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December 23. 2012 10:20PM

Young athletes give the gift of inspiration


 
CHRISTMAS comes early for me every year. The gift is not wrapped and I never know when I will get it.

This gift is not tucked under the tree or delivered by the mailman. There is never a monetary value.

It is the gift of words, usually about 700 or 800 of them. Doug Abrams delivers them without fail every year at this time when he emails his collection of the most inspiring youth sports stories of the year.

Abrams is a man I have written about many times. He is recognized as a leading authority on youth sports through his work with the Institute for International Sport's Center for Sports Parenting at the University of Rhode Island, and sends out a daily package of news articles about youth sports and related issues that is a must read.

Toward the end of the year, he delivers his top five stories of inspiration. For anyone who has been involved with youth sports, these stories should be a necessary reality check, a way to remember why we get involved.

It's not just about winning or losing - and believe me, I feel that is part of the lesson - but it's about teaching kids to do the right things.

That's why this year-end collection is so welcome; it spreads the stories of kids who get it, who understand that the scoreboard doesn't define who they are.

There are no tales of upset parents accosting their child's coach, or upset coaches accosting a referee or umpire. No, these are stories about kids who understand that good sportsmanship define a person far more than winning or losing a rec league basketball game.

These are the stories of a 12-year-old boy in Canada who raised over $200,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society after his grandmother died of pancreatic cancer and his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after, and the high school cross country runner in Tennessee who stopped midway through the race to help save the life of a boy from a rival school who had collapsed on the course.

These are stories of a student-athlete in Ohio who stopped on the track and helped support another girl across the finish line, even letting her finish ahead because that's what would have happened if the other girl didn't collapse. And, of a middle school boy who drew the biggest applause at a meet even though he came in last because he inspires others by the way he battles spastic muscular dystrophy to live his life to the fullest every day.

These are gifts Abrams gives to us and sometimes there is a present that means just a little more. For me, that gift is the story of Rashawn King.

Rashawn King was a star high school athlete in North Carolina who was diagnosed with leukemia in his junior year. His mother was told to prepare for the fact that her son may die soon. King beat the odds, even returning to play football as a senior while he was going through chemotherapy.

The people in his school and community rallied around him and his family, raising thousands to help pay for medical bills and just showing their support. The Make-A-Wish Foundation offered to help fulfill a wish of King's to meet LeBron James.

Everything was arranged, but then King changed his mind. Instead, he asked the foundation to treat to everyone at school to lunch one day so he could thank them for the care and support they showed him.

In a story that ran in the News & Observer, King said, "I had made a selfish wish. I had a chance to really touch people and I was missing it. Why not give back to the people who cared for me? They helped me. Why not say 'Thank you?'"

Kristen Mercer Johnson, Make-A-Wish president, said no one had ever made a wish like that.

Chick-fil-A served 1,900 people lunch that day. The lives King has touched through his story far exceed that number.

King is now a freshman at North Carolina Central and a walk-on with the basketball team. One day during preseason, his coach called him in for a private meeting. He said they were going to go for a ride. They drove to Raleigh for an exhibition game between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Miami Heat.

There was somebody there looking to meet him.

Through Make-A-Wish, King's first wish to meet LeBron James was granted.

"And 'Bron was terrific with him," NCCU coach LeVelle Moton told CBSsports.com. "He talked to the kid one-on-one, told him that his story was so inspiring, gave him a hug, took pictures. He made the kid feel like he was a member of the Miami Heat. Rashawn told me it was the greatest night of his life. He was on cloud nine. It was incredible."

You can't put a gift like that under the tree.

Merry Christmas.


jfennell@unionleader.com

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