By NATE HECKENBERGER
WEST GROVE -- The thought alone of missing one of her son’s football games made Tammy Braxton’s eyes overflow with tears.
It’s as scary a thought for a parent to consider as it is big and confusing for a teenage to comprehend, when health threatens life. So when Tammy was diagnosed with breast cancer the last week of February, all she and her second son Jared Braxton could do was shed tears.
“At first we both just cried,” Tammy said. “But I think it’s just made our relationship so much closer. And it was close to begin with. It’s created more of a connection with everything and opened a lot of doors.”
Braxton, a senior at Avon Grove, and his mother have always had one common bond: football. So when life became unpredictable, that one constant -- football -- became the catalyst for recovery.
For Jared, support was found in the same locker room. New teammate, but old friend, junior Andrey Green, who transferred from Bishop Shanahan in the offseason, had gone through the process about a year and a half prior when his mom Caroline Green fought and survived breast cancer.
Both Jared and Andrey had heard of “pink games” that were held elsewhere around the county. After inquiring about the program, the duo approached first-year head coach Doug Langley in the preseason about teaming up with Unite for Her, an organization dedicated to educating and helping women fighting breast cancer. It was Langley’s easiest decision of his young career.
“Both of our parents went through it, and we had heard of (UFH) a little bit last year,” Jared said. “We thought it would be something special to do. It’s a big day to spread awareness and something that can bring the whole community together.”
Saturday, on Homecoming against West Chester East at 2:30 p.m., Avon Grove will partake in its first “pink game.” Through the first month of the school year, Jared, Andrey and their teammates have been fundraising, largely by selling pink UFH t-shirts. When all the hard work and planning comes to fruition Saturday afternoon, it will be not only a platform to raise awareness, but a tribute to the women associated with the team who have fought or are still fighting (Avon Grove’s David Trosky’s mother, Linda, is currently undergoing treatments, as well).
“(Saturday) is going to mean a lot,” Green said. “I’m excited, and the players have been talking about it. Hopefully we can get the ‘W’ and the fans will be there to support all the moms. The community coming together is the best part about it.”
Unite For Her strives to help women battling with breast cancer by educating them about the disease, as well as providing avenues to enhance healing via nutrition, acupuncture, yoga and other methods. Sue Weldon, a breast cancer survivor of eight years, founded the organization in 2009.
Five other local high schools -- Bishop Shanahan, Unionville, West Chester East, West Chester Henderson and West Chester Rustin -- will join Avon Grove in hosting a pink game. Pierce and Fugett Middle Schools in the West Chester school district have also joined the campaign. A percentage of the funds raised will be given back to a selected woman with breast cancer in that respective community.
“It gives the kids a way to do something,” Weldon said. “Sometimes kids don’t know what to do, so it gives them a voice and an opportunity to give back.”
That’s precisely the case with Jared. His mom, who doubles as the President of the Avon Grove Booster Club, has been there for him since he played for the Wildcats in the Bert Bell League. Tammy was a team mom then and a host mom for many of the players often these days.
For Jared, helping to organize a pink game was an form of growth. The stitching on his custom cleats that reads “Thanks Mom,” is a reminder throughout the season.
“I did that to show my thankfulness for everything she’s done for me the past four years and everything before that,” Jared said. “It’s a little extra motivation that we’re going to get through this together.”
Tammy relishes every opportunity she has to see Jared play in his final year of high school.
“The biggest thing, when I was diagnosed, was that I want to be the person who goes places with my kids throughout their lives,” Tammy said. “I have a 22 year-old son (Shane) and a 17 year-old, and the thought of them doing anything without me there was not something I wanted to think about.”
“When I was diagnosed and found out when I was starting my chemotherapy, I started to count back on the calendar,” Tammy added. “My goal was to be recovered by the first football game. I didn’t want to be the sick, cancer-patient going to the games. As we were getting ready for summer camp I was cooking dinners for the boys and having them at the house, and that was fun to be able to laugh with and at them. That’s what got me through it... my kids and the boys.”
Jared, who’s established himself as quarterback Tanner Peck’s favorite target, leads the Red Devils with 11 receptions for 176 yards and a touchdown. Though Avon Grove is still looking for its first win this season, Saturday will be Jared’s most memorable game of his career, win or loss.
As if it was scripted in, Tammy’s final radiation treatment is today. After six weeks of radiation and four months of chemotherapy, Tammy will be a survivor. Which will come as no surprise to her biggest fan.
“I know she’s a strong person and would be able to get through it,” Jared said of his mom. “It took some time to set in, but when it did I just wanted to do everything I could to help her. To get her through it.”
Little did Jared know strapping up his helmet and tying the shoelaces, pink ones even, on his cleats would be all Tammy would ever need.