The word March in college hoops is usually followed by "madness", and the term "survive and advance" is popular terminology as teams across the country fight to keep their seasons alive.
For the Wright's the word "madness" and the phrase "survive and
advance" have different meanings. It is much more literal for Patrick
and Holly who have endured the madness of losing a five-year old child
to cancer. Everyday is about surviving and advancing as they continue
to cope with their tragic loss.
The Wright's story may be a familiar one if you follow the game of
college basketball. Many of you have heard ESPN college basketball
analyst Dick Vitale speak vehemently in support of the fight to help
find a cure for cancer. Vitale is a huge part of the V Foundation and
watched cancer take the life of NC State coach Jim Valvano years ago.
Vitale gives his time and pours his heart and soul into every speech he
recites about the need for help. Vitale, like many of us, shares the
passion and optimism that some day there will be a cure for this
Many of his speeches chronicle Valvano's battle with the disease and
they also frequently include the particulars about Payton Wright.
For those of you not familiar with Payton's story she was diagnosed
with a rare form of brain cancer called Medulloepithelioma in May of
2006 - a type of brain cancer Patrick and Holly eventually found out
would take Payton from them. In the months that followed, the Wrights
watched Payton suffer the effects of this disease. It consumed their
lives. They were forced to watch their little girl endure the pain, and
undergo heavy doses of chemotherapy and radiation. In the words of
Holly Wright, "the cancer just laughed in the face of the chemo."
Just four months later in August, Payton was paralyzed from the waist
down due to the tumor compressing her spine, surgery followed. At this
point Payton was given hours to live. Payton beat the odds surviving
the weekend but eventually losing the fight on May 29th 2007 just after
her fifth birthday.
Patrick and Holly faced the horror of losing a child. Their daughter
"It's a tough club to be in," said Patrick referring to losing a child.
"You don't want to be in it or experience it in life. You're never the
same. Holly and I will never be the same."
The Wright's are understandably inconsolable and devastated by the loss
but they have vowed to pour their energy into helping other children
and their families. The Payton Wright Foundation was established to
help support pediatric cancer research and assist families who have
children with brain cancer.
"Little kids don't have a voice," proclaimed Patrick. "People don't
like talking about little kids with cancer and a lot of times they
In April, the Payton Wright Foundation will host a Night at the Races
in Pittsburgh with proceeds benefitting the Children's Hospital of
Pittsburgh's Pediatric Brain Cancer Research and their families. In
May, Payton's 2009 Golf Tournament will be held near Bradenton, Florida
and will also help raise needed funds and increase awareness.
Once you meet the Wrights you can't help but feel for them and you
immediately wonder what you can do to help them. You can still see and
hear the hurt. But you can also see the hope and determination. The
Wrights forge onward as the parents of daughters Savanna and Sydney but
they just want to do SOMETHING. Their goal is to save other parents
from having to cope with a child with brain cancer where there is no
protocol for treatment.
Due to their camaraderie with Vitale, who has raised over $1.3 million
dollars in Payton's name, the Wrights crossed paths with some of the
legendary coaches in the game of college basketball.
Patrick and Holly attended Vitale's V Foundation Gala in 2007 when Duke
head coach Mike Krzyzewski was honored. It was just after Vitale spoke
to the room about Payton's story that the Wrights met KU head coach,
"After that story is when all the coaches get up and that's when Bill
came over and introduced himself. He was just very sincere and just a
nice guy. I think he was really touched by his story," Holly continued.
"He was the one that first came up to us out of all the coaches just to
say, ‘Hang in there. Our thoughts and prayers will be with you'".
A year later, the Wrights were again invited to Vitale's V Foundation
Gala. This year the honorees were Bob Knight and Pat Summitt. At the
cocktail meet-and-greet Self walked in and immediately noticed and
remembered.Patrick. He came over, called Patrick by name, and then
asked how he and Holly were doing.
"I mean you have to picture it. The meet-and-greet was the red carpet
roll out," said Holly recalling the scene. "It was a who's who there.
It felt like paparazzi everywhere because you just saw the flashing
light bulbs. He walks in around the corner and light bulbs were going
off. We were just standing with Loraine (Vitale - Dick's wife) and
Dick, and he just immediately came over and said, ‘How are you guys
doing?' He means it in like how are you? Not your blanket oh I'm fine
and wants to move on."
Later that evening after Knight took the podium, it was Holly's turn.
She delivered a speech that no one in that room will ever forget,
including Self. It was the tell-all experience of a mother who
helplessly watched as she lost her child. Holly shared the story
pausing to wipe away tears, hoping her message got across and thanking
those in attendance for giving their time and effort to join the fight.
After her gut-wrenching speech, Self approached the Wrights again and
according to Patrick's recollection, told Holly that her speech "blew
everybody in that room away". Self went on to say, "It was powerful,
and amazing, and I just want to thank you."
"I think that's when he said to Pat ‘You come find me and you get in
touch with me. I want you guys to come out for a game,'" Holly
The reigning national championship coach was serious and followed up
with a phone call shortly after the gala.
"He called Patrick on his cell and left a message," added Holly. "Pat
saved it and said, ‘you'll never believe who just called'.
Self left a message reiterating his wish for Patrick and Holly to make
the trip to Lawrence for a game of their choice in historic Phog Allen
"It said, ‘You need to come to a game I told you – the ball is in your
court now,'" Holly continued. "He said like four or five times, ‘the
ball is in your court so you better call me back'. He said, ‘I don't
want this to be where I'm just calling you and you think I'm being a
nice guy – I'm telling you I want you to call me and it's now up to
you. I've extended my invitation and it's up to you.'"
"He called more than once. He called right after the gala and told me
to reach out to him. A couple weeks after that I reached out to him,"
Ultimately the Wrights determined they would love to attend the Texas
game on March 7th and Self delivered on his promise. Self's last words
before the final arrangements were made? "I want you here. Get out here
and you guys deserve to have fun. So come on out."
The rest is history. The Wrights arrived in Lawrence Friday March 6th
and prepared for their very first college basketball experience. Though
they are big Steeler fans and have attended their share of sporting
events, they had never been to a college hoops game – anywhere. They
were about to get a taste of college basketball at one of the most
historic venues in college sports.
First up for the Wrights was a visit to Self's office where secretary
Joanie Stephens took Holly and Patrick on a tour. Like many who see the
basketball offices up close, one thing caught their eye.
"I think the mural was probably my favorite just to see the history",
Holly said referring to the painting that shows years of KU hoops
history. "I think learning the history, and I am not one to be a sports
person, knowing that's the start of basketball. I was like, wow."
"Next thing you know he comes in after his press conference and takes
us back then says ‘oh we're beyond handshakes and he says I want a
hug', Holly said.
"He had just got done with a press conference, he had to get ready for
practice, he didn't have time but we were in his office for a half
hour," Patrick added.
"He says, ‘I want to know how you both are really doing?' I mean no
agenda. There was no agenda from him it was asking how the kids are,
asking how we're doing," Holly reflected.
"We talked a lot about Payton and the girls. Then he was like what are
you guys doing the rest of the day – here are some restaurants – come
watch practice I'd love to have you. So then we left and went and saw
practice which was awesome. I think I started learning more about
The Wrights were clearly touched by Self's acts of kindness and they
were excited for their first game in the Phog.
On Saturday prior to tip, the Wrights clad in new Jayhawk gear, took a
stroll through the lobby of the fieldhouse then assumed their seats
seven rows up close to halfcourt. Patrick and Holly got to see a
gripping 14-point comeback by KU and felt what it was like to be inside
the arena with a Phog Allen Fieldhouse crowd in a frenzy. Eventually
the Jayhawks pulled out a ten-point win (83-73) over a tough Texas
squad giving KU the outright Big 12 title.
First impressions of the fieldhouse are difficult to depict in words.
Like one man said walking out of the arena, "you can't describe it, you
just have to experience it."
Even the coach who has won a title there and is coaching in the Phog
for a sixth year in row had a hard time finding the words to tell the
Wrights what was in store. "You just can't wait …you just can't believe
what it is going to be like."
The fieldhouse did not come overhyped by Self or anyone else and
Patrick and Holly were not disappointed.
"Awesome," answered Holly when asked about the game. "I think I kept
saying a couple of times, this is awesome. I mean I don't think there's
a word that really describes it. It was a great game."
"What a game I mean that whole experience to me – we've been to plenty
of sporting events hockey games, football games, but until you've
experienced it you have no idea," Patrick continued with a huge grin.
"For our first? That's pretty hard to beat. That's what I was saying
where we going to go now? We've gotta come back here. We can't go
anywhere else we've already had the caviar."
Holly spoke about enjoying the student section's newspaper ritual
during the opposing team's starting lineups, talked about the rock
concert-like ringing in her ears during several parts of the game, and
wondered aloud how the players couldn't be pumped watching the amazing
videos played prior to the game. Just some of the memories she and
Patrick will take with them thanks to an experience Self delivered.
"We are two ordinary people and we're from Bradenton, Florida and this
guy went out of his way how many times already to talk to us, ask how
we're doing, fly us up here to just give us some time to just like he
said have fun?" Holly asked clearly humbled by the experience.
After the game the Wright's dream weekend continued in the lockerroom
where Self, along with his wife Cindy, greeted the Holly and Patrick.
The Wrights could not help but let the Selfs know how awesome their
"I didn't expect to see him after the game for him to come out
afterwards and give us a hug and shake our hand and telling us again
make sure you keep in touch. He's an amazing man for taking that time,"
Holly continued. "We don't take what happened at all lightly. I just
feel I'm very thankful I'm very appreciative of everything he's done."
So Self, who knows he can't erase the hurt or the pain the Wrights
feel, gave the couple a weekend they will never forget and put a smile
on two people's faces who truly deserve it as they continue a tireless
fight against the disease that tore their daughter from their arms.
"We are couple who is truly trying to help kids," stated Holly. "We're
not here to take advantage of anyone or anything. Hopefully we're
getting it across to everyone the more awareness we can get up there
for kids - that's what we're about. We are real. I feel very honored to
have him ask us to come here and spend the time that he did."
"I have become very humbled by the support and the outpouring and
generosity and how good people are and he's one of the good guys," said
The outpouring of support has been overwhelming. The Wrights have
experienced a nightmare but are still clearly touched by the acts of
kindness, including the one by Self.
The Wrights live by the words that Payton said to her father before
entering her first surgery, "Dad, don't cry. It's gonna be a good day."
Thanks to the efforts of people like Vitale, the Wrights, and coaches
like Self we hope someday it will.
For more information on Payton or to help the cause go to www.paytonwright.org.
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