Football player thanks rival team for support during cancer journey with new equipment

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HOBART, Indiana — One of the most significant days in the life of Joey Sparks occurred Aug. 23, 2013.

"It was the first football game of my life. It was so exciting," Sparks said recently at Hobart High School. "We played Gary West Side, a great team. We won 47-34. After the game their coach, Jason Johnson, asked us if we wanted to pray with his team.

"That was cool. He thanked God that our teams could compete against each other, show good sportsmanship and that no one got injured."

Those two thoughts, West Side and faith, would soon return to Sparks' days.

The following Friday, the Brickies came back and won a 27-21 overtime game against LaPorte. Sparks spent much of the night screaming encouragement to his teammates.

"I yelled so much I had a sore throat on Saturday morning," Sparks said. "That's what I thought it was."

It wasn't.

A short time later he was diagnosed with a case of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The tumor in his throat was so large that he needed to have a tracheotomy. The insertion on the front of his neck still shows a scar.

"I was scared (about life and death) at first," Sparks told The Times (http://bit.ly/1DHSkFt ). "I wondered if I would ever play football again. When the doctor said I could play within a year, I was OK."

The biopsy surgery and chemotherapy had Sparks "out of it," in his own words. He received countless messages on social media. They all meant a lot. But one stood out.

It was from a West Side football player. Johnson had heard about the tough break No. 37 from Hobart faced and told his Cougars. They lifted Sparks up with prayer and words. A one-time meeting under Friday night lights created a bond that lasted far beyond.

"He said they were thinking of me and praying for me," said Sparks, who does not know which West Side player it was. "I got so many messages. It made me feel better because I knew so many people were on my side."

Sparks' family, his grandfather, are a part of Paul Heuring Ford in Hobart, where they've sold cars for 70 years. He heard about a program entitled "Drive 4 UR School" by the Ford Motor Co. in Detroit.

With West Side in his heart, Sparks wrote an essay and made a video explaining why he would like to give a $1,000 reward to help the Cougars' football program purchase equipment. The good will sort of steamrolled from there.

"We were really moved by the story," said Megan O'Hara, a member of the Ford program.

Another Ford program member, Tracy Magee, added, "The players, coaches and students involved truly embody the essences of Going Further and deserve recognition for making a difference in their community."

On Thursday, the Drive 4 UR School directors, along with Sparks, Hobart football captains and school administrators, surprised the Cougars football program with 70 new helmets and 70 shoulder pads.

This gift from the soul to a school in a city where violence rules many streets and poverty cripples many homes couldn't have come at a better time.

"West Side's players and coach Johnson supported me when I was sick," Sparks said. "So I wanted to give something back to them."

In 2007, the Ford Motor Co. started the Drive 4 UR School program to help schools and communities maintain sports and music programs and other extracurricular activities that are often first to face budget cuts, especially in urban areas.

Local dealerships and high schools work together in this fundraiser. Sparks' aunt, Valerie Heuring-Leonard, helped with the test-drive event which was held Sept. 19, the night of the Andrean game. More than 300 people took a test drive at Hobart High School, where Ford donates $20 to the host school up to a total of $6,000. To date, Ford has helped raise more than $25 million dollars to help schools keep extracurricular afloat.

"What a great story of two teams who battled against each other in a game who became friends afterward," Hobart coach Ryan Turley said. "I have the utmost respect for coach Johnson and his staff and what they're doing for those kids in Gary. They don't have a lot of money, so I'm sure this will help them out a lot.

"Jason's kids told Joey, 'Keep your paws up. We're praying for you. Keep your head up.' Joey's never been able to thank those guys."

He did Thursday. In a big way.

"I just want the West Side players to know what they meant to me," Sparks said. "They lifted me up when I was down. This is what we all need to do. We all need to help each other out."


Information from: The Times, http://www.thetimesonline.com

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