Athlete gets his wish: Thank-you lunch for 1,900 at Middle Creek

In thanks for support, Middle Creek senior asks for lunch for 1,900

tstevens@newsobserver.comApril 24, 2012 

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Middle Creek High senior Rashawn King receives a hug from his friend at the school cafeteria Thursday, April 26, 2012. King, a football and basketball player, missed his junior year with leukemia. His Make-A-Wish was to give the entire school lunch as his way of thanking them for their support.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

— Rashawn King’s greatest wish came true months ago when he learned his cancer was in remission.

The Middle Creek High senior saw another wish fulfilled Thursday when the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Eastern North Carolina provided lunch for more than 1,900 students, staff and faculty members at the school.

The lunch was King’s way of thanking the school and community for support during his battle with leukemia.

“We’ve never had a wish like this,” said Kristen Mercer Johnson, Make-A-Wish president. “We’ve never had anyone who wanted to share his wish with this many people.”

Make-A-Wish contacts children who have life-threatening conditions and asks what they wish for. King’s wish was to meet LeBron James. Make-A-Wish was planning to send King to the NBA All-Star Game and arrange the meeting.

But King changed his mind.

“I had made a selfish wish,” King said. “I had a chance to really touch people and I was missing it. Why not give back to the people who had cared for me. They helped me. Why not say ‘Thank you.’ ”

King decided he wanted to do something for the people at his high school instead of taking the trip of a lifetime. He said he enjoyed standing at the head of the line – hugging, thanking, grinning – more than he would have enjoyed meeting James.

“Some of these people say that I’m an inspiration,” he said. “But they are my inspiration.”

The lunch was a celebration. The front windows were decorated. The cafeteria tables were draped and sprinkled with blue glitter stars. Three teachers were dressed in Chick-fil-A cow suits and one jumped atop a trash can on wheels for a fast, spinning dash amid the tables.

“It is just a wonderful event for our school,” said Middle Creek principal Wade Martin. “We were asked if we could make it happen and we did.”

Prayers and support

Like a majority of Make-A-Wish’s children, King’s prognosis is good. He takes 24 pills a night, gets chemotherapy once a month (through September) and has a spinal tap every two months.

He suffers fewer side effects from his chemo treatments now and during basketball season sometimes was able to play on the same day he took his treatments.

“The cancer is gone. I’m in remission. We’re just trying to keep it from coming back,” he said.

In the fall of 2010, his prognosis was less sure. He talked of returning to football and basketball for his senior year, but it seemed more hope than certainty.

The football team, on which he had been a receiver standout as a sophomore in 2009, sponsored a “Pray for Ray” night in 2010 and dedicated the game to King. He was able to stay until halftime. Shirts were sold with the proceeds going to King’s family.

He was bed-bound, but there were visits and balloons. Cards and all sorts of other reminders that he was not forgotten came virtually every day. “The way that Rashawn handled all this changed our community,” said Middle Creek athletic director Lewis Owens. “We are a community. We don’t have a town. Rashawn’s courage and attitude helped bring us all together. Everybody was pulling for Rashawn.”

King said battling the disease changed him.

“I’ve learned that every day is a gift,” King said. “Every day, I thank God for the gift of one more day.”

His mother, Michelle Merritt, said she sees her son literally on his knees in his bedroom every morning at 5:45 as he begins his day.

“Ray has always been a giver,” said senior Quinton Ray, who played basketball and football with King and has known him for years. “But he has changed. He is thinking about what he can do for other people all the time now.”

A new outlook

A couple of gifts he received in 2009 may have saved his life, King said.

“I was in bed and I had needles in my arms and in my neck and I felt so bad. It hit me that I was going to die. This was the end of my life,” he said.

His grandmother had died of breast cancer and he had helped care for his uncle as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. To him, cancer was a death sentence.

His outlook began to change when Eric Montross, a former basketball star at North Carolina and the NBA, visited King in the hospital.

“He told me to get my butt out of bed and fight this cancer,” King said.

That message was reinforced when N.C. State assistant football coach Dana Bible later burst into his hospital room. Bible was loud and forceful.

“I had no idea who he was, but his first words were to get my butt out of bed, that I was an athlete and I wasn’t a quitter and that I needed to give him some pushups,” King recalled.

The two visits stoked King’s competitive fires. “I wasn’t a quitter. I wasn’t going to quit,” King said. “Dana Bible later told us about his own battle with leukemia. In my mind, I was thinking that if this old man could beat cancer, I could, too.”

Bible’s visit meant so much that King had planned to go to N.C. State, because that’s where Bible coaches.

Those plans changed when he received an academic scholarship to N.C. Central, where he plans to major in business with a minor in nursing. “What I really want to do is be a nurse who works with cancer patients,” he said. “I know about cancer.”

‘I can do some little things’

He often thinks of the visits, and of all the well wishes that came his way. They were little things, but things that made a gigantic difference in his life. That’s one of the reasons he recently wrote a letter to the sick sibling of one of his school mates.

“He asked me to read it because he wanted to make sure it was right,” his mother said. “It was beautiful, filled with care and telling them to keep fighting.”

King played football and basketball during his senior season, but not nearly as well as he did before his illness.

“I was the man,” he said. “I was upset when I realized that I wasn’t as good as I had been, but I also knew I had changed. Sports used to be my life and sports isn’t my life any more. I know that people love and care for me.”

King said he’d never be able to thank all of the people who have helped him, but he plans to try to repay them by being a good person, and by trying to help people like he has been helped.

“I can do some little things,” he said.

And at least once, he could say thank you to 1,900 people.

STEVENS: 919-829-8910

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