Tuesday, April 06, 2010

SPORTS >> Paying back the love

Jacksonville athletic director Jerry Wilson gets a hug from Tracy Cates.


Leader sports editor

It was all Jason Cates could do to muscle his car off the road and find a place to park before the crippling emotions caught up with him.

Through his windshield he saw the dirty asphalt of the fast food parking lot where he’d ended up; he saw the broken glass and the overflowing dumpster. Then the blinding tears obscured everything.

But at least, for a change, Cates was crying tears of happiness.

After all, he had just been reminded once again who his friends were.

On Friday night, Jacksonville High School held a benefit basketball game on behalf of Cates and his wife Tracy, a breast cancer survivor. A group of former Cabot, Jacksonville and North Pulaski players banded together at the Devils Den to play the Power 92 Jammers, an all-star team sponsored by a local radio station.

The proceeds went to Cates and his wife to help defray the massive medical expenses accumulated in fighting Tracy’s illness.

“I had no idea they were all coming together to work on this,” Cates said. “It is really, really very humbling and I am beyond — words can’t even describe — beyond grateful.”

Last year, within a week of Tracy’s 34th birthday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A cheer coach at Cabot South Junior High, Tracy Cates underwent the grueling treatments that included a bi-lateral mastectomy and intensive chemotherapy.

“She has gone through far more than I would ever wish on my worst enemy,” Jason Cates said. “But she is a trooper and she is unbelievable and she has made it through all of her procedures.”

Tracy missed only a few days of school and no games, Jason Cates said, showing the same dedication to her students and cheerleaders her husband has showed to the athletes he has treated the past 10 years.

“On her sickest, the sickest days, she would just get up and go,” Jason Cates said. “She feels about her kids the same way I feel about my kids. Even though we didn’t bring them into this world, they are ours.”

Cates said his wife’s passion for her job was a form of therapy; something Tracy could return to again and again to pick up her spirits and give her a reason to push through the pain and weakness that came with her treatments.

Other therapies, however, were more expensive. At a time when health care dominates the national discussion, it turns out even a health-care provider like Cates is not immune to the staggering costs of medication and treatment.

With 6-year-old twin girls and a 3-year-old son to provide for, Cates was seeking a way, any way, to alleviate some of the financial burden.

He was looking for a part-time job, but his regular work at OrthoArkansas plus his donated time to Jacksonville High School only left Cates one day free, and what employer will hire someone who can only work one day?

So Cates approached Jacksonville athletic director Jerry Wilson and some of the coaches and asked about the possibility of doing odd jobs, cutting grass at Dupree Park or Excell Park maybe.

Wilson was sure he could do better than that. And the idea for the basketball benefit was born.

“It brings awareness, too, of breast cancer,” Wilson said. “You never know what an individual is going through and they’re two special people. He’s very special and she’s a part of him. He’s given so much to this school and to this area. He supports Cabot, as well, with her working in that district.”

Wilson informed Cates of the benefit while Cates was in his car on his way to last month’s Red Devil Classic baseball tournament, and Cates had to pull over to let the emotions go.

“We’re still just very blown away,” Cates said. “When we found out about it we were just taken back that people would even go out of their way to do that.”

Cates, the 2008 Arkansas athletic trainer of the year, has not only done his part to patch up and rehabilitate injured athletes, he is also a well-known advocate of prevention and other athletic health issues and has taken his causes to the state legislature.

Efforts like that do not go unappreciated, Wilson said.

The proof came Friday, as players from traditional rivals Cabot, Jacksonville and North Pulaski came together to face the Jammers, who usually play on Saturdays but adjusted their schedule on Cates’ behalf.

Former Jacksonville players like Demetrius Harris, now at Missouri, and Antwon Lockhart — both from last year’s 6A state championship team — returned to do their part for Cates. The Jammers roster featured former players from a number of state colleges and from local high schools, including Caleb Turner of Sylvan Hills.

The game raised well over $1,000, and Wilson is hoping future benefits at nearby schools will follow.

“He just goes the extra mile,” Wilson said.

Cates said every penny raised will go toward the family’s medical debt. But the wealth of friendship?

That stays with Cates.

“We were and still are just very humbled,” Cates said.