A complete Christmas story
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This is a Christmas story. It is a Christmas story that happened here in Charleston, just last Saturday.
It is one with all the characters of a Christmas story: a perceived Grinch who truly has a warm heart, loving townspeople and a Cindy Lou Who. To be correct, there are four Cindy Lou Whos.
And all came together here last Saturday at the Civic Center.
The star of the story is an 18-year-old Belle resident named Makayla Clark. She is what you'd call a trooper who's been through medical wars. She was born with Down syndrome. She was diagnosed with leukemia when but 3 years old. After treatment, she relapsed and needed a new kidney. She had a transplant. She must undergo intravenous therapy each night.
Last year, Makayla had to be rushed to Cincinnati Children's Hospital. There, much looked bleak. When something magical happened.
"She received a phone call," said Charleston's Marisa Pedro, "from WVU coach Bob Huggins. She had a turnaround from there."
Pedro, Kelly Wymer and Del. Doug Skaff knew of Makayla through a group they formed: West Virginia Kids Cancer Crusaders, which focuses on children with different forms of the disease. Among the children are Wymer's daughter, Ali, who had lymphoma; Kenna's Jayce Fisher, who had brain cancer; and South Charleston's Tre Perkins, who has neuroblastoma.
This past weekend, all were together, along with their families, for a special moment.
Former Morgantown mayor Ron Justice, WVU assistant coach Billy Hahn and Skaff tried to arrange for Huggins to attend the Crusaders' Teddy Bear Celebration Friday night before the Mountaineers and Marshall Thundering Herd met. The toys are given to kids so they have something to hold onto during treatments, etc. It seemed natural that "Huggy Bear" be invited.
The meeting fell through, but Huggins had something else in mind. He invited the children and their families to WVU's shootaround. The aforementioned three (wise?) men secured tickets for the group to the game.
Pedro and her group got the kids ready for the shootaround.
"I've never seen kids so excited," Pedro said. "They
had all their WVU gear on. They couldn't wait. It was a very cool experience."
"Bob Huggins is Makayla's absolute hero," Justice said. "She was nervous to meet him."
Suffice it to say, all went well. More than well.
"It was very emotional," Justice said. "[Huggins] had the whole team visit with the kids. Billy [Hahn] spoke. His wife [Kathi] has beaten cancer twice. He told them to never give up."
Then, before Saturday's game, Makayla printed out a picture of Huggins.
"She wondered if she could get Huggs to sign it," Justice said. "Afterward, [Huggins] said 'No, I'm not going to just sign it. Where is she?'"
He found her. She was relieved after her Mountaineers rallied late to win.
"Makayla was exhausted," Pedro said. "When West Virginia was losing, she felt bad for Coach Huggins. When they started winning, she completely changed."
Stop for a moment. And consider that quote as we head toward Christmas Day. Makayla Clark has been battling leukemia. She's been battling chemotherapy. And a kidney transplant. And Down syndrome. And that little heart was concerned that her man, Huggins, would lose a game.
She was rewarded - with hugs from Huggs.
"Coach Huggins embraced her, the other children and their families," Pedro said. "In situations like this, it's not just the children, but the entire family that struggles. To embrace the families like he did was amazing. He's a very busy man. For him to do that was something special."
Huggins might seem like a Grinch along the sideline. But add a Cindy Lou Who and he's a different man. Just like Makayla is a different girl around Huggins. Call it a real Christmas miracle.
"Makayla's mom said it was the best Christmas gift she could have ever been given," Pedro said.
"[Huggins] does a lot of things like this that people don't even know about," Skaff said.
"He knows what's important in life," Justice said. "People are important. He realizes he's in a fortunate position. If he can help, he does. And he's sincere about it.
"The problem is, he doesn't say no to anything. But that's because this state's so important to him, from his mother's [Norma Mae Huggins] Cancer Foundation to a benefit in Mingo County to Remember the Miners. It goes beyond athletics.
"West Virginia has a very special person in Bob Huggins. If a little girl thinks it's important to meet him, he thinks it's important to meet her."
And make a Christmas dream very real.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.