Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In The Shadows of Greatness Part II:

Fighting Together

John Walls with George Crace during 2004 Championship Season
When adversity strikes the member of a group, the group has only two choices; fragment and fall apart, or grow closer together and make the whole greater than the sum of it's parts.

John Walls was in 8th grade when he was diagnosed with leukemia yet many expected him to play varsity as a freshman; he was that good. More importantly, as Wilsonville was still a fairly small, tight knit community in 2004, the high school players knew John and they knew his father Ned. Ned Walls is a hard guy to miss. Ned played offensive line at Central Washington, stands around 6'3" and weighs in the neighborhood of 300 pounds. As a police officer, his presence was known to all in Wilsonville.

John could either become a distraction or a motivation. In life, you just never know which way people will respond; especially high school kids who sometimes find it difficult to face the concept of mortality. Empathy is a difficult task for young teen-aged boys to grasp.

I am reminded that the Ducks faced a similar adversity. On July 13, 2008, heralded defensive back recruit Todd Doxey, on an outing with his team mates, jumped into the McKenzie River. Also not worrying about human frailty, Doxey was not using a flotation device. Just a few hours later, Doxey was pronounced dead at McKenzie Willamette Hospital in nearby Springfield.

This was a stunning blow to many of his team mates that could have ripped apart the fabric of the team. In mid 2008, many people thought maybe the team had lost focus. The Ducks floundered a bit during the middle of the season as it struggled to find it's identity. Nonetheless, by the end of that season, the Duck football team began to gel finsihing the regular season with a blowout victory over arch-rival Oregon State. The victory spoiled the Rose Bowl Dreams of Beaver players and fans.

The win did something more, though, it taught a team what it could do when faced with adversity.

A large core group of Doxey's signing class were vital components in two consecutive Pac-10 Championships. The team that went to the Rose Bowl and the National Championship Game were heavily influenced by the class of 2007. Players like Casey Matthews, Kenny Rowe, Terrell Turner, Drew Davis and Jeff Maehl were all members of that signing class. They drew together through adversity... but none would ever forget their fallen team mate.

Maehl pays tribute to Doxey after scoring. (Getty Images)
Maehl, who had become very close with Doxey, has Todd's name, date of birth and date of death forever tattooed on his arm. Every time you saw him tap his side and point to the sky after a touchdown? That was a direct sign to Todd Doxey. Todd's last words to Maehl were "God is on my side." Maehl points to his side to honor Todd Doxey.

The 2004 Wilsonville Wildcats were in a strange place. They were including a team mate who could not play in all of their preparations. John was as much a part of that team as anyone; but there was a difference, John's number was on their helmets; the season had been dedicated to John and his fight.

I once told John of the perfect analogy from the 2004 Tour de France:

Wow... if today's stage at the Tour de France isn't the
PERFECT analogy for so much that happens in life. It was,
quite literally, an uphill battle. Because he was the
leader, Lance started last in this uphill time trial; two
minutes behind the 2nd place rider.... Lance passed him
going up hill.... when he did the other rider (an Italian
named Basso) looked over but Lance kept his focus on what
was MOST important... what was ahead of him... he didn't
even glance at the other rider... he ended up demolishing
everyone in the stage all but assuring himself of the
overall win...

With the same grit, stamina, attitude and belief, John, you
can win your race...

Live strong, STAY strong and always believe!

The Wilsonville football team approached the season with a similar focus and determination. Their coach, George Crace, did a masterful job of reminding them of the humility that kept them grounded while directly confronted with human frailty every day. Every day they put on their helmets they were reminded that their friend; their team mate, was fighting a much more difficult battle than they could ever face. No opponent on the field could ever be as fearsome as John's opponent. And John was fighting like a mad man; like a full back ramming his way into the end zone, John was determined to beat leukemia.

Much like Oregon used adversity to grow stronger and reach heights no one knew possible, Wilsonville also reached a major plateau. The school did not exist until 1995. In 2004, Wilsonville capped off a perfect season with a 37-13 victory over arch-rival Sherwood in the State Championship game. They won with John Walls by their side.

In remembering Todd Doxey and the impact his death had on the team, Danny O'Neill said "His [Doxey] death affected the other players in a very deep way. I think myself and others were surprised by the response of the players, not just at the memorial service. Jeff [Maehl] still talks about it. Todd Doxey is not the first player to die in a program [but] not all programs have responded in such a way."

Two teams faced with a similar circumstance, both achieving extraordinary heights in honor of their team mates. But John Walls was alive to fight, his number forever emblazoned on the helmets of his team mates; and his fight would be incredible.
Wilsonville Helmet with John Walls number
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