Fire, mud and beer – and the battle against childhood cancer

If Brett Favre were younger and shorter, and a defensive back, and considerably less wealthy, and owned a closet devoid of Wranglers, well then, he’d be me.

The first time I hung up the spikes, I was 19 years old. My team was fresh off of a 55-19 thrashing at the hands of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and a scary good Southern Cal squad, in the BCS National Championship.

In total, I watched about 20 minutes of the game — from an airport in Denver. I felt bad for my friends and family that were suffering through such a one-sided debacle, but I felt nothing for myself. There was no pit in my stomach, no regret — nothing. I was numb to it.

After twice being named a captain as a standout defensive back at Springdale (Ark.) High School, I was ill-prepared to spend my freshman season playing scout team for a coach that couldn’t have picked me out of a lineup. Film sessions did not pertain to me. Practice meant nothing. As long as I made it through individual drills — at a position I had zero familiarity with — without drawing the ire of Brent Venables, my mission was accomplished.

Arkansas played Texas two weeks before we did, and we studied the tape of that game for three consecutive days leading up to our annual tilt at the Cotton Bowl. One of my most vivid memories as an Oklahoma football player is sitting in a dark film room, staring at Razorback Stadium, wishing I was there. The next week, I reached out to former Razorbacks wide receiver Robert Farrell, who assured me that I would be welcome to transfer, and my mind was made up. From that point on, each meeting, meal, practice and game, served as a personal countdown.

When the academic term ended, the college football postseason mattered not. I withdrew from the university and forfeited the chance to join my teammates in Miami, Fla. for the Orange Bowl.

Tuition at OU is not cheap for an out-of-state kid with no scholarship. My parents fell into the precarious middle-class gap, making too much to qualify for significant government aid, but not enough to comfortably pay a $9,000 tuition bill. The registrar at most universities allows for payment plans, and Oklahoma is no different. However, as I learned, tuition is expected to be paid in full upon complete withdrawal from the school.

Without an official transcript from OU, I could not enroll at the University of Arkansas. When I finally did enroll a few months later, I had been a regular civilian for a full semester. Whether it was an affinity for freedom, or fear-based apprehension, I couldn’t say, but I elected not to join the football team.

Instead, I spent that fall mastering the art of the pre-game party, the tailgate party, and the post-game party. I rarely went into the games, though. It hurt to watch.

Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed the game. I needed to burn in a weight room. I needed to sweat on a field. I needed the camaraderie of 11 guys battling together for a singular cause. I tried playing co-ed softball. I tried playing rec-league basketball. I still worked out as if I were preparing for football season, but I wasn’t, and none of it was the same.

So when Favre retired, and then un-retired, and then sort of retired, and then didn’t retire, I was not among those members of the peanut gallery lobbing insults and slights in his general direction. I understood. The money couldn’t buy the adrenaline rush. The fame couldn’t replace the kinship of going to battle with a few dozen of your closest friends. The legacy wasn’t enough to suppress the voice in his head insisting that he could still make plays and win games.

When my high school head coach, Gus Malzahn, was hired as the offensive coordinator at the University of Tulsa, I reached out to him, asking for an opportunity to resume my playing career. Never one to be accused of possessing many teddy bear-ish tendencies, Coach genuinely empathized with my disposition on this one. A few months later, I was back — as a member of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.

It was short-lived, however, as Gene Chizik called on the services of my ol’ ball coach at the end of the season, and Malzahn obliged — joining the coaching staff at Auburn University. His departure left me in limbo, without a coach to go to bat for me. There was a chance that I could earn a scholarship even without his influence, but at a little more than $12,000 per semester, it was a considerable gamble.

That led to my second retirement which, much like Favre’s unceremonious departure from the New York Jets, was less about the game, and more about the situation. Favre found a satisfactory suitor in Brad Childress and the Minnesota Vikings. I did the same in Craig Hubbard and Southern Nazarene University.

The admittedly strained similarities end there, however, as Father Time eventually retired Favre to the ranch. I, on the other hand, was rendered team-less by virtue of an expiring NCAA clock.

In the years since, I have returned to looking elsewhere for any form of competition that I can find.

My cousin runs in half-marathons, which seems like something that I’d like to add to my résumé. But, quite frankly, I don’t have a playlist long enough to endure well over two hours of jogging. I love playing softball but, last I checked, Tahlequah doesn’t offer much of a co-ed league. I fish for the sake of fishing, but I have never honestly enjoyed it much. I love being on the water, but there is nothing about staring at a submerged string, with aspirations of tricking a fish, that does much to get my juices flowing. I like golf — and I despise golf. For days, I look forward to playing, only to duff my opening tee shot just beyond the red tees, and spend the next several hours tossing clubs and losing balls. In general, my pursuit of a satisfactory physical endeavor has been mostly fruitless.

But then I ran across the Warrior Dash.

Fire pits? A rubber jungle? The Great Warrior Wall? All capped off by adorning a Viking helmet, while enjoying an ice cold victory brew? I had to do it and, as it happens, the event stops in Morris on June 2.

I called my cousin, and then somehow managed to con my poor, unsuspecting girlfriend into participating, as well. Once I had my team of three in place, I excitedly navigated toward the registration form. I made it to the second page before I was prompted with an unexpected question: “Would you like to sign up as a St. Jude Warrior?”

Why wouldn’t I?

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital works to advance cures and means of prevention for pediatric diseases — namely cancer. With the assistance of St. Jude’s, survival rates for cancer like acute lymphoblastic leukemia — the most common form of childhood cancer — have increased by as much as 90 percent since the hospital opened in 1962. On average, 7,800 active patients visit the first and only pediatric cancer center to be designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute.

And no family ever pays St. Jude for anything. Daily operating costs are primarily covered by public contributions.

Only I didn’t really know that.

It wasn’t until I was required to check a box in response to a question that directly pertained to the hospital and its cause, that I  actually took the time to pay attention to facts and figures like those. At irony’s peak, I was led to a worthwhile battle of epic proportions by fire, mud and beer.

Like the hospital’s late founder Danny Thomas, I have always believed that no child should die in the dawn of life. I just never realized that I could do anything about it. I can — and so can you.

Eighty-one cents of every dollar received supports the research and treatment at St. Jude. For the next two weeks, we will be accepting donations of any size at the Daily Press. Checks should be made out to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Locally mailed donations should be sent no later than May 29. Please address envelopes to: Tahlequah Daily Press c/o Kolby Paxton, P.O. Box 888, Tahlequah, OK 74465.

With your help, when I arrive in Morris in search of my next meaningful rush of adrenaline, the race will be trumped by our donation to a cause far greater than I could have imagined. We will all be winners.

Here’s to mom

By Kolby Paxton

Sometimes you just can’t catch the words before they slip through your teeth.

Tulsa Memorial shortstop Mike Smith knows the feeling.

During Memorial’s regional matchup with Tahlequah, Chargers manager Sandy Furrell elected to pinch-hit for Smith, the lead off man, in the eighth inning.

As he was summoned away from the on deck circle, and back toward the dugout, Smith’s mother responded just as you might expect.

“Wait, what?” she queried to no one in particular.

“Mom,” snapped Smith. “Hush up.”

I can tell you from experience, it took about 11 seconds for the young guy to strongly regret that reaction.

From tee ball through college, we are taught never to question our coaches. But when mom does it? It’s best to let that one slide.

Mom takes us to practice at 6 a.m. She drives us 30 miles from home to play for the nearest AAU team. She celebrates our success, hugs us after our failures, and bandages our wounds. There is no code of silence among mothers. They take it personal when their sons and daughters are subbed out of a game — and they’re allowed to. They have as much time and emotion invested in our athletic careers as anyone.

By all accounts, my mother was very talented, and equally competitive, as a high school basketball player in Fort Cobb. To hear my dad tell it, her unforgiving elbows would’ve made Ron Artest blush. According to my grandma, she spent so much time diving for loose balls that she literally wore holes in her kneepads.

Let me say that again. She wore holes in her kneepads.

Many moons later, when her 8-year old child took the field as the starting shortstop of the Springdale Marlins, she approached each practice, each game, and each at bat with a similar vigor.

Two years later, I was pitching in the 10-year old city championship, but my dad was stuck at work and couldn’t make it until game time. It was mom who put on the glove and played catch with me in the backyard. We lost 14-12, so apparently our game of catch didn’t exactly do the trick. But, my mom came out of the bullpen for my dad and helped get my arm loose.

When my younger sibling was quarterbacking Springdale (Ark.) High School in 2006, my mother and I were so overwrought with nervous emotion that we could not sit next to each other. You could see her frantically smashing her passenger breaks in a futile effort to assist in the elusion of would-be tacklers, and then physically absorb every blow that her son took when his and her efforts failed. You might also see her attempt to garner an injury report via sign language with unsuspecting teammates. Thumbs up, mom.

The point is, mom is there.

She’s there to work multiple jobs so that her son can walk-on at the out-of-state school. She’s there when your jaw is in pieces and you look like Peter Griffin, and she’s there when your heart is in pieces and you feel like the punch line of an Adele song. She’s there to drive you to a junior college in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas, and to cheer for you when your greatest achievement as a collegiate athlete takes place on a high school field in Oklahoma City. When you finally throw in the towel and hang up the spikes, she’s there to support you then, too.

At least mine was.

I drove my mom crazy during my adolescence. In fact, I probably drove her crazy well beyond that. During high school, our relationship was often punctuated by slammed doors (mine), hollow threats (also mine) and clenched-teeth ultimatums (hers). Incredibly, she never got rid of me. Quite the contrary, actually, she has always treated me quite favorably in spite of my numerous lapses in judgment over the years.

Along with my dad, she is my most loyal friend, quick to call me on potential character flaws and missteps, and even quicker to go all “Great, Huge Bear” on anyone that threatens her “Little, Small, Wee Bear.”

It warrants mentioning that I was an eyelash away from losing all of this.

During the fall semester of 1994, my mother had a brain aneurysm in our home in Springdale, Ark. Then, just to tempt fate a little more, she laid in bed with “the flu” for days before my dad and my grandparents held an intervention of sorts and forced her to go to the hospital.

She wouldn’t have made it through the night.

Miraculously, she beat odds that would make the Bobcats chances of winning next season’s NBA Championship look stellar. And it was awfully kind of her to stick around, because without her, I would not be the person that I am today.

I am thankful for her presence in my life every day, but especially on Mother’s Day, as the impact of a mother’s influence on her children is amplified. Little in life scares me much, but the thought of growing up without my mom takes me back to those fateful autumn days with a retrospective gratitude and understanding that I simply lacked the capacity for as an 8-year old.

I needed my mom to take me to baseball practice. I needed her to get my arm loose for the city championship. I needed her support from the stands during football games, and I needed her to bandage my wounds — both literally and figuratively. I needed my mom for all of that.

And I still need her today.

Happy Mother’s Day to every mother out there — young or old — and especially to my mother, Kellie Paxton.

I love you, mom.