Everyone I met the day I moved down here in June 2006 talked about Chris Lofton. He’s unbelievable. He’s one of the best shooters you’ll ever see. He’s works harder than anybody. He’s a great kid. The list went on and on. Sure enough, the first time I met him was when one of our former managers introduced me to him right after he got done doing, what else, working out. As those of you who have met him know, our first exchanged proved to displace every stereotype surrounding a sports “star” we’ve all heard. In our brief initial exchange he immediately showed his soft spoken, caring, humble character.
Over the next two years through the hours upon hours we put in the gym together, Chris and I grew very close. As a graduate-manager, I rebounded for Chris in the morning, before practice, after practice, during his pregame routine and even on our teams “off” days. (Off days to Chris meant he would just get one shooting and ball handling workout in that day) We talked about all things basketball, school and family. Our pride always led us to who worked harder but little did he know that although I was older, I looked up to him. His work ethic, determination and the way he treated people, inspired me.
Through these many hours together, he knew if he ever had a question or needed anything he could always come to me. However, those that know Chris know that he doesn’t like to ask for help. Whether it’s because he wants to figure it out himself or he doesn’t want to feel as though he’s being a burden, he never asked for anything besides helping him work on his game. So I really wasn’t surprised to hear the news from Coach Pearl and our team doctor.
However, I was completely shocked by what the news was: Chris has cancer. What? Come on? No way? He’s one of the best players in the country. He’s not only acting normal, he’s in great shape. No way. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Not Chris.
I was pretty shook up about it. I cared a lot about him and he didn’t want to talk about it. On a day when our trainer, who was just one of the handful of people who knew, told Chris he wouldn’t be able to drive him to the doctor that day and that he wanted to know who else he trusted to do it, Chris suggested me. Nobody knew who I was, I could slide him into the doctor’s office and slide him out and nobody would know. I was happy to help but scared I’d mess up. I was sure somebody would see us. I mean, it was Chris Lofton, everyone knew this guy.
As we both got in the car, I didn’t know what I was going to say. Would he even want to talk? As we pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the UT-Medical Center, Chris broke my tension and calmed my nerves. “Hey Mark, I’m too tired to workout after these things but could we get some free throws up when we get back?” Right then I knew cancer wasn’t going to stop him.
I’m sure many of you have personal stories or experiences that involve this disease. Some as awesome and celebratory as Chris’ and others that may bring a tear to your eye. Either way, cancer is a disease that the earlier it’s detected the better chance you have to survive. The OUTLIVE program was designed by former graduate-manager Brooks Savage to honor Chris’ battle and to give others the opportunity to get screenings in hopes of detecting this disease today. Not tomorrow, today. My mother is battling it as we speak. It’s awareness and fundraising provided by people who donate and support programs such as OUTLIVE that have kept her alive, enthusiastic and influencing lives daily as a teacher, a coach, a friend and a mother. After tomorrow’s game we will probably have raised more than $300,000 in 3 years. It’s provided more than 23,000 free cancer screenings throughout East Tennessee and many of those have helped people win their fight against cancer. But this is a never-ending battle. Although tomorrow’s 1 p.m. game vs. Georgia is the culmination of this year’s OUTLIVE program, we need to commit to beating this disease year-round. So please, as always be loud and be proud at the game tomorrow but this time, let’s paint Thompson-Boling Arena white with OUTLIVE t-shirts. To make a life changing donation today, visit www.utOUTLIVE.org.