“Mom I’m a piece of history, and I’m always going to be a piece of history.”
The first promise is kept with one play at the end of the second quarter: a fake off dive on the Montreal Alouettes’ five-yard line. Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Quinton Porter fakes a hand-off to running back Avon Cobourne as receiver Dave Stala slices through the Montreal’s bunched defensive line. Porter scurries backwards and evades Alouettes cornerback Greg Laybourn before throwing the ball high from his back foot into the end zone. Linebacker Marc-Olivier Brouillette reads the trajectory of the dipping pass and stretches all six feet of himself to swat it from the air. But Stala jumps and cradles the ball as he falls over Brouillette and crashes on the turf inside Olympic Stadium. He stands and screams.
It is just six of the 96 points in last Sunday’s East semi-final.
Over 600 kilometres away in Stoney Creek, Ont., inside a small living room on Lincoln Road, there is equal energy. The Rayner family is standing and shouting — except for the 17-year-old on the couch. He is quiet and he is smiling; his mother, Natalie, is watching him and his hazel eyes. Even amid the shouting and laughing, Natalie hears her son. “That is amazing,” he says underneath his oxygen mask. His eyes are like bright lights. (What no one can hear is Stala swear loudly into the camera and then shouting, “How bout that Jake!?”)
Natalie’s father tries to calm the room so they hear the colour commentator tell Jacob’s story, the one that appeared that week in the local newspaper, and also reveal the Ticats had telephoned Jacob — call him Jake — from the locker room before the game.
Jake has Ewings Sarcoma, a form of cancer. It has metastasized. Both his lungs have tumours and there is fluid and it is hard for him to speak. He is dying.
Stala and the Ticats said they would score a touchdown for Jake.
The second promise will be kept at 11 a.m. the next day.
Jake endured the Ticats’ 52-44 overtime win and slept soundly, even as friends and family came and went from the home that always needs to move furniture to accommodate so many people. Natalie woke her son up before 8 a.m. and read him another story in The Hamilton Spectator about the breathless game, and about him.
“We have a game ball for [Jake],” Stala said at the end of the story.
And around 10 a.m. Natalie answers her son’s cellphone, it is Stala and she hands the phone to Jake. “Mom,” the son says.
“Dave is going to be here in 30 minutes.”
“We have to get you dressed!”
Jake and Stala met 18 months ago at McMaster University’s Children’s Hospital. Stala was doing a favour for the team’s chiropractor, who also tended to the sick boy. The Rayners have been Ticats fans for decades, always sitting in Section 26 at Ivor Wynne Stadium, and Stala was Jake’s favourite player.
When the 6-foot-2 receiver entered the hospital room, he smiled and had brought a signed hat.
“Certain people are more connected than others,” Natalie says about her son’s relationship with the nine-year CFL veteran. Talking football is how their relationship began, but then the two realized they had the same birthday — Oct. 25 — and love eating cabbage rolls. Soon Stala could pick Jake out of a crowd at fan rallies and had his cell phone number and was coming over to the Rayners’ home. Stala hugs everyone close when he comes over and always gives Jake what Natalie calls the “cool man” handshake because she does not know how to describe it. “Hey Buddy! How’s it going,” Stala always says, then he falls on the couch beside Jake and the oxygen machine like he is meant to be there.
Stala was hesitant to let the media know about his vists. “It is tough,” he says about seeing Jake’s hair fall out and frame shrink over the months.
Stala walks in on that Monday morning with the same energy and warmth, and had Ticats president Bob O’Billovich in tow. In his hand Stala held the game ball. “Hey Buddy! How’s it going!”
There are hugs and the “cool man” handshake, and then Stala places the ball on the boy’s lap. “I told you I would get you one.” Jake’s eyes sparkle. He holds the ball at the ends like it is a corn on the cob, like it is so fragile. He spins it slowly and reads the French emblem: “Ligue canadienne de football.” And then he spins it and reads the ink stretched across the ball’s face. “I see Kevin [Glenn’s name] on here,” Jake says. “I see Cobourne!” All the players signed the ball on the late plane ride home after Hamilton’s first playoff win in a decade. Stala does not think he has ever received a game ball in his career. “It means you’ve accomplished something,” he says.
Natalie has always been impressed with Stala’s smoothness in front of her son; the sterile, delicate environment has never bothered him. (A few days from now he will call Jake randomly and ask to come over because he is in the neighbourhood buying winter clothes to take to Winnipeg for the East final.) But right now Stala, in front of the boy who is so weak and so small, thinks of his father, Kaz, who had heart surgery weeks before. Behind him O’Billovich is thinking of his stepdaughter Kam who died of a stroke at 32.
“I can’t believe this is here,” Jake says.
“We just want to bring him on our journey with us and try to give him hope and let him live through us for the next two weeks,” Stala said this week.
In this tiny place, muscles, playoff expectations and Grey Cups rings have no value. Hamilton could lose in Winnipeg on Sunday and this moment would be unchanged; love is the only thing that matters because it is the only thing that stretches time, a battle that seems impossible to win.
There are pictures taken, there always are when Stala sits next to Jake. But instead of taking a picture of Jake receiving the ball, Natalie’s cousin Vick stands close so she is in the frame. It is the photo the mother will not forget: her standing in front of Stala as he places the ball on her son’s lap. Jake’s eyes are smiling.