The Central Michigan women’s basketball team’s victory over Buffalo wasn’t the first time it’s won its annual “Play4Kay” game to benefit cancer research.
That being said, Sunday’s win over the Bulls was extra special considering who was on the bench: five-year-old Katie Johns.
Johns, a native of Midland, was diagnosed with Pilacytic Astrocytoma last July after doctors found a golf-ball sized tumor on her brain stem. She is now an honorary member of the team, complete with her own jersey.
“I’ve had to speak about this before, but Katie is five years old and she’s battling a brain tumor,” said head coach Sue Guevara. “The fortitude, determination and strength that she has to go through this and still wants to make sure she’s here for us. She touches a lot of our hearts because of her strength.”
Like several schools around the country this week, CMU wore pink uniforms against the Bulls. However, unique to the Chippewas was the name on the back of them. Instead of individual player names, the jerseys said “K. Johns,” in honor of the smallest member of the Chippewas team.
“Her energy is awesome,” said sophomore guard Crystal Bradford. “Just seeing her lights our day up. We wanted to come out and be strong for Katie, because she’s a very strong young girl. At the end of the game she gave us all candy for winning. We’re playing for Katie — that’s what we wanted to represent tonight.”
Guevara said the idea to put Katie’s name on the back of their jerseys was the combined effort of CMU Director of Basketball Operations Phil Wendland and Supervisor of Athletic Equipment, Apparel and Branding Josh Reasoner. The idea morphed from Reasoner’s idea to put the name of someone you know who is battling cancer or someone who had died from cancer on the back.
In the end, it was decided that everyone would don K. Johns.
“That’s just perfect,” Guevara said. “We’re playing for CMU, but we’re also playing for Katie Johns, too. We’re playing to try to help that little girl reach 10 years old and do what we can to raise money for research. This is just one avenue that we can help.”
To date, the “Play4Kay” initiative, which was developed to raise awareness for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, has raised more than $7 million for women’s cancer research.
The fund was created in 2007 by former North Carolina State head coach Kay Yow who died from breast cancer in 2009, and, while that alone is enough to motivate the Chippewas, Katie’s cause hits even closer to home.
“It’s really amazing because Katie is such a great kid who is going through a lot,” sophomore forward Jas’Mine Bracey said. “When we’re able to help her out and lift her spirits it’s great. We want to make her smile, she deserves it.”