Beyond the goal posts

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 3, 2003

Ray-Ray Knight fighting Hodgkin's

By John Wallace

It's the 2004 season and Red Level has the ball with a fourth-and-goal situation at the one-yard line with only six seconds remaining on the scoreboard clock. The Tigers trail by four and must score a touchdown to earn a win.

A church-like hush falls over the crowd at the packed Crystal Springs Park Stadium as Red Level Head Coach Tim Grimes uses his final timeout to find the perfect play call for this pressure situation. Who will get the ball? Will the Tigers run or pass for a touchdown?

It's the 2003 season, Red Level 14-year-old running back/linebacker Willie Ray "Ray-Ray" Knight Jr. has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease.

Ray-Ray said he was "mad" when he was diagnosed.

He has undergone three chemotherapy treatments in Birmingham. The treatments take all day. The day begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. when Ray-Ray returns from Birmingham after each treatment session.

The treatment leaves him tired and nauseous. He feels weak and cannot keep food on his stomach. It's the same thing every Wednesday. He has to take weekly treatments for six months.

Ray-Ray wants to be at school, at football practice and live a normal life. He usually feels better on Friday and is able to attend school and the football game that night.

He'd much rather be playing than watching. His doctor and guardian Annie Nearor know he wants to be out on the gridiron, but have to hold him back until he is better.

"He thinks he can play football right now," Nearor said. "But, the doctor told him no contact or running right now.

"I think that's why he goes to school - to play football and basketball," she added.

Nearor said the doctors have told them "it's a 96 percent chance we'll recover."

First, Ray-Ray has to undergo the chemotherapy treatment and then radiation treatment. It will not be easy, but he has friends and family members supporting him.

"The people in Red Level have been real nice," Nearor said. "The people and children at the schoolhouse have been real nice.

"We have a big family and they help take him to Birmingham for the treatments because I can't see very well at night," Nearor said.

Ray-Ray said the people in Red Level have been very supportive.

"There is good leadership here. The school is helping me out by raising money along with the quarterback club," he said. "Playing football is the thing I miss the most, but the team brings me up because they are winning."

His biggest supporters have been the members of the football team, especially the seniors.

"I'll be back playing next year," Ray-Ray said. "I want to thank everyone for their support, especially seniors Russell Rigdon, Evan Kervin, Randall Hunt, Kyle Skipper, Chaz Maloy, Will McInvale, Jermaine Jackson, Randy Howard, Larry Hudson, Cayne Harrellson, Chris Hendrix, Dusty Lee, Derrick Likely and my cousin (sophomore) Dominic Williams."

Grimes said Ray-Ray is the type of person everyone gets along with and wants to help.

"He's the kind of kid who, if he wasn't sick, he wouldn't miss anything," Grimes said. "If you look up 'team player' in the dictionary there'd be a picture of Ray-Ray. He cares more about how his teammates are doing that what he is doing."

Hal Higgins, the starting punter and holder for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, knows what Ray-Ray is going through. Higgins was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in 1999 and after undergoing chemotherapy treatment is now a big part of the Georgia Tech team.

Higgins said his first reaction when he was diagnosed was not anger or shock. He said he did not know what Hodgkin's Disease was until the doctor explained and he researched it on the internet. His reaction after finding out more about the disease was to fight it.

"I just wanted to be cured and get back to playing football," Higgins said.

He said the treatments were rough, but he tried to keep a positive attitude and that helped him get through the worst days. Higgins had chemotherapy treatments every Thursday and he described them as "Thursdays of misery."

Ray-Ray now has Wednesdays of misery and Higgins said if he could talk with the 14-year-old he will encourage him to fight the disease.

"I'd tell him it was good they found it early and to keep a positive attitude," Higgins said in a telephone interview. "It can certainly be beat."

Higgins said before he was diagnosed he was scared because he did not know what was wrong with his body. Once he was diagnosed, it was almost a relief because now he knew what why he was sick.

"When I knew what it was I said, 'I'll beat this,'" Higgins said.

Higgins, like Ray-Ray, had friends and family members who supported him. They could not do anything for him physically, but they were there for him emotionally.

"What meant a lot to me was their support and encouragement," Higgins said. "I just wanted people to treat me normal. I wanted them to treat me the same. They made me feel like I was still a part of the team."

Higgins beat Hodgkin's Disease and is a finalist for the Football Writers Association of America's Courage Award. He said Ray-Ray can beat the disease and would tell him about other athletes who have overcome the disease.

"I'd tell the kid it's a tough thing to deal with and it's sad but to just keep a positive attitude," Higgins said. "Some days you feel completely miserable and hopeless."

Ray-Ray's upbeat personality should serve him well as he fights the disease.

"Ray-Ray's biggest asset is his personality," Grimes said. "He can get along with anybody."

No matter how bad Higgins felt, he reminded himself of professional baseball player Andres Galarraga and professional hockey player Mario Lemieux and how they overcame the disease. Now, maybe Ray-Ray can use their experiences and Higgins' to fight the disease and beat it.

The Tigers run back onto the field after the timeout and line up for the final play of the game. The quarterback takes the snap, pivots and hands off to Ray-Ray. He smiles as he breaks the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.

Grimes looks like a genius for giving the ball to Ray-Ray, but who else would he give the ball to in a pressure situation. After what Ray-Ray has been through, scoring a game-winning touchdown is hardly a pressure situation.

- The Red Level Quarterback Club and caring parents have established a fund for Ray-Ray to help with travel expenses. The fund has been set up at Peoples Bank of Red Level. Anyone wishing to make a contribution to the fund may do so by mailing or making a deposit to: Ray Knight Fund, Peoples Bank of Red Level, P.O. Drawer F, Red Level, AL 36474. Donations will also be accepted at home football games prior to kickoff and at halftime.