When the Chester High School football team took the field on September 20, they may have momentarily wondered if the team bus had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Eldorado or Harrisburg.
When the visitors entered the field that night, the home stands were filled with a sea of purple, an unusual sight considering the home team is nicknamed the Red Devils. The story of how those Red Devils, a Coop between Sesser-Valier High School, Waltonville High School and Woodlawn High School, came to be known as “Team Nancy” and decked out in purple begins nearly a decade ago in Georgia.
It was on mission trip in the Peach State where current Sesser-Valier football coach Johnny Hollis met Eric Drake, who was working as a youth minister in Tennessee at the time. The two had similar backgrounds, both having attended Welch College in Nashville, Tennessee, and quickly became friends. Fast forward to 2012, when Drake accepted the pastor position at a congregation in Sesser, and he, his wife Kerry and their four children made the move to the town of just over 2,000 in southern Illinois.
Upon his arrival, Hollis invited Drake to serve as the football team’s “Character Coach.” The former high school baseball player eagerly accepted the role, which didn’t involve any X’s or O’s, but instead a mentoring role where teaching offense, defense and specials teams were replaced by character, communication and responsibility.
“With a background in youth ministry, I love working with young people,” said Drake. “It was amazing to build relationships with the players and I was privileged to have some of them allow me to help them through difficult times or situations in their lives.”
The team would soon reciprocate.
Drake’s second oldest child, 11-year old daughter Nancy, went to the doctor for her sixth grade physical early this summer and by July was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
The outpouring was immediate, as the Drake family’s second home became the hospital in St. Louis where Nancy underwent a litany of tests and chemotherapy treatment.
“The football team has meant the world to me and my family,” said Drake. “The first 18 days in the hospital, a day didn’t go by where a player or coach didn’t come to visit and when they weren’t there, it was nonstop texts, phone calls and emails checking on Nancy and our family.”
Hollis and the team dedicated their season to Nancy and began sporting purple helmet decals and wrist bands, her favorite color, to keep her fight at the forefront. They also began breaking post-practice team huddles by yelling “Team Nancy.” The community followed suit with its support, all three communities for that matter, and soon Team Nancy night was scheduled for that September evening when Chester came to town.
Nancy wasn’t just top of mind that night, but top of shoulders, as she led the team onto the field by sitting atop the pads of juniors Bryson Sanders and Kaleb Miller, her hands affixed on each player's helmet. She said afterward that she “felt like a queen” recalled her father.
The night was a single large example of the numerous small things the team and community have done to look out for the family according to Drake.
“There are no words,” he said. “No words to describe how much we appreciate the heartfelt love we have been shown by all three communities. It’s amazing and overwhelming.”
As big as Team Nancy night was, the smaller moments stay with Hollis, who recalled a day this season when Nancy wasn’t feeling particularly well and asked her parents if she could go see “her team.”
“I’ll never forget the reaction of the team when they saw her walking down the hill to practice,” said Hollis. “Everything just stopped. They all ran to her, surrounded her, gave her high fives and hugs…it’s a life-changing experience.”
It is difficult for Hollis to talk about Team Nancy without getting emotional, as he was when recalling that day at practice, a mixture of deep concern for a friend and overwhelming pride for the teenagers he coaches.
“Supporting Nancy is not a responsibility for our team, it is a joy,” said Hollis. “It is amazing to see high school boys forget about themselves and really focus on what’s important, not football, but life.”
Hollis is quick to defer credit to his players and assistant coaches, and to point the spotlight on Nancy every chance he gets, but Drake reveals the integrity of the man leading the Sesser-Valier football program when he recounts the family’s first days in the hospital.
“It was all such a whirlwind,” said Drake. “We threw everything together so fast that I ended up with almost nothing but pajamas in my suitcase. Johnny comes to visit and finds this out and is literally trying to give me the shirt off his back. He ends up giving me every extra piece of clothing he has in his truck. It's the kind of person he is”
When the IHSA football playoff fields are revealed on Saturday, Sesser-Valier will not hear its name called.
“We talked about the season before our final practice,” said Hollis. “We weren’t a winning team in terms of wins and losses, but I think we were winners in terms of the life lessons that were instilled through this experience. I think there were some things our players learned that they couldn’t have if they weren’t a part of this team this year.”
The Red Devils football season will come to an end tonight, but Team Nancy fights on.
“The season may be over, but Nancy’s battle isn’t, so we will continue to find ways to support her,” said Hollis.
They will be easy to spot, just look for the purple.
For more on Team Nancy, visit the family’s Team Nancy Facebook Page