The Mammoth Huskies open their football season this evening at Gault/McClure Stadium, but the rah-rah has been taken out of them.
Their best player, their hardest worker, and the lifeblood of their defenseâ€”Matt Graefâ€”has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer at a UC Davis hospital. As they fight to make themselves a football team, Graef is fighting for his life.
â€śItâ€™s just heartbreaking,â€ť said head coach Marty Thompson. â€śThe chemos are just knocking him out. Itâ€™s devastating to him. These guys,â€ť he said, pointing to members of the team, â€śare all about our brother Matt. We canâ€™t let this go away.â€ť
As Thompson spoke after Tuesdayâ€™s practice, Graef was undergoing his second round of chemotherapy.
In response, Thompson and his coaching staff procured black wristbands for themselves and the players as a constant reminder of what life is about, above and beyond football.
On one side of the wristband is Graefâ€™s initials and number. On the other, the wristband has â€śFight the Good Fight.â€ť
Wristbands for the public will be available for donations at the game and throughout the season.
It is likely to be a season opener unlike any of the boys, or most of their coaches, have ever gone through.
Before the varsity game, at 7 p.m., the captains will walk to the center of the field to shake hands and participate in the coin flip for their game against Whittier Christian of La Habra.
If luck holds and he is well enough to travel, Matt will be there, too.
For Thompson, Graefâ€™s illness brought back painful memories of his days with the Detroit Lions of the National Football League. Having left Fresno State, he was on the field when third-year pro lineman Michael Utley suffered a severe hit in a game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Utley suffered instant paralysis, and as they wheeled him off the field, suddenly unable to move anything from his chest down, Utley gave a now-famous â€śthumbs upâ€ť gesture to the crowd from his stretcher. Subsequently, the Lions dedicated their 1991 season to him.
â€śThe difference,â€ť Thompson said, â€śis the age. These boys are just so young. Theyâ€™re trying, and weâ€™re trying to help them understand the seriousness of it all.â€ť
Most of the Huskies now have very short hair. Graef himself gave them a haircut so they might be reminded of his own trialsâ€”the hair loss from chemotherapy and the exhaustion of his treatment.
To watch the Huskies in their final practices, though, a fan or a parent would hardly notice any lack of resolve by the hometowners.
On Tuesday, free of the grueling, two-a-day practices that began in mid-August, the receivers fired off their routes, practiced their pro-set options on both offense and defense and left the field seemingly on wings.
That didnâ€™t particularly fool Thompson, though. The team is so young and so small that he thinks theyâ€™ll need at least three games just to get going, the third game being the â€śRivalryâ€ť game against Bishopâ€”this season at Bishop.
It will be a tough grind for the team, as it always is, but now it has been made even harder. They have the practice; they have running speed at skill positions.
But none of them have ever played a game with one of the worst injuries of allâ€”a broken heart.