When he finally arrived home last Friday night, Langley basketball coach Travis Hess snuck into his kids’ rooms and gave them good-night kisses. It seemed a routine gesture, but this time it meant something more. Just seeing his children’s faces was exactly the ending Hess needed to a day that swung from heartrending shock to mounting anxiety to cathartic relief.
Before any of that relief set in, Hess endured an emotionally trying morning that found him awaiting his daughter’s cancer test results while also dwelling on the mass shooting in Connecticut that took the lives of 20 first-grade children. Gianna, his 2-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with liver cancer Feb. 10, appeared to have recovered from the disease after months of treatment, but Hess would not rest easy until he heard the doctor’s results regarding Gianna’s blood work from her six-month checkup. Finally, at 3:30 p.m. Friday, just a few hours before Hess’s basketball team was set to play on a special pediatric cancer awareness night in honor of his family, the phone rang. Gianna, the doctor said, still was cancer-free.
“I had a little five minutes to myself in the office where you just break down and cry and thank God,” Hess said. “And then you gotta go coach a basketball game.”
Friday night’s game between Langley and South Lakes wasn’t the only contest paying tribute to the Hess family. About 30 schools around the region joined the cause, showing their solidarity with bright yellow shoelaces that formed part of a fundraiser aimed at combating pediatric cancer.
With the help of GO4theGoal.org, an organization that raises awareness and helps children achieve their goals in the face of cancer, the Langley and Great Falls communities sold the shoelaces last spring to raise money to help the Hess family offset some of their daughter’s treatment costs. On Friday, more shoelaces were provided by GO4theGoal.org at no cost and sold for $5 per pair to high school basketball teams around the area. Twenty-four boys teams and 13 girls teams laced up, raising $7,000 in the process. This time, though, Hess insisted the money be donated to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which the Langley coach and math teacher says saved his daughter’s life.
“We didn’t try to solicit donations,” Hess said. “This was really about our organization, our coaches coming together as a fraternity to raise money and spread awareness about [pediatric cancer]. I hope it was well-received here, and I hope that it was well-received at the other gyms. Obviously it means a lot to me, the people that participated and just to see the men’s and women’s coaches come together in support of a fellow coach is a really cool thing.”
Hess’ players gave their coach one less thing to stress about, cruising to a wire-to-wire 49-33 win against visiting South Lakes to remain undefeated on the season. Junior guard Garrett Collier exploded for a career-high 23 points to pace the Saxons, who enter tonight’s game against Fairfax looking like the team to beat in the Northern Region.
Still, Collier recognized that Friday’s night scoreboard was far less important than the compassion that came to his coach from all sides.
“It means a lot. It’s great for him,” Collier said. “He’s had to deal with so much. Just with all the support, even from teams that we play and probably don’t like us. They still want to show support.”
South Lakes coach Andrew Duggan, whose team also donned the yellow shoelaces, echoed the thoughts of coaches all over the area Friday night.
“I would hope that if something happened to my family and one of my daughters like what happened to Travis and Gianna, that the community would come out and support my family as much as they have supported him,” Duggan said after the game. “I’m not just talking about the Langley community, and they’ve gone well beyond anything he’s ever asked for. There are other people in this region that have stepped up and done things, and that’s something to be said for our coaching community. We compete all the time, but it’s nice to drop the gloves sometimes and make sure we do the right thing.”
Although he appreciated the generous actions of everyone around him, Hess recognized that Friday night’s tribute presented an awkward confluence between the coach who wants to win and the dad who wants to care for his children. Hess and his wife, Suzanne, who gave birth to the family’s second child, Jackson, a few weeks premature in January, love everyone who has helped guide them through this painful year. But when it comes to guiding his own players this season, Hess believes it’s best to keep one realm separate from the other.
“We don’t talk about that this year in terms of doing it for Gianna or for me,” Hess said. “This is about these kids. It’s their moment, their time. The one thing that I’ve learned from all this, and it sounds cliche, but life is really about living in the moment. I want these kids to enjoy every practice and every game ... You only get one chance to play high school basketball. It’s special, so we’re trying to enjoy that.”