed a line and stood reverently with their helmets tucked under their right arm. Not looking left or right nor speaking, the young men stared straight ahead in silence, not saying a word to each other, contemplating and embracing the impact of what lay before them. My nephew Joshua, a member of the varsity team, clutched a framed photo of Melissa Flores, a young family member who lost her battle to cancer.
Not a coach was in sight. The gathered survivors huddled together, not really knowing what to expect next. Then one of the team members led his team and surrounded the women. He announced, “We appreciate you being here today. We dedicated this game to you and your families.” And then each team member took turns giving each one of the honorees a hug as the players assembled to get ready to enter the field for their game.
The women were then escorted to the sidelines, at the 50-yard line. The PA announcer explained the brightly colored jerseys worn by Highland and introduced the women as breast cancer survivors. The women received a standing ovation from both sides of the field.
The football team ran out and all the ladies were escorted to the middle of the field to be honorary captains for the coin toss. As the women walked off the field after the coin toss, they were waving and smiling to all the people in the stands.
Those who came to only watch a game saw, if only for a brief few minutes, the juxtaposition of exceptional young men recognizing and putting into action a significant awareness project with those whose lives were affected by cancer.
Please don’t lecture me about our bad youth. I’ll just take you to Highland High School and introduce you to the varsity football team. End of discussion.
On many levels, it was a powerful moment for me and my family. And although cancer took my wife several years ago, I could still see my bride of 40 years sitting in the stands wearing one of our son’s letterman’s jacket, holding her travel mug, sipping her specially made coffee while smiling down on us all.
Highland may have lost the game last year to South High, but they won the heart of this old man and I am sure the hearts of many others in the stands that night.
Email contributing columnist Steve Flores at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.