There is a certain calm that comes with normalcy.
Amidst the chaotic every day life we lead, when you have just a tinge of normal in your life, it can be a calming and comforting feeling.
For the last eight months, my family and myself have only known chaos, some great, some mild, but chaotic none the less.
On June 30th, 2015, life as I knew it changed forever and crescendoed on February 16, 2016.
As I return to my role full-time today as Scout’s National Director of Recruiting, just over 35 weeks from a day embedded in my memory forever, I do so with a heavy heart.
Many of you have followed my journey of the past eight months; really, the journey of my daughter and hero, Avery Huffman.
It was on June 30th, just days before I was supposed to head down to Beaverton for the Elite 11 Finals and then The Opening Finals, where my wife Amanda and I were given the news that our then 6-year old daughter, Avery, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor known as DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma).
A healthy 6-year old who had just finished kindergarten, what we thought was a routine visit to the ophthalmologist for an eye issue would lead to the discovery of a silent killer, DIPG, perhaps the most lethal pediatric cancer that exists, with a 0% survival rate and a 100% mortality rate.
On July 1st, I would share that Avery’s diagnosis was inoperable and incurable. On July 2nd, we would start the process for Avery to be fitted with a mask that she’d wear for each of her 30 rounds of radiation and on July 3rd she would begin her first radiation appointment.
Instead of preparing to cover the Elite 11 Finals and The Opening Finals, I was preparing for what would eventually be a life without my daughter.
With the blessing of the leadership of Scout Media, I immediately went on leave to be with my daughter and family as she began her treatments.
I would return to work in mid-September when Avery started school, after radiation was completed, after our family took a Make-a-Wish trip to Florida and after Avery’s first post-radiation MRI revealed no growth in her tumor.
Still, upon my return, the ability to focus and concentrate exclusively on covering recruiting and the college football season that had just kicked off was nearly impossible. Most days were filled with the thoughts and fears of losing my daughter.
Then, just a couple of weeks after her 7th birthday came her second MRI in early November, and good news that the tumor had shrunk. Still the knowledge that this particular tumor never goes away weighed on us, no matter what kind of treatment you try. Still that enabled the holiday season to be somewhat enjoyable, with Avery the focus of everything we did during November and December, our other three children, Alexandra, Cade and Addison also a focus.
In a job that requires a lot of travel to events, games and camps, I stayed home during the entire second half of 2015.
On January 1st, just minutes into the new year, Avery complained of a headache, something she hadn’t done for a while.
With what looked like some good months of no complications and a shrinking tumor, my wife encouraged me to cover the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, if even for a couple of days, just to get back into the 2016 class.
I left on January 3rd for San Antonio, but my mind never far from Avery and home.
As Avery’s headaches worsened, I couldn’t handle being two time zones away, so I flew home early to be with her. Surprisingly, the day after I returned home, Avery attended school for a couple of hours and did so again the next day.
Those would be the last two days that Avery would ever go to school.
A rough weekend put us in the hospital on the following Monday and Avery’s health took a turn for the worst.
While most of the country was watching Alabama beat Clemson in an entertaining National Championship Game, I stood with my wife next to Avery in the MRI room at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital that Monday evening, while Avery underwent her final MRI with results we already suspected wouldn’t be promising.
The next morning, we were given the news that Avery’s tumor had not only grown, but additional growth separate from the original tumor, but as a result of it, had also grown, and she would have just 3-to-6 weeks left.
Again, with the blessing of the leadership of Scout Media, I went back on leave, just three weeks before National Signing Day.
Instead of covering the stretch run of the 2016 recruiting class, I sat at home, half the day focusing on the other three kids, the other half relieving my tired wife of sitting at Avery’s bedside as she was on hospice care.
National Signing Day came and went, and save a couple of radio shows and the Solid Verbal podcast, I was largely absent. On the biggest day in our industry, and I wasn’t worrying about which big fish a Power 5 program would land, but instead worrying about how much longer my daughter could keep fighting.
On February 16th, 2016 at 11:11 a.m., Avery took her final breath, her brave, courageous, life-changing and life-touching bout with DIPG, with brain cancer, coming to a cruel yet peaceful end, just 7 years and four months after she joined us.
Today, on March 4th, 17 days after our little girl succumbed to this monster, I am returning back to work.
Back to the chaos of recruiting and college football, back to the normal and calm that it provides.
My heart is heavy and my heart is broken. It's hard enough to lose a family member. It's harder to lose a child. And it's even harder to watch them battle so courageously yet so hopelessly against an impossible disease, the small victories overshadowed by knowing that this can’t be beaten, no matter how much you want to believe in the upset.
But alas, I am back to work, a job I have had for 13 years, a job that isn’t just a job but a passion.
And what I’ve seen in the past eight months, amidst all of the bad, has been beautiful and reignited my passion to cover recruiting and to have that banter with fans and coaches and recruits and trainers and parents and colleagues.
Because I’ve seen so many of those same very people not become a part of my job, but an important part of my life, an important part of the life of my family- efforts to raise support for our family, to raise awareness for DIPG, recruits wearing #AveryStrong wristbands and #brAvery gear or schools making signs and putting them on social media with #AveryStrong, to show their support of my family and more importantly, of our little girl.
College coaches, vilified by rival fan bases and sometimes their own fan bases, reaching out on a near daily basis, to let us know they’re thinking of Avery, some calling on their entire fan base and others to do something, anything, for our family or other causes, putting on memorable days for Avery and our family to recognize her fight.
Recruits who have the attention of every college program in the country, sending a text message or a DM to say they’re inspired by Avery, they’re dedicating their season to her and being motivated by her own strength and courage to get them through their own ailments. Players like C.J. Pollard, announcing their commitments with a #brAvery hat on to all the viewers watching, or like Tate Martell, having Avery’s name on his cleats while leading his high school team to a national championship.
Fans, who have given me the business in the past for the low rankings of their own recruits or the higher rankings of their rival fan bases recruits, instead saying ‘what matters is your little girl, we’re here for you and to support you.’
Parents, quick to defend their own son to make sure that we knew every single significant thing their son did to deserve more stars or a higher ranking, instead turning their attention to my own child, because at the end of the day, parents want health, for their own kids and for other kids.
My colleagues at Scout on the recruiting team and the team site publishers, have been incredible since the day Avery was diagnosed, spreading awareness for DIPG and for Avery’s fight, the recruiting team stepping up and picking up where I was absent in coverage and follow-up, making sure that nothing was missed while I was making sure that Avery was getting the proper care.
The leadership of Scout who encouraged me to stay away and focus on my family, as I had hoped I would be able to, telling me to take every possible second that I needed to be with Avery and my wife and our other three kids, words aren’t enough to express my gratefulness of their willingness to allow that and their understanding.
The engineers who honored Avery with a banner on Scout, In Memory of Avery, and the editorial team who constantly kept in touch to make sure we were doing ok.
Colleagues at other recruiting networks, 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals, our competition in just about everything in this industry, yet standing alongside me and my family during Avery’s battle, many of them sending me encouraging texts or DM’s, competition not even a thought, but compassion the focus.
Other colleagues at Sports Illustrated, SB Nation, Bleacher Report, the Solid Verbal Podcast, FOX Sports, CBS Sports, ESPN, newspapers, radio stations, television stations, raising awareness for DIPG, supporting Avery and her fight and supporting me every step of the way, it was amazing.
Fans on message boards and on twitter or via email, daily, sometimes hourly, sending me messages, just saying they’re praying for Avery and our family, offering support and love and encouragement, many who’d lost a child of their own and knew what that pain was like.
That doesn’t even take into account our Lakeland Hills community, Lakeland Hills Elementary, Avery’s school, countless friends and family who have been there for us every step of the way.
Words cannot convey just how grateful and thankful our family is for all the love and support and encouragement we received from so many in the Scout family, the recruiting and college football industry, from fans and parents and brothers and sisters and people who were impacted by the fight of the bravest child I've ever been around.
So simply, thank you.
The past eight months have been surreal. Burying my daughter was surreal. Being with her as she took her final breath then carrying her lifeless body down the stairs of our home, out of her own bedroom, to be taken away from our house for the final time was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Yet no matter what I went through, it didn’t compare to what Avery went through, and she never complained about the hand she was dealt, she was just focused on the fight.
So while I return to work and focus on that, while continuing to focus on my family, I too will focus on the fight.
A fight for a disease that 36 weeks ago, I didn’t even know existed. A fight that children unfairly have to fight. A death sentence they have no control over stopping.
I will use my platform and my contacts and social media following to raise awareness for the fight against DIPG, so no parent ever has to hear the words “nothing can be done” again with this disease.
In the grand scheme of life, stars and rankings don’t matter, all of you who say that, you’re right. In our industry, sure, I think they do.
But in the big picture, what matters is finding a cure for DIPG and for all pediatric cancers and for all cancers and rare diseases.
A foundation will be created in Avery’s honor and memory, the sole purpose to raise awareness and support to help find a cure for DIPG. You can still follow along on Twitter at @AveryStrongDIPG as we get the Avery Huffman "AveryStrong" Foundation going in the coming months, with events along the west coast.
So as I return to work with Scout today, amidst the calm and normal that this often chaotic job still really does provide, I do it a completely different person than I was eight months ago
Because it’s not about hitting on the rankings or ratings or stars as much as working my tail off to provide for my family while doing a job that I’m passionate about and love so I can in turn use whatever resources I have to help find a cure for DIPG and to help families afflicted by this monster.
And to honor my daughter’s legacy in everything that I do.
As a parent, I am incredibly proud of each of my children and I am extremely proud of Avery for her fight, for her bravery, for her courage, for her strength and for her love. Now it’s my turn to make her proud.
Because she fought, I will never stop fighting for her.